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Child With No Head Voice?

I've never run into this before and am out of ideas.  I have an elementary school student who really wants to make it into our auditioned choir.  He comes in regularly to work with me.  He has no head voice.  I have tried getting him to make a siren sound or a dog wimper to see if I could hear any pitch in the upper range.  He has been unsuccessful.  There is some vocal rasp to his voice and it is breathy.   His little brother seems to have the identical voice.   For two weeks he worked on his own to whimper and came back only to screw up his face and neck with extreme tension to make a high sound.  It was not an encouraging sound. 
Do you have any suggestions?  I do not want to tell him I can't help him.  Conversely Is it really worth the stress I would cause his family to recommend they take him to an ENT if it is a genetic issue? I have had another music colleague check him out and come to the same conclusion.  Help?
Replies (12): Threaded | Chronological
on February 10, 2015 11:40am
Without hearing the anomaly it is difficult to diagnose.  If you want to send me a video clip of him singing I would be happy to give you my professional opinion.  Sometimes it is simply a matter of time and maturity and not necessairly a vocal fault or congenital condition. 
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on February 11, 2015 3:05am
Do you know anything about his parents' singing, and indeed speaking voices? It may, as you suggest, be genetic, or possibly more likely to be learned use of the voice from those around the children. I can see how it would be hard to overwrite the fundamental ways of inhabiting the instrument learned from infancy in a few short sessions, as the technical work will fall away as soon as he is back in the family setting.
An idea that I think I first picked from Allegra Martin's blog is to develop a playlist of recordings in which people are using their head voices successfully and to effective expressive effect. She included people like Annie Lennox and Sarah McLaughlin on a list for a teenage girl. It would need adapting for a boy of course - the classic that springs to mind is 'Walking in the Air' from the Snowman. But engaging the processes of identification and musical response might bypass some of the blockages found when approaching the question at a purely technical level and give him a means to make sense of the exercises you have been working with him on.
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on February 11, 2015 8:49am
It could be so many things!  And perhaps it is not you.  Things that I've run into before include:
- Early voice change;
- A family where everybody yells all the time, so the child has developed nodes;
- Some other medical condition;
- And of course there's just the more conventional occurrance that he has no idea how to access his head voice.  
If you and your colleague are experienced at helping children develop their head voices, and you're both drawing a blank, then I'd say you should trust your instincts and get him scoped by an ENT.  If you do not often give private voice lessons to children then perhaps you should ask around for the best children's voice teacher in the area whose students have nicely developed head voices, and refer him there.  The whimper idea seems to be causing tension, so that's clearly not the way for him to go right now.
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on February 11, 2015 10:53am
Thank-you all for the responses.  I will keep stopping back for more.  Stephen, I will seek permission from the parents to video and take you up on your offer.  Are you Stephen from SE Louisiana University?  Giving some credentials of whom am asking might help parents be more comfortable.  
My colleague and I are the local go to people for children's voices.  My teaching partner even more than I.    The boy does struggle with pitch in his A to A octave,  I am working to get him better at that octave to rule out just not being able to hear the right sound.   Thanks for sharing your ideas.  
on February 12, 2015 11:44am
I affirm the other responses.
When I read your sentence, "Is it really worth ... genetic issue?" , I had the following thought:  Yes, that may be hard for the he family to face, but it is unlikely that it is entirely genetic.  Also, we must ask ourselves, "What if we do not, and something serious is developing?"  What if there is a younger ( or older) sibling with a more delicate voice who is developing the same syndrome?   We are the ones with the professional background and awareness to suggest addressing this; who else will?
I have taught several students who at some point,  -usually before we could proceed with lessons - needed examination and treatment.  The parents are generally, understandably, clueless (just like we are not an expert on some other things) and you might be doing them all a favor.  If the boy truly wishes to sing, it is likely that somewhere deep in his "singer's psyche" he wants help to free himself from this trap.
I do think that vocal surgery can be over-diagnosed, so I would caution all involved.  However, if there is excessive " disorganized tissue" as one young surgeon here described re: a young lady he operated on, there are not a lot of other good options - unless he wants to train to be a superb accompanist! :) 
Hopefully, if nodes or swelling are present,  you have helped him catch it early enough that vocal rest and better technique will remedy the situation.
There is an ENT here who is also a professional tenor.  Many of the singers and actors go to him.  Perhaps there is someone similar in your community.  If not, I'll be glad to put you in touch with him ( we have sung together) and see what he might advise.
I think  we advise parents about these concerns, just as we tell them about repeated/serious behavior issues.   We are not saying, "Fix your child to do it my way."  , but we are saying, " As a professional, I thought you would wish to know, so that you can consider your options."   You may wish to consider how much you want to offer to "walk alongside" them in this process.  
Best Wishes to you, the child, and the family,
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on February 12, 2015 7:24pm
Hi, Jack!  Surprised to see you here!  It is impossible to tell with hearing him, watching him, and placing my hands on his neck while he sings.  I suspect it is NOT something wrong with his voice as his brother has the same symptoms.  It could be that surgery could be helpful, but, to what end?  I suggest a rather simple and "crazy" idea.  I use it all the time and it is a miracle worker.  I learned this maneuver from a Guest Choral Conductor like myself.  I was with the Junior All-State Chorus, and, during a break, I observed the High School All-State Chorus Guest Conductor using this maneuver and the results were remarkable, especially with the male voices.  Have the young man stick his thumb into his mouth as if he were going to suck it as a baby want to do.  He should not close his mouth around his thumb, however.  The thumb should be back as far as possible but not touching any skin in the mouth cavity.  If he starts to choke, bring the thumb outwardly a sixteenth of an inch or so.  Once comfortable and with no exterior skin of the hand/thumb touching skin inside the mouth, have the young man sing a comfortable note using "ah."  Go deep into his range and then ascend one step above the starting comfortable note.  Again go deep into the lower range and rise to two steps above the comfortable range.  Continue in like fashion until you have risen as high in the vocal range as can perform.  The thumb must remain in his mouth while singing all of this, taking breaks as needed.  The thumb's presence will lift the soft pallet and potentially allow for better results, including that head voice.  Let me know if you try this maneuver and your results.  You have my e-mail address.  
Best regards,
Jack Briggs
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on February 13, 2015 10:54am
The worst grading experience I ever had was when I gave an elementary student a mark of "needs assistance to meet standards" because he was droning along in his speaking voice while the rest of the class matched pitch in the middle of the treble staff.  After several back and forths with the principal, a hostile parent conference, the parents keeping the child out of school in protest, and then a reluctant grade change, the mother said, "could this have anything to do with him being diagnosed with vocal nodules two years ago?"
That's when I became convinced that there IS the rare student in our classes with real and legitimate vocal issues that would benefit from professional help.
Good luck!
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on February 13, 2015 4:33pm
Some people are naturally 6 feet tall.  Some people are naturally 5 feet tall.  Some people are going to 6 feet tall eventually, but not until they are older.  Some people would have been 6 feet tall, but they were chronically mal-nourished as children.  Some people have a genetic reason for their short stature that comes with other differences in their physiology that doctors need to be aware of.  
Did anyone else hear the NPR piece about people with a rare genetic condtion that means that are incapable of feeling fear and have a raspy voice?
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on February 23, 2015 10:30am
The boy seems rather fearless, he keeps working with me LOL.  I did hear about a woman without fear on Invisibila on NPR.  Is that the show you are referring to? I didn't catch the raspy voice part.  We have not worked together since posting.  I am going to try John's crazy idea and shoot video to share with one of those who offered to give an opinion.   I'll post the results if anyone is interested.  There are a couple speaking roles in the musical we are putting on "Zombie Attack! Survival!!!"  I am writing the show so I may make a bigger part for the boy in that capacity. 
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on February 23, 2015 8:15pm
Yes!  That was exactly where I heard it.  
on February 24, 2015 9:40am
I'd be interested in seeing the video too!
Jay Lane
on February 25, 2015 11:06am
Hi Jack,
Raspy sounds, inability to sing outside of the chest voice, limited range, inability to access head voice, forcing of air in order to activate the vocal cords, inability to sing staccato without excess effort, inability to sing quietly -  are typically signs of vocal trauma, possibly vocal damage, or in some rare cases, genetic issues.  Unfortunately, in my capacity as voice teacher and vocal rehabilitation specialist, I have seen far too much of this in kids ages 5 - 17.  I would suggest that he is advised to be seen by a medical professional such as an ENT, laryngologist or otolaryngologist - a doctor who has a scope and can actually look at the vocal cords, with video and photos to be provided to you if possible.  This is the only reliable way to be able to confirm the health, or lack of, his vocal cords. 
In my audio interview with Dr. Slavit, renowned otolyarngologist in New York City (Renee Fleming is one of his clients), I asked him precisely this question: at what point does a person need to make an appointment with the voice doctor?  The reply was - when the voice is raspy, limited range, difficulty in phonating, and for longer than a 48 hour period - this is when to seek out medical help. 
Without this kind of accurate medical diagnosis, it is not possible to be truly effective in working with a voice that may have a medical condition.
You can find video on youtube of various kinds of vocal trauma - footage by Dr. Thomas at if it is still available, can be very informative.
I would be happy to discuss if you wish to contact me directly.  917.838.1489.
Sincerely, Zoe Vandermeer
0pera singer, music director, voice teacher, vocal rehab specialist
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