Sorry for my late post this week – things are traveling at the speed of light in New York – but my delay is also due to me wanting to do a couple of things before I wrote a piece on the big, bald b-word. First, I wanted to watch the production of Color of Purple with Jennifer Hudson (!) on Saturday – and secondly, I wanted to have my lesson with Joan Lader this week. Joan Lader just received a Tony Honor Award for her amazing work on Broadway- as the first vocal teacher ever, so I really wanted to see what she had to say about the matter (and by the way – if you wanna see Joan Lader teach MADONNA – please klick here).
Ok – so let’s hit it of. One of my big obsessions these days is belting. I breathe, live and dream of being a big belter – to stand on stage and have this big show stopping moment – where my sound fills the whole theatre, and not only gives the audience shivers that run up and down their spines, but blows their ears out, and makes them feel like listening to a auditive version of Circe de Soleil. I think belting is exciting, it is impressive, and it really taps into a huge range of emotions like despair, anger, fear, excitement or total joy!
But what is belt – and how can we work to master this way of singing with great power? Belt is a term used in different ways: it’s a verb (“I’m belting it out”), an adjective (“this is a belt song”), and a noun (“I am a belter”). For me belting is a stylistic and musical term – consisting of different technical aspects, varying to pitch, song, gender, style of music and other aspects. For me it describes a sound with a kind of trumpet like intensity, it is a powerful, sharp sound, that cut though space – without amplification. Almost like a kid playing in kinder garden. It is high intensity, loud singing, with a kind of yelled or shouted, clear quality to it, often characterized by straight tone leading into a vibrato. You can find belting in all styles of contemporary music, but I will use musical theatre as an example in this post – since yeah, of course, I am doing a musical theatre study these days. For a long time belting was seen as an unhealthy way of singing, and has not been included classical and traditional vocal training programs in colleges and singing schools. Sadly, we still see that many vocal programs do not allow students to do any belting sounds throughout their entire undergraduate training, or at their entrance auditions. But I truly believe, great belters long careers proves this assumptions of damaging the voice to be wrong every day. And I also think that for many singers this belted sound is just as “natural” and easy, as singing in a more legit style of voice.
In Complete Vocal Technique, the technique I teach, we describe and divide the voice into different modes: neutral, curbing, overdrive and edge. These modes can be compared to gears on a car. Depending on how fast we want to drive, we have to change gears. The same is within the voice. Different volumes needs different gears. And you know what happens to you car if you try to drive in 100 km/hour on the highway? It protests. So will the voice – and this can lead to constrictions, hoarseness or fatigue of the voice. So we have to obey the rules and limitations of the different modes when we are singing. overdrive and edge are in general our loud modes.They are both what we call clear metallic modes – and can be sung up to our highest volum – and both has this yelling/shouting character we want in our belt. Earlier, edge actually was called belt, but since belting is being described in so many ways – we changed our “sharpest” gear to be called edge, to make things more specific and not create more misunderstandings – since not all belting is edge, I mean (if you want to read more about the four vocal modes – click here).
Guys in Broadway musical theatre will mostly use neutral for quiet singing, and then overdrive and edge for their medium and loud singing. Just as most of them do in legit or classical singing. The biggest difference in these styles of singing, is their sound color (lighter in belt) and use of vibrato (much more straight toning in belt), and of course the phrasing of their singing. Belting is in general more speech like and with shorter vowels. In general, belting men in musical theatre are only tapping into curbing when the vowel begs for it (uh – as in hungry, o as in woman and oo as in you – and their volum is kind of medium, 4 or 5 on a scale of 1 – 10). For girls it is a lot the same, but due to pitch, we hear that a lot of girls use clear edge (or overdrive) for belting a bit lower in pitch, and then as they are moving up the scale, they switch to a medium volumed egde, with maybe not so distinct clear metallic sounds – and then they end up in a “edge like neutral” when belting in the high parts of their voices. I think for many, this demands less support energy than doing a clear edge around ex. eb5 – g5, which is really high – and would probably cost a lot of support energy and muscle effort doing in clear edge. This changing of modes, also helps us keep an equal volume through out our pitches, and hinders us from singing on a volume 10, at our max, at all times when we move upwards in our belt. It is like we pretend that our neutral is a metallic sound, and at least over here, people will definitely still call it a belted sound. For women in classical or legit singing, we only use neutral in the high part of our voice, we avoid all the metal, and as for the guys – legit female singing has a darker sound color, longer vowels, less speech like and with more vibrato – normally starting at the beginning of the note.
In general, I also think, that when we use overdrive as belted sound – it is a really twanged one – with much more distinct twang than you may style wise use in ex. rock. We also hear different use of different “belted” modes in different styles. In Disney musicals, we definitely hear more the “edge like neutral” – belt, but in the big Motown pieces like Dreamgirls – or the more gospel style production of Color of Purple I saw, we hear much more of the clear egde, volume 8 – 10 all the way in belt.
Puuuuuh – this sounds really complicated in writing, so let’s put in some music to it. One of my favorite belting songs these days is “I’m not pregnant, I’m just fat” – here with Bonnie Milligan – who actually has a whole cabaret show named Belting Bonnies Bon Voyage! And by the way – she does it all!
I do not think is so important for you as a singer, to now exactly what you are doing in which mode every second when you are belting. If you are feeling fine and free, and like the sound and volume you produce, that is. But for a vocal teacher it can ble crucial. There are other methods and tricks to fix technical problems when belting in neutral, than when belting in edge as an example. So that is why I think – if you want to use the term belt – use it as a musical or stylistic term – not a plane technical one, cause this will lead to misunderstanding and confusion – and even may cause problems for the singer.
So what to work on, if you want to become an excellent belter?
- Go for vowels such as A (as in And), Eh (as in Stay), I (as in Sit) or OE (as in herb). Avoid vowels that creates a restrained sound (uh – as in hungry, o as in woman and oo as in you). I like using: go for the “happy vowels” as a picture.
- Practice your twang – the narrowing in the vocal tract, just above your vocal chords, caused by the arytenoids cartilages and the lower part of your epiglottis moving towards each other. Do this by making the sound of a duck, or a mean witch, or a small child crying loud. It can help to place your tongue on your upper molars – and you know what? Smiling helps the “twanger” So show of those lovely teeth and your beautiful cheekbones.
- In NY people talk a lot about the image of the mask. Try to “place” or direct your sound into the open spaces around your nasal cavity and upper part of your face. Some go for a small mmmmm or nnnnnng to find the place. Or ‘meowing’, ‘teasing’ like a child on a playground etc. These are probably not loud sounds – but these sounds are actually activating and increasing the twang, which make a sympathizing resonance behind your nose bone and in your hard palate, that some people call singing in the mask. If you experiment changing your accent from British English to American, you also might find this space easier. It is like speaking a lot more forward in your mouth.
- Remember not to lower your larynx – this makes things so much more difficult, and may easily cause constrictions – try raising it instead. The tricks described before, will also help you raise your larynx automatically.
- Make sure you get rid of the hold and the activation of the ventricular folds – the false vocal chords – as used in ex. curbing. This is to get out of a restrained sound – and into a clear, sharp sound. If you want to sing in volume 8 – 10 this is crucial, and was one of the main points Joan Lader stressed me with my singing. In stead of changing gears – I kept on pushing my volume in a curbed setting – and that does not give a show stopping moment, believe me!
- Practice your straight toning – hold the notes with out vibrato. This can help you make those louder notes easier – and is also important stylistic to master. Especially if you are singing contemporary musical theatre songs. But – if you feel your belting stiff and hard, and maybe to loud – play around with putting vibrato on it. That can also help. As one teacher said to me “a “good” belt is bouncy – not catapulted”.
- Singing in overdrive and edge demands a longer closing time/face in your vocal chords in every vibration they make. So get rid of any attempt of putting air on you sound when belting. This will sure cause you problems. Some say the vocal folds also are thicker when we are belting – I cannot say that I know that for a fact – but anyway, get rid of any air on you sound. It is like asking your vocal chords doing to opposite things at the same time – closing longer, and staying a bit open for letting an airy sound out – and that will may only cause confusion, and can make the vocal chords even start vibrating irregularly.
- Play around with your soft palate – maybe you have to relax it to find your belt sound – if you have done a lot of legit singing, you may be more used to raise it – than have it relaxed. One teacher told me I should pretend my soft palate has the same resistance and hardness as my hard palate when belting – I have not tried it out yet – but maybe it works for you?
- Do not feel tempted to push out more air for more volume in your belt – remember support is about holding back breath. You want your acoustic setting – your position – in your vocal tract to work for you and with you in your belting – you don’t want to force the sound out!
- Try going from your speaking voice. Kan you ” speak” the text on the rhythm of the song? Put on a backing track and prolong all the words as you would do them in singing. Keep also the different intensities as the songs dynamics would be. This is so cool for figuring out how much resistance you need in your support and where the different vowels are really placed in your mouth cavity. And it is so funny to – and works wonders in your interpretation process of a song also.
- Belt more often needs a narrowed pharynx, a smaller space in your mouth, and a more horizontal mouth position for vowels and consonants – an ‘east to west’ spreading of the mouth, as opposed to the ‘north to south’ position for tall, round classical vowels. But if you want bit darker sound color on your belt experience with bringing “north to south” a bit back in again. But not to the point where something doesn’t feel good.
- Listen to and imitate good belters – just throw yourself into it. And try to copy their mimic and facial expressions also. You can find many good tricks for positioning your voice there too.
- One teacher told me once “Belting is like happy, well-supported, twangy, yelling” I like this picture, just go for it – and love it. You have to love it! And remember, belting needs to come from the emotions. Your loud sounds needs to come from an inner motivation – otherwise, they will only be, well, loud sounds!
- And yes – I cannot stress this enough: if it feels good, and sounds good, and does the job over and over, it probably is good. If it feels bad and sounds good, be suspicious. If it feels good but sounds bad, something is not working correctly or you are looking for a different artistic output, and if it feels bad and sounds bad, it is bad and should be stopped. This is true in any style of music. (Thank you for giving me this, whoever it was:-).
Ohh my – that was a long one! I hope you found it interesting, and feel motivated to play around with it. And if you are in Oslo and want to learn how to belt your days away – you may feel free to contact me for a vocal session. Or even better, I am doing a CVT workshop with Beate Myrvold at the 4th and 5th of June. I promise there will be loud singing! Sign up here if you want to join us!