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.
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.
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:
|Head-dominant based||Chest-dominant with pressure as pitch ascends, based on speech|
|Legato emphasis||Text-driven delivery|
|Balanced resonance (warm/rich)||Twang/extremely bright|
|Low larynx||Floating larynx (may be elevated)|
|Rounded lips||Retracted, wider lips|
|Inverted megaphone mouth||Megaphone mouth|
|Low to moderate subglottic pressure||Higher subglottic pressure|
|High breath flow with breath support||Low breath flow resulting in longer closed phase|
|Vibrato is even||Vibrato is sparing|
|Strong first formant (F1) tracks the first harmonic (H1)||Strong first formant (F1) tracks the second harmonic (H2)|
|Thinner, lengthened vocal folds||Short, 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.
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: