Belting

More and more professional singers contact me with a similar issue:

„I’m on stage and sing my repertoire, but I really do not know what a healthy belt is exactly. Can my intuitive approach be used more safely by objective descriptions of real functions that give me tools so the voice can be called up safely and healthily?“

What is it not?

Since its descriptions are very diverse, it is therefore easier to say what belting is certainly not:

Contrary to popular and still persistently propagated opinion in Germany, belting never means bringing up the chest voice.

We need to find out where this common definition originated, since every singer knows that each shift and the disregard for the laws of the limits of the voice registers have a damaging effect and pose a thrat to the resilience of the artistic instrument.

This irritation has its source in the European view that a trained voice must necessarily be a classical voice, wheras non-classical singers rather sing ‚from the gut‘, i.e. have an intuitive approach which will only be hampered by (classically oriented) voice training. That is why classical singing is called ‚the right way of singing‘ while everything else does not even have a proper name.

The introduction of the term CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music) is a first attempt to name this style, but shows in its clumsiness how difficult it is to counter classical singing with something that is on the same level.

Classical versus non-classical (CCM)

In this article I want to examine why people think of an expansion of the chest voice, why exactly this is considered as voice damaging by many voice teachers, and what a possible way to establish a secure belt function that can withstand the rigours of musical theatre can look like.

It is often true that singers try to belt by bringing up the chest voice, because that is what it sounds like for our ears oriented to classical sounds.

The base notes of a register are always weak, while the upper notes of the register are strong. As the belt literature for women’s voices is written in a range in which a classically oriented voice cannot reach its full potential, it is obviously that particulary female singers tend to expand the chest voice, because the upper notes of this register have the necessary ‚penetrating power.‘

Thinking in classical categories of registers leads one to isolate these features, resulting in a hole in the voice because the function of the middle voice is omitted and the head voice does not carry at f’/g’/as‘.

Through this separate use a lasting rift between the thin edges and full vibration of the vocal cords can be caused.

It becomes clear that thinking in three register categories combined with their classical sound criteria is not applicable to the belt.

But it is possible to find a ‚mix‘ which we ‚feel‘ is a middle voice and strengthen its lower register, which gives an imagination of the chest voice.

With a wide pharynx and not such a deep position of the larynx, in unison with a longer closure of the vocal cords, the chest voice is ‚mimicked‘, but functionally it still remains a mix.

The distinction between heavy (M1) and light function (M2) which are always present simultaneously, has already been described in the 80s by Richard Miller:

„It is pedagogically convenient to call a vocal register, in which the thyroarythenoids are predominant the heavy mechanism, and to call these registers in which the cricothyroids are predominant the light mechanism, so long as it is understood that there are not actually two separate mechanisms, but changing dynamic balances among the laryngeal muscles.“

Richard Miller: „The structure of singing“

Mary Saunders, a professor at Penn State University, has described the basic procedure on the laryngeal level for singers in a helpful image:

She speaks of a circus-arena, in which a horse act is shown – the acrobat leads two horses side by side in a circle around the ring and then jumps on a horse. While moving from one horse to another, she shows her feats.

For the successful outcome of that act, it is a prerequisite that the horses always run side by side, only then can the art of the artist be evolved freely.

This is a beautiful image to describe the complex interplay of the laryngeal muscles‘ function described by Miller.

Criteria of the classical sound and belting

We recognise a classical sound by the perception of a north-southern space in the development of the resonance: this achieved by a deleberately low position of the larynx, the lifting of the soft palate and the unfolding of the dome sound back up in the throat with a dark colouration of vowels in an oval mouth position.

I think it is important always to remember that the belt is just a feature of the non-classical sound, which we describe as follows:

A not so low position of the larynx and a less elevated palate is aimed for, i.e. the vocal tract is shortened, which is why the mouth is opened in a wide range of the east-west space to open the acoustic space much more to the front. As a consequence, the vowels become clearer and rather move in a speech-level quality.

Irritations

In my studio I find again and again that irritation about the different sound experiences arises because students have learned the wrong approach to a classical sound:

They often define a ‚classical sound‘ as an isolated head voice without body connection (and therefore rightly reject this), while a belt for them is just a sound with more body connection. But this is too short-sighted.

In this way, both functions are incompatible to each other and isolate themselves. In reality they have much more to do with each

other – provided the singer uses the two functions properly, and has an awareness of the differences: this results in the ‚mix‘.

„The mixed voice is in no way a reduction or corruption of the bel canto traditions; musical theatre singing is a wide-spectrum style where classical concepts like ‚fach‘ no longer apply.“ – Mary Sanders

The ideal sound of a truly understood bel canto tradition here, too, is the dominance of the middle voice function. The Swedish-Italian tradition even starts out from the ’ng‘ position of the tongue, like it is also searched for in belting.

I urge my singers not to avoid the classical sound, but to use it for breathing, body connection and the stabilization of the throat muscles.

We now know that belting shows a closure rate of the vocal cords which is up to 70% higher, which produces an immense sub-glottal pressure.

This can only be met by a secure body connection via the flanks, the abs and the solar plexus.

Only then can the heavy (M1) and the light mechanism (M2) work together ideally and produce the perfect sound, which we see as belting and mix.

Functional and sound characteristics of belting

When we discuss these characteristics, it shows that we need to go beyond our tradition of listening and therefore our teaching tradition:

Belting is always equated with functions of the chest voice, since we seem to have a general affinity for this heavy sound due to our listening experiences – we associate it with energy, intensity, drama and passion, with immediate vitality.

The typical belting sound was developed in the early stages of music theatre for the singer to be heard next to an orchestra with many wind instruments. Today, where every performance is enhanced with micro ports, that would actually not be necessary – yet the audience demands this sound.

How do we then ensure this ‚heavy‘ function so that the voice is not unnecessarily burdened?

A general mixed function means relief for the voice.

The term chest voice, as defined in classical singing is always accompanied by the larynx‘ low position and therefore does not apply here. Ingo Titze, professor of vocal physiology in Utah, always said: „The low position of the larynx is not a health feature, but rather a stylistic one.“

We therefore stick to the designation ‚heavier mechanism‘ (M1), which is a dominace of the full vibration of the vocal cords.

If the resonant cavity opens into the east-west space in a larynx which is not in a lower position in a dominating vocalis function, we can more clearly hear the characteristic ‚belt‘ sound.

As ‚opponents‘ the cricothyroids are always in action, the only external laryngeal muscles. You can tilt the thyroid cartilage forward, so that the vocal cords are stretched and reduce mass: this is the ‚easy mechanism‘ (M2) and a prerequisite for the high pitch. The ’ng‘ position of the tongue, which lifts the epiglottis further, supports this tilting movement of the larynx, and thus leads to the ‚bright sound‘ of the masque, again typical of the ‚mix‘.

Only a combination of these two features yields the fully-fledged artistic instrument.

Conclusion

It must not happen any longer that a singer feels unsafe technically in an audition when asked: „Beautiful voice – but can you also belt that?“ because she has no available tools, except just to sing louder.

The tools are:

Having the ability to play confidently with the mixing rations of M1 and M2 at every pitch. For this, I must first be able to establish genuine thin edge vibrations of the head voice. Into this function I integrate features of the speaking voice on higher pitch. This results in the mix.

If the body connection can keep the throat clear of any supporting function, I can increasingly mix M1 functions, which results in the belt.

„The mixed voice is the red carpet to the belt.“ – Mary Saunders

The aim of this work is always to increase the possible choices, so that the singers have the security of being able to take stylistic decisions in every musical phrase, which are also readily available in the audition situation.