Hello, everyone! In my previous post, I discussed possible causes of unintentional breathiness in head register and falsetto singing. Now, let’s take a look at the other side of the equation. ‘Shouty belting’ is a very common issue for developing performers. Singers with this particular issue will often feel a strained, ‘grabbing’ sensation in their throats, and their voices will typically fatigue quickly while vocalizing. In order to understand why this is happening, we must first examine the three ‘parts’ of the vocal mechanism:
- Power: the breathing mechanism/muscles of inhalation and exhalation
- Source: the larynx and vocal folds that vibrate to create pitch
- Filter: the vocal tract/throat and mouth above the larynx that filter sound produced by the vocal folds
All three of these systems work in tandem and are heavily dependent on one another. ‘Shouty’, pressed belting is often an indicator that AT LEAST one is not functioning in an optimal manner for the desired type of singing. That, in turn, often has an effect on all three systems. Let me explain further by discussing how each system should behave during belting:
- Power: Belting is a high energy and relatively high breath-pressure vocal activity. However, high breath pressure does not necessarily mean high breath volume. I often see students take in considerably more air than they need for this type of vocal behavior. In some cases, they have been told to do this by others in the past (i.e. “more breath will fix any issue!”). The reason this can be problematic is because all that air needs to go somewhere. When belting, the vocal folds press firmly together and allow relatively little air to escape through them out into the world. If a singer tries to force too much air through these thick folds, they will likely feel unwanted pressure and tension across their entire vocal mechanism. The singer may even feel as if they do not have enough air– when in reality their breath is just getting trapped behind the vocal folds. One strategy to address this issue is speech-to-singing exercises. If you are working on a belt piece, speak the lyrics within a particular phrase as a projected monologue first. Note how much breath you need to get through that phrase (probably not all that much). Now speak the same lyrics in rhythm, varying your spoken pitch range throughout so that it somewhat matches the song’s melody. Again, how much breath did you need to do this? Perhaps not as much as you thought you did. Belting is, to a significant degree, a projected speech-driven form of singing. Breathing strategies must be adjusted to accommodate that fact, and singers should only take in the amount of air they actually need for each phrase.
- Source: One important thing to understand about the vocal folds/cords is that they are not just two flaps slapping together when air moves across them. They are folds of membranous tissue housed within the larynx and controlled by various laryngeal muscles (which are themselves innervated by the superior and recurrent laryngeal nerves). When belting, the vocal folds become thick and short, the full fold length vibrates, and there is a longer closed quotient phase (aka they remain firmly touching for a longer period of time). If you are not a singer who is used to singing with this type of vocal fold configuration, it will take some time to develop the proper strength, flexibility and coordination to do so. For example, if you are a soprano or mezzo who sings almost exclusively head register-dominant classical and legit musical theatre pieces, do not expect to wake up one day being able to belt your head off for hours at a time (without training, anyway). The laryngeal muscle coordination simply is not there yet. On the flip side, if you are a singer who has not yet developed your head register– or falsetto for baritones and tenors— taking the time to do so will almost certainly improve the freedom, flexibility, and overall quality of your belt. This is because the laryngeal muscles that activate most during head register and falsetto singing are also fairly active during healthy belt/mix singing (they act as a regulating/balancing force). If those muscles have not been strengthened and coordinated via head register or falsetto work, ‘shouty’ belting is almost guaranteed to occur. For reference, think about the relationship between your biceps and triceps. Although they are different muscles, they ultimately work together as a team to increase your overall physical strength and flexibility.
- Filter: Think of the filter/vocal tract as the ‘resonating tube’ or ‘vowel center’ for your voice. We are primarily talking about the tongue, lips, teeth, jaw, soft palate, pharynx, and larynx. In musical theatre-style belting, vowel/vocal tract shapes are generally close to speech. However, it is a brighter and ‘brassier’ form of speech than many of us produce in our daily lives (think wider/’smilier’ mouth shapes in general). The main historical reason for this is because Broadway belting grew out of the brassy, trumpet-like New York City accent still used by many people in the North Eastern United States today. The main acoustic reason is because, prior to the 1930s, the only two kinds of singers who could fill a Broadway theater without amplification were opera singers and brassy belters (think Ethel Merman). By the late 1960s, this was less of an issue because body microphones were commonplace on Broadway. Still, traditional belt style singing has remained popular in the decades since. Notably, there are actually many forms of belting, and the specific vowel shapes necessary for each one is an important distinguishing factor. One final note about the filter/vocal tract: resonance and register changes are not the same thing. In most cases, ‘forward resonance’ or ‘mask singing’ will not automatically turn a head register-dominant sound into a belt sound (or vice versa).
- Posture/Alignment: I did not directly mention posture and alignment above because these factors are not explicitly limited to one system. For example, a slouched and lethargic posture can have significant negative effects on the power/breathing system by limiting movement of the inspiratory and expiratory muscles. Nonoptimal alignment can also have massive effects on the source/larynx and filter/vocal tract. The larynx is suspended from the muscles of the tongue in front of the sidewalls of the pharynx inside the throat. It naturally moves higher or lower during vocal production. Research has generally shown that it is often in a somewhat higher position during belting than in classical singing. If a singer’s chin is too low, the larynx can get ‘stuck’ in a depressed position and not be able to move as freely as it needs to. Deep, low breaths can occasionally cause this issue as well. You can test this on yourself by putting your fingers on your larynx/the bump in the front of your neck and taking a deep, low abdominal breath. You may feel your larynx dip down. Is this a major issue for belting? Sometimes no, sometimes yes. During belting, it can occasionally be beneficial for a singer to breath higher into their lower ribcage to help avoid laryngeal depression.
How do you know which parts above are causing the ‘shouty’ belt issue? Well, if you are a student, you should find a knowledgeable voice teacher who can assist with diagnosing these challenges. Trying to learn to belt healthily via YouTube videos or blogs (hi!) is the equivalent of using WebMD to diagnose and remedy significant health issues. YouTube teachers can be knowledgeable, but they do not know you and your individual body, voice, history, health struggles, etc. Therefore, the advice they offer is not catered to you as an individual. Additionally, there is no one size fits all approach to singing. Voice training strategies that work well for certain singers are in no way guaranteed to work for you. I hope this post at least provides some basic information about belting to think about moving forward.
P.S. Need help finding musical theatre songs to sing? Check out my professional repertoire guides here.
– Kevin Michael Jones