What is belting?
Belting is the “high” in contemporary singing. West End actors, Gospel divas, and Rock singers use belting to raise the performance temperature and give voice to the strongest emotions. It’s an exciting, dramatic, loud sound that is based on a chest voice vibration: the vocal folds are vibrating with a thick texture and a firm, fast closure that requires strong subglottal air pressure but not much flow.
What styles of music use it?
It’s actually quicker to say what styles DON’T use it. Classical singing doesn’t use it as the sound is too in-yer-face for the aesthetics of lieder or opera. Country & Western doesn’t tend to use belting as, again, the emotion is a little too raw for the gentle, personal nature of the material. And jazz doesn’t use it much for the same reason
Music styles that DO use it include Rock, Pop, Soul (female more than male singers), power ballads, and many types of World music. And in the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest more than half the singers used it to raise excitement in their song and get the votes.
If you are singing musical theatre, most shows have belting in there somewhere. And the use of belting has changed over the years, particularly for women. In the 1950s women belters (usually playing the character or “bad girl” roles) would be belting around Ab above middle C. Today, it is the leading ladies who are expected to belt, AND sing lyrically, often in the same song. In contemporary writing the belting often goes up to an octave or even an eleventh above middle C.
What ages can use it?
Children up to around 9 are generally happy belters – it’s pretty safe for the unchanged voice. When we wrote Singing Express (for ages 5 to 9) we included songs, games and exercises that could be belted, as well as more gentle lyrical songs. Belting is also pretty safe for late teenagers and adults of any age with healthy voices.
The time to avoid belting is during the period of changing and settling voice – usually around 13-16 for boys and a little earlier for girls. The larynx and surrounding tissue are changing density, size and texture, and since belting is a high-energy vocalisation, it’s not a good idea to put too much pressure on a developing voice at this time.
Do I belt the whole song?
Belting is reserved for the climax(es) of the song. Belting the whole song would be like having a conversation with a shouter – as a listener you’d switch off very quickly to the barrage of sound and emotion.
So in musical theatre you’d belt the climax phrase, or a couple of notes in different phrases. In Pop you might belt a line of the chorus (which would reappear several times).
Can I use my classical technique to belt?
In a word, no. The aims of classical (lyrical) singing and belting are very different. Goals for lyrical singing include ‘vocal line’, matching volume and tone, and keeping the breath flowing evenly. Unfortunately, using connected sounds, matching volume and even breath flow will overload the vocal folds in belting and result in cracking, falling off the note or coughing.
The goals of belting include sudden changes of volume for emphasis, changes of timbre to highlight the belt notes, and a different breathing pattern. You need less ‘flow’ in belting, and belters often use smaller volumes of air (less deep breaths). The main reason why classical singers find belting hard is because they don’t understand that these simple changes are necessary.
So belting won’t ruin my voice?
No, in fact many of the singers we’ve taught to belt safely report that their lyrical singing has improved, with more strength and depth to the sound and better use of breath.
If I’m teaching teenagers, what can I use instead of belting?
Here’s an exercise that Gillyanne and I use as a practical alternative to full belting that you can use with adolescents. It can also help singers who are ready to belt by building their vocal and physical muscularity.
This ‘moderate calling’ exercise includes the musical shape of rise-sustain-drop that many belters use in their songs.
Pre-test: Check before you start that your student’s voice is basically healthy and that they can close their vocal folds successfully.
Use a few gentle glottal onsets to check this – “uh-oh”, “ah”, or the middle of the cockney word Later “la’er”. Your vocal folds have to close completely to build up the tiny amount of air pressure used in a gentle glottal onset. This onset is crisp, clean and quite small.
Moderate Calling Exercise
1. Start with a buzz or voiced fricative in your speaking voice, medium to low pitch (VVV or ZZZ or ZHH – as in the word “treasure”).
2. Move on to the words “Hey, Hi”, in a moderately loud speaking voice and then using the same sound and volume count from one to five. You can move on to different words (words starting with glottal onsets work well, such as Oh, uh-oh, ah! OK!)
3. Extend the length of each word (think intoning or chanting), and move up in pitch and volume a little until you are calling out those words. Stay in your “speaking voice” setup rather than singing them.
4. We’re now going to add a dropoff at the end of each word to make things easier: “Ehhhh!” —-\, “Ahhhh!” —-\, “Oyyyy!” —-\ (the dotted lines and slash indicate sustaining the sound and then dropping the pitch at the end).
This is the “hit and run” shape where you sustain the word then drop off it. If you’re not comfortable with starting on a glottal, use a Y onset such as “YEAH” or “YAY”
Each time you call out, make the word a fraction longer before you drop off “YEAHHHH” ——\, “YEAHHHHH” ——–\ You will eventually be sustaining the word in your speaking/calling voice but without the “singing setup”.
a. The Moderate Calling Exercise above can be used with all ages. Remember that children’s voices have a higher resting pitch than adult voices so don’t be surprised if they automatically pitch this exercise higher than you – use your judgement.
b. Girls in their early to mid teens often go through a stage of vocal change where they produce a breathy sound. This is due to the cartilages changing size at a different rate to the vocal folds and will soon pass.
c. It’s easier to belt certain vowels: Ih, Er, Ah, Eh are the easiest, whereas Aw, Oo and surprisingly Ee are trickier due to the very high or very backed tongue positions.
d. Even for a five-second call you don’t need much air. Experiment with taking a very small amount in, or just using the air you already have in there without extra breathing.
e. If you are a “head voice” singer by default, stay in your speaking voice range until you are comfortable sustaining this exercise without switching on your singing brain. Think of it as “calling on pitch”.
f. You can see this exercise demonstrated with a group of singers and teachers on the Belting Explained double DVD
Here are some suggested songs for you to practise, ranging from dramatic to comedic to heart-felt. Ladies first…
Belt songs for women:
‘Don Juan’ from Smokey Joe’s Cafe
‘I Cain’t Say No’ from Oklahoma
‘Adelaide’s Lament’ from Guys and Dolls
‘Gimme Gimme’ from Thoroughly Modern Millie
‘Fine Fine Line’ from Avenue Q
‘Since U Been Gone’ by Kelly Clarkson
‘Quiet’ from Forward
‘On My Own’ from Les Miserables
‘Only The Good Die Young’ from We Will Rock You
‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ from Grease
‘Our Kind of Love’ from The Beautiful Game
Belt songs for men
‘Barrett’s Song’ from Titanic
‘Run Freedom Run’ from Urinetown
‘I’m Not That Smart’ from 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
‘Falcon In The Dive’ from Scarlet Pimpernel
‘Love Changes Everything’ from Aspects of Love
‘One Song Glory’ from Rent
‘Being Alive’ from Company
‘Out There’ from Hunchback of Notre Dame
‘Lost in the Wilderness’ from Children of Eden
‘Funny’ from City of Angels
‘Make Them Hear You’ from Ragtime
‘And They’re Off’ from A New Brain
And finally, a word about belting warmups
We tend to use a specialist belting warmup if we know our clients have got to belt that day. This differs from a lyrical or classical warmup. A belting warmup should take no more than 5 minutes.
Gentle glottals: these are used to make sure the vocal folds close evenly and cleanly along their length (efficient closure is essential if you’re going to belt safely). 1 min
Voiced fricatives: these encourage good breath work and a strong subglottal pressure; and they get the vocal folds coming together with a firm, healthy closure without pressing (essential for belting where a strong movement and moderately high breath pressure are required). Up to 2 mins
Speaking syllables and words then extending them as in the “moderate calling” exercise above (this gets you into the middle and upper reaches of your speaking/calling voice and gives you one of the main musical shapes of belting). 2 mins, or more if needed
This article first appeared in Music Teacher Magazine and is reproduced here by kind permission of Rhinegold Publishing