Welcome to the second entry in my “Myths About Musical Theatre Singing” blog post series! For this post, I had planned on addressing three separate musical theatre singing myths (just as I had done previously). However, I quickly realized that I need to devote an entire post to debunking one single musical theatre singing myth that has persisted for years. There is so much misinformation about belting circulating out there, so I’m going to address the topic head-on.
Disclaimer: My explanation below is not the definitive take on this subject (no such thing exists), but it is based on quite a bit of independent and graduate-level research. My views are also heavily influenced by the brilliant work of Broadway voice teacher and voice pedagogue, Jeannette LoVetri. I’ve done my best to simplify everything here for the sake of clarity.
MYTH: You can learn to belt simply by adjusting your resonance or ‘placement’.
False. The phenomenon that many of us call ‘belting’ is achieved through both vocal tract adjustments (aka ‘resonance changes’) AND technical adjustments. What is the difference? Resonance adjustments primarily occur within the vocal tract, while technical adjustments occur AT the level of the vocal folds. The easiest way to understand these two concepts is to look at the source-filter model of the voice:
Source = the vocal folds (aka the source of the sound). The folds are primarily driven by two muscles: the thyroarytenoid (TA) and the cricothyroid (CT). Each of these muscles corresponds to a specific vocal ‘register’ (aka a range of sung pitches with a similar sounding tone quality). The two registers we will discuss here are called ‘chest register’ and ‘head register’. Note: from a functional standpoint, these register names have NOTHING to do with where a person ‘feels’ the sound resonate in his/her body (i.e. in his/her head vs chest). When it comes to singing, everyone feels sensations differently. That is why physical imagery is not always the most effective teaching tool. Just because I may feel a particular sensation in my head while singing doesn’t mean my student will as well. Here is what these two registers actually mean:
- Chest register: TA muscle-dominant vocal production with the CT involved passively. When singing in this register, the vocal folds become thick and short, the full fold length vibrates, and there is a long closed quotient phase (aka the folds are touching for a longer period of time).
- Head register: CT muscle-dominant vocal production with the TA involved passively. When singing in this register, the vocal folds become thin and stretched, only the upper fold edges vibrate, and there is a shorter closed quotient phase (aka the folds are touching for a shorter period of time).
- Some in the voice community maintain that these two registers can also be blended together in multiple configurations to form a ‘mixed voice‘. A chest register-dominant mix is called ‘chest/mix’, and a head register-dominant mix is called ‘head/mix’.
Those are the nuts and bolts of vocal function. From a functional standpoint, belting involves loud, chest register-dominant production. Some, like myself, believe that healthy belting is actually a form of chest/mix rather than full-out, chest register singing forced upward. In any case, let’s move onto the filter…
Filter = the vocal tract (aka the throat and mouth coupled together as a tube). This is the space above the vocal folds where we shape vowels. The vocal tract literally filters the sound produced by the folds. Changes in vocal tract shape result in ‘resonance’ changes (aka different vowel shapes produce different sound qualities). We can deliberately control the shape of the vocal tract using the tongue, jaw, lips, and face. The position of the soft palate plays a role as well. When belting, the vocal tract assumes a shape that is similar to exaggerated speech, resulting in a ‘bright’, speech-like sound quality. This configuration is especially desirable in musical theatre where singing is almost always text and speech-based. There are different kinds of belting as well, but I’m simplifying things here for the sake of clarity.
Now, let’s put everything together. Using the terminology above, musical theatre belting can be defined as loud, chest register-dominant singing (source) with a speech-like vocal tract configuration (filter). It is also worth noting that the sound we associate with belting generally doesn’t ‘kick in’ until above the passaggio/break for both genders (usually around the E/F above Middle C). With all these things in mind, I hope it is clear that belting cannot be learned through resonance/vocal tract adjustments alone. I repeat: no amount of ‘forward placement’, ‘mask singing’, ‘nasality’, etc. can turn a head voice/CT-dominant sound into a true belt. Those are simply resonance adjustments which do virtually nothing to change the CORE registration sound produced by the vocal folds.
So, how does one learn to belt then? That is where cross-training the voice comes in. Any person, regardless of gender or voice type, can learn to sing in head register and chest register respectively- then learn to mix the two together using multiple configurations. It just takes time, patience, and a good teacher who knows what he/she is doing. As with any physical activity involving musculature, learning to sing in different registers requires built up muscle co-ordination, strength, and stamina. That is why a person can’t just wake up one day and start belting all the time if he/she has never done so before. It’s just like weightlifting- these things take time and dedication.
Here is some further reading I suggest checking out if you’re interested in this subject:
- “Cross Training the Voice” (Journal of Singing/Edwin, R.)
- “The Confusion About Belting: A Personal Observation” (NYSTA VOICEPrints/LoVetri, J.)
- “In Support of Contemporary Commercial Music Vocal Pedagogy” (Journal of Singing/American Academy of Teachers of Singing)
- “Comparisons of Pharynx, Source, Formant, and Pressure Charactetistics in Operatic and Musical Theatre Singing” (Journal of Voice/Sundberg, J., Gramming, P., LoVetri, J.)