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Help with falsetto question?

Hi - I direct a small church choir - all amateurs. One of my tenors in his 50s just told me that he has "lost" his falsetto -- that he simply can't sing in falsetto anymore. He used to have a lovely falsetto range and was very comfortable singing high. I need help understanding -- how is this physically possible? Should I suggest a doctor? Are there exercises I could give him to help?
Replies (10): Threaded | Chronological
on October 13, 2013 4:48am
I suppose that you could have him check with an ENT, but is the rest of his range intact? Does his tone sound healthy? If so, I'm not sure that there's any reason for concern, especially if his chest voice has lowered with age (and this is coming from a singer who has sung countertenor for most of his adult life).
: )
on October 13, 2013 10:56am
Eric, I'm curious -- do you still have any of your countertenor range even as your chest voice has lowered?
on October 13, 2013 9:51am
One of my rules for sending people to the doctor is this: when they can't do something they used to be able to do--especially if the change is sudden--then it's time for a look.  If the doctor doesn't find anything, then it may be that he's gotten into some bad vocal habits that a good voice teacher could address.
on October 13, 2013 10:56am
Thank you, Jay - solid advice!
on October 14, 2013 6:40am
I don't think I've ever had a falsetto.  My head voice is there, but not the extended 'soprano' range of a true falsetto.  I'm 60, but this has been true since I took voice in college.  I've had experienced voice teachers tell me I'm fine, but then I see posts like this and wonder again...
on October 15, 2013 8:45am
Falsetto varies from singer to singer-- some have a very "easy" falsetto and others don't.  A "pushed" falsetto is what some choral singers use in place of actually knowing how to sing the top of their voice.  I taught one young guy who had almost no sound coming out when he came to me.  He said his voice had just changed a couple of months before and he thought his vocal life was over. He was 17.  He had been singing soprano in a children's choir until age 17!  That was "pushing it"-- both literally and figuratively.  Some schools of singing really teach out of the falsetto.  That doesn't jive at all with an Italianate-- bel canto-- approach.  It takes a "different road."  The singer in your choir may have tired himself overusing the falsetto.  But if he suddenly can't even find it a little bit,  he really should see a doctor to make sure there's pathological going on.  The suggestion that he work with a good teacher is good-- but the "good teacher" part is not always easy to find.  Assuming the doctor says-- "Everything looks fine.  Your cords are healthy"-- just encourage him to take it easy on the top and find his resonant little inner mosquito and not to worry, not to make a "thing" of it.  If there are some problems, he might benefit from a speech pathologist/therapist to help identify speaking habits etc that might be in the way.  Hopefully he can continue to enjoy singing for a long time-- with or without his falsetto.  He shouldn't, however, sing heavily in any part of his range.  That's not to say he can't sing with lots of reasonance.  Sounds like he needs to hear about the Italian word "squillo"---  If the Italians don't like a singer (especially a tenor)  they say disapprovingly-- "No-- non ha squillo."  Sounds like "squeal" doesn't it-- but it's the point, focus,  little kernel of sound.  I once heard a  young tenor sing "Una furtiva lagrima" in a master class with Tito Gobbi.  He was very musical and well prepared.  Only he had been taught to sing almost completely in falsetto-- especially the higher stuff.  Gobbi stopped him and shook his head and said  "No!  I can't let you sing like that-- like a capon."  And he helped himright then and there to find that place that was the core-- and not falsetto.  The guy went on to have a rather nice career in Italy.  
on November 27, 2013 2:36pm
Let's start with what falsetto really is. The vocalis muscle within the vocal fold is responsible for register. When it is active the singer is in "chest voice," when it is non-active/passive the singer is in "falsetto." (In that sense, the male falsetto and the female "head voice" are very similar. The male "head voice" is actually more of an acoustic issue.) When the singer is singing forte or in chest voice, the vocal folds are relatively short and thick. Likewise, when the singer is singing piano or head voice or falsetto, the vocal folds are relatively long and thin.
My question to both of you would be, "are you certain he is going into falsetto as opposed to a head voice that feels different so he assumes he's in falsetto?" Sometimes it is very difficult to tell, especially in the transition area, even for professional voice teachers. Do his higher notes sound sweet and womanly (falsetto) or does it still sound connected to his lower range (head voice)? Especially considering his age, this is an important question to answer in determining what to do next. If he has been in a head voice, then he may be dealing with the "ravages of time" in which his cartilages are ossifying and his tissues are becoming less flexible. In short, he may be turning into a tenor without a top, aka a church choir baritone.
If he really has been going into a falsetto, then the question is whether he has changed the way he approaches the higher notes? Is he is approaching them very loudly and forcefully? If so, his vocalis may be too engaged (short and thick) to release enough (long and thin) to get into falsetto. By the way, if he were able to get into falsetto from a forte position you would hear a definite "break" when he did as his vocalis "let go." Is he approaching the top notes from a spread vowel position? This would tend to turn his tone into more of a yell than a sung tone. (This last comment assumes he his not vocally coordinated enough to separate laryngeal from vowel issues, which, as an amateur, he would not be expected to be able to do. Also, if he could, we wouldn't be having this conversation.)
Once these questions are answered, I would suggest that you teach him to approach the higher notes from a slightly softer but still supported position, allowing the vocal folds to lengthen and thin, and from a vertical vowel position, allowing acoustics to work with him instead of against him. To train him, and all your male singers to do this, have them sing ascending-descending patterns/scales of your choice on "ah," but tell them to refuse to let the tone get louder as the pitch gets higher. Also have your tenors round the vowel shape a little as they approach the E-G above middle C area to help acoustics work for them. Baritones should round about the D-F area.
Good luck, and let us know how things turn out.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on November 28, 2013 3:40pm
Thank you, Ray for this. 
I have sung, taught voice and conducted choir for years.  However, I have always felt a little out of the loop when I try to explain falsetto to my students.   Your response gave me needed info, and reinforced what I am doing - encouraging good technique, regardless of what else is happening !
on November 29, 2013 8:30am
Glad I could help.
In the best of all possible worlds, tenors would be able to sing a legitimate head voice as opposed to falsetto. The reason is that the legitimate head voice matches the timbre of the middle/chest voice better than the falsetto. So what good does using falsetto do for us? When singing falsetto the vocalis (register) muscle within the vocal fold is "turned off" so that the chricothyroid (pitch) muscle can contract to its maximum, thereby strengthening it. The result is a better sense of pitch and a better balance between the vocalis and chricothyroid. Since these two muscles work against each other, an equality in strength is very important.
on November 28, 2013 7:37am
I'm sorry that I never responded again. I've sung quite a bit of falsetto my whole life, and I know that that has helped: "use it or loseit", as I tell my students. For my part, I began officially studying as a countertenor when I was a junior in college, and I sang mostly CT with early-music groups for over 10 years. My upper range certainly isn't what it used to be, but that's more due to lack of use and the vocal duress of teaching choir in schools than any pathologial issues.
Yes, losing one's high notes can be disconcerting, but so can losing one's hair.   : )
I agree with much of what has been said here: If he finds that nothing is clinically wrong, I would ask, "Why is using (or losing) your falsetto so important?" If the voice is still relatively healthy (even if his chest range has lowered a bit), I concur with the others in this forum: why not make the most of what he's got?

If he is truly interested, yes, maybe voice lessons would help; heck, they almost always help. In the meantime, I think that God hears praise equally from all voices, regardless of age, vocal register, or tone quality.  :- )
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