Tuesday, June 25, 2019
Home Directors' Toolbox Belting 101: How to Help Your Students Use Their Full Voice

Belting 101: How to Help Your Students Use Their Full Voice

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When I was an undergrad, I was told that belting would ruin my voice. I shunned the music I loved and focused solely on building my voice for opera. At that time, most of the voice educator community scorned contemporary commercial music, and few people were teaching it or training others. However, as musical theatre has rapidly grown in popularity, there has been a huge surge of research to improve our understanding of what is happening acoustically and anatomically when these sounds are made. These findings have disproven claims that belting is inherently damaging to the voice.

Belting is prominent in most of the music our students are listening to, including pop, rock, soul, world music, and of course, musical theatre. When I finally returned to musical theatre, I found that my classical technique did not automatically enable me to sing all the styles I loved and required substantial adaptation. Regardless of whether we endorse these styles or not, many of our students will in fact belt one out from time to time. We can be better music educators if we adapt our understanding to take advantage of their passion and empower our students to find greater confidence in their voice.

What Is Belting?

Belting is an umbrella term to describe chest voice quality, but most of the time singers do not sing exclusively in this way. Thyroarytenoid (TA) and cricothyroid (CT) muscles are both active in any healthy voice. TA-dominance is responsible for chest voice quality and CT-dominance is responsible for head voice quality as the vocal folds become either thick and short or thin and lengthened.

Children naturally yell and use a TA-dominant sound as they play on the playground, and CT-dominant sound is common as we sigh (or “whoop,” as described by Professor Kenneth Bozeman, chair of the voice department at Lawrence University). The key to belting is to maintain balance between these two primal vocal instincts.

Listen

While understanding these mechanics is important for teaching students to belt, the most critical skill needed is listening to develop an aural aesthetic for this genre. Simply listening will help you hear that the tone derives from a speech-like quality, that songs are seldom belted throughout, and that there is a difference in timbre and the pressure required to produce this sound. While listening, keep in mind that cast recordings are engineered and it is nearly impossible to create the same results live.

As you listen, you may notice some of these general differences between the head voice heard in classical singing and belting heard in musical theatre:

ClassicalBelt
Head-dominant basedChest-dominant with pressure as pitch ascends, based on speech
Legato emphasisText-driven delivery
Balanced resonance (warm/rich)Twang/extremely bright
Low larynxFloating larynx (may be elevated)
Rounded lipsRetracted, wider lips
Inverted megaphone mouthMegaphone mouth
Low to moderate subglottic pressureHigher subglottic pressure
High breath flow with breath supportLow breath flow resulting in longer closed phase
Vibrato is evenVibrato is sparing
Strong first formant (F1) tracks the first harmonic (H1)Strong first formant (F1) tracks the second harmonic (H2)
Thinner, lengthened vocal foldsShort, thicker vocal folds

As you begin to work with singers, it is helpful to consider why there are differences between classical and musical theatre singing in the first place. Musical theatre singers average eight shows a week and audiences expect visceral performances that feel heroic and heartbreaking every time. Whereas classical singing developed in Europe and generally prioritizes beauty of tone, musical theatre evolved out of the demands of this predominantly American genre. Influenced by jazz, rock, blues, hip hop and more, audiences expect the music to reflect the aesthetic heard in pop culture and to vocally and physically embody their characters. A strong emphasis on text and story means that songs often seamlessly transition from speech to singing, and emotional response, rather than beauty of tone, is the priority.

Strategies

My strategy for working with students is to help them get to a healthy functioning sound that they can feel good about as soon as possible. There are many ways to accomplish this – here are a few:

  • Ensure that the student has access to his/her head voice (CT-dominant sound) as it is easier to add extra weight to the tone than to lighten up. I often use SOVT (semi-occluded vocal tract) exercises and “ooh” descending scales.
  • Practice calling out with phrases such as “Hey,” “Hey taxi,” and “Hey, hey, hey, I’m Yogi Bear!” I encourage students to make the sound bright and free of tension. They may feel a bit of pressure in their chest, but I want to make sure they aren’t tightening their throats.
  • Call out “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” at the same volume without tension.
  • Extend the length of each word as you call out “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” after mastering this practice without a deep breath and noticing that not a lot of breath is needed.
  • Transition into speech-like singing with phrases using an interval of a fifth (a natural occurrence in speech). Penn State voice professor Norman Spivey uses the phrases, “May I come in?” and “Oh no you don’t” on a 1-5-5-1 pattern.

I encourage my students to play with sounds and experiment within certain parameters. I often say that though they may not know how to sing the song, their character does. Connecting with the motivations of the character will often help overcome technical weakness when given some foundation and guidance. Some common mistakes I hear students make are:

  • Relying entirely on belt rather than mixing. I remind students that most singers do not spend a whole song in a full belt and need to mix by balancing the tone with more head voice quality and saving the heavier chest voice quality for the climaxes.
  • Trying to belt with a breathy quality, which indicates incomplete vocal fold closure. These students benefit from brighter resonance and onset work. Be aware that girls in early to mid teens go through a stage of vocal change where sound becomes more breathy due to cartilages changing size at different rates (mutational chink), and this can temporarily make belting more challenging.
  • Forgetting tension is the enemy of sound. The most common tension I see from belters is from the extrinsic swallowing muscles.
  • Holding back because they don’t trust themselves. There is no halfway in belting. It is loud and powerful, and students may need encouragement to really go for it.

As we embrace the interest in contemporary music and musical theatre and educate ourselves, we can help our students thrive singing the music that they love.

Here are some resources to help practice belt singing:

Musical Theater Anthologies
Broadway Vocal Scores
Broadway Vocal Selections 
Stage & Screen for Young Vocalists
Choral Music Show Tunes
Musical Theater Junior Shows

Erin Guinup
Erin Guinup is the founding Executive and Artistic Director of the Tacoma Refugee Choir. In their first three years, they have welcomed over 400 people from 45 countries and performed for over 21,000 people at events including WE Day, Race & Pedagogy National Conference, and the Families Belong Together Rally in collaboration with Grammy-winning recording artists and political leaders. They received standing ovations at TEDxSeattle and have been featured on PBS and network television sharing their unique combination of hope, integration, empowerment, advocacy, and entertainment. Erin’s internationally performed one-woman show, "The Ladies of Lyric and Song: Female Composers and Lyricists of the American Musical Theatre" has been praised as “an amazing tour-de-force,” and she frequently performs as a guest soloist with ensembles including Northwest Repertory Singers and Tacoma Concert Band. Specializing in both classical and contemporary technique, she is a sought after clinician and voice teacher with students on Broadway, regional theatre and operatic stages, and television’s American Idol, The Voice, and America’s Got Talent. Other career highlights include conducting the world premiere of Orson Scott Card and Mark Mitchell’s "He is There" and annual performances of Rob Gardner’s "Lamb of God" and Handel’s "Messiah"; singing with Israeli-Palestinian choir Common Ground Voices in Jerusalem and Europe; and vocal workshops with Fortune 100 companies. She is a composer and author, contributing to the books "So You Want to Sing Music by Women" and "My Body Was Left on the Street: Music Education and Displacement."

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