To Belt Or Not To Belt

One of the most controversial subjects one can raise-one that is guaranteed to raise the hackles of most singers and their voice teachers-is whether to belt or not. The subject is potent and important enough that NYSTA (New York Singing Teachers Association) has devoted much time to it at several of their symposiums.

Belting, in its simplest definition, is the forced use of the chest register of the female voice, including extreme overtensing of the vocal muscles caused by singing high notes that should be produced in soprano register in the lower register.

When I was an adolescent and became enamored of the musical theatre, I fell in love with the sound of the belt voice. When it is done well it is exciting to listen to an has influenced, to a great extent, the development of the American musical. Certainly musicals like “Alegro,” “Baby,” “Evita,” “Follies”, “Gypsy,” “Company,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Les Miserables,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Most Happy Fella,,,” Oklahoma!,,” “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town,” and countless wonderful others, both old and new, would certainly have had a lessened impact if it weren’t for the belt sound . Can one imagine songs like “Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” “Rose’s Turn,” “Some People,” or “The Ladies Who Lunch,” working effectively sung in soprano? The answer certainly has to be no.

Why, then, are so many people, including myself, opposed to belting? The answer is simple. Because it can ruin the voice.

Many famous actresses who were predominantly belters and overdid it have lost their singing voice, or wound up with a diminished capacity to sing. The people who come most readily to mind are the uniquely brilliant Nancy Walker catapulted to stardom in such vehicles as “Best Foot Forward” and “On the Town” as well as several Off Broadway revues, climaxing her musical career in “Do Re Mi” and the Broadway revival of “A Funny Thing….” Stritch won acclaim in the first Broadway revival of “Pal Joey,” “Goldilocks” and “Company.” In each succeeding show their vocal range lessened until here were far too few notes in their tessituras to make them viable as working singer/actresses.

If belting is so harmful, then why do singers still do it, and why is the American musical theatre unique in using the belt voice? First of all, the primary voice that many untrained singers have is the belt voice. Every young child I’ve heard sing, before they’ve been trained, is constantly belting. They sing in their throats, they don’t support because they haven’t been taught to breathe properly or use the breath mechanism as yet, and, because their vocal cord haven’t fully developed, they produce a shrill, penetrating sound that can cut through almost anything. If they continue to sing this way as they grow up, and if their natural resonance is strong enough, they will not be able to do anything but belt.

As I mentioned, the belt voice can cut through anything. It can be heard over strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion. It is only in the last 25 or 30 years that singers have been miked; before microphones became a part of the theatre, it was essential that composers and lyricists have their music and lyrics heard. Guess who has the greatest chance of being hired at an audition for any show not requiring a legitimate voice? You guessed it. The Broadway musical, as we have come to know it, was not operetta. It used a lot of brass as opposed to a lot of the strings. It was in the language and musical idiom of the vernacular rather than the classical. It was the illegitimate offspring of the legitimate theatre. And its stars were not, for the most part, legitimate actors.

Even the appellation “legitimate” sums up the situation. Belting is not a legitimate way of singing. It uses a limited area of the vocal cords-they really are vocal folds-in a forced way that causes them to thicken and eventually lose their flexibility. This occurs because low tones are produced by relaxed, thickened cords and high tones are normally produced by elongates, stretched cords. In belting, the singer puts unnatural pressure on the normally thickened cords to produce high notes. After continual abuse, certain changes take place. Eventually there is a loss of the lower soprano or head tones and a loss of the higher chest tones. The voice becomes impaired and the singer can no longer sing, at least not viably. Callusing, thickening, and nodules eventually show up.

Let’s talk about the vocal cords for a minute. The vocal cords are in fact vocal folds. They were designed by nature as valves to open and close to prevent us from coking when swallowing. They open to allow us to inhale and exhale. It is purely by accident that many thousands of years ago man learned to create meaningful sounds by blowing air through them.

They are about the size of a quarter in an adult and look like a pie with an inverted “V” separating the two folds. Low notes require very little tension to partially close them and resist air coming through them. Higher notes require the folds to pull taut, and require elasticity so the folds can stretch and thin out. If you look at strings on a piano you will notice that the strings for the low notes are thick and relatively easy to move with your fingers. They do not require much tension to produce sound. The strings that produce the higher notes are much thinner and are so tightly stretched that one cannot budge them. The piano has hundreds of strings to produce 88 musical notes.

It is true that the human voice is a wind instrument activated by air that causes the resistance of the closed vocal folds to produce sound. Obviously vocal folds bear little resemblance to piano strings. But, like piano strings, the vocal folds are thicker and looser when low notes are produced and are tightly stretched; elongated and thin when high ones are produced. A singer has only one pair of vocal folds to produce all the notes that lie in her vocal range. When a singer belts she is using her voice much like a trumpet plays in high register. There is a tremendous compression of air. In the singer’s case it is forced through the vocal folds by misusing the vocal apparatus, as we have already discussed. Although the sound produced is bright and piercing, it is a sound that cannot be produced continually without doing lasting damage.

Another consideration is that not all singers are meant to sing in lower register in a forced manner. A flute does not have to apologize for not being a trumpet. A soprano does not have to apologize for not being a mezzo or contralto. Not all women are meant to belt. And yet the musical theatre will always present challenges and difficult roles that must be sung in low register.

Is There a Safe Way to Belt?

Fortunately, it is not necessary to give up the excitement of the belt sound. With correct vocal training that exercised all of the vocal tessitura, from the highest soprano down to the lower chest tones, and develops a good support system, it is possible to mix and blend both voices within the area that they overlap. This area is sometimes called the passagio. If the sound as placed forward, a brighter sound emerges that can approximate the belt without doing any damage whatsoever. I like to call this the “pseudo-belt,” When I teach my students I sometimes use the word “belly—belt.” Belly breathing is food breathing, especially when the intercostals muscles (the muscles interconnecting the ribs) are brought into play as well. Unfortunately, voice students, especially in their early development, do not use the same muscles they use to take air in to support the release and projection of the air out to activate the production of sound. When they do, they get more sound with less effort, and less effort means less vocal strain.

When speaking of the pseudo-belt, that great actress/singer Katren Morrow immediately comes to mind. Here is a woman who’s voice is as good, if not better, than it ever was and who can to this day still out-sing anyone I her field I have heard. When I saw her last year at Paper Mill Playhouse in concert with Nancy Dussault, I was amazed by the power of her voice and the skill of her vocal technique. Let’s not forget that the immortal Ethel Merman was not really “belting” when she sang. She had a wonderful mix and her voice was used in a very natural and safe way. That is why she had it rill the end.

How do you develop a voice that can handle the vigorous vocal requirements of today’s musical theatre? Study with the best voice teacher available (for a list of teachers, contact NYSTA at 664-1654), develop a strong forward-placed mix, and don’t belt. Don’t be discouraged if the mix doesn’t happen right away. It takes a lot of effort, time and patience. Not all voices are effective in the pseudo-belt. If God has given you a sweet and soft voice, accept it, make the most of it, and don’t damage it.