Recently a very fine vocal coach from across the pond in England wrote me and asked how I approached "belting", how to do it safely, and if there were any specific exercises I used to encourage this quality? She also enquired "do you alter the posture in any specific way to anchor the sound?"
On the subject of belting, I have made lots of discoveries about it over the years. One of the main and most important discoveries I made, as far as female voices are concerned, is that some girls/teens/adult women are born to belt while others need to find the correct muscle coordination that allow the chest mechanism to connect higher without strain. This may not be news to all of you, but it was certainly news to me once I began to understand why some singers can belt so easily, and others have to work at it a while.
What I listen for in a female singer’s voice is how much natural chest voice is there and how high it wants to go….naturally. Some female singers are simply more comfortable singing in chest voice, while others seem to enjoy those high flying head tones. I listen to the way a singer speaks first. If they naturally speak in a chestier tone, then they will likely have less difficulty belting because the belt is simply an extension of their speaking voice. If they have a more Kristin Chenoweth or Julie Andrews type of speaking voice (head voice dominant speaking voice), they are likely going to need to mix more, rather than a full tilt chest belt.
When I finally got over the fear of taking a female singer’s voice higher in chest, I saw that some of these students felt more comfortable than ever. These are often the singers that don’t feel as comfortable when I ask them sing in a pure head-voice. It just doesn’t feel as good to them.
I generally begin the vocal exercise portion of a lesson with descending head-voice exercises, especially for chest voice dominant female singers. I have found that the freer and stronger the head-voice is, the freer and lighter the chest/belt voice is.
In the video portion of my instructional DVD/CD called “LET YOUR VOICE SOAR”, I teach an exercise to both of the female singers, Cinya and Kayleigh, which I named the "Meow Mix" exercise. This exercise is based on a 5-8-5-3-1 scale. It is a fantastic exercise for teaching belt-mix, because it encourages the "ain" quality or what some refer to as "twang" in the voice.
Once a singer begins to feel the "ain" or "twang" quality, they will begin to feel more chest connection all the way up to E5 or even F5. I teach my female students (even as young as 8) this exercise in two forms:
First I will have them sing it as naturally as possible without making any adjustment to the sound. Then I’ll have them sing it like a mean ally cat. They generally get this right away and will experience a more firm, edgy cord closure that allows more connection to the chest voice. I always encourage them not to try and pull chest voice up, but rather connect to chest by placing their hands on their sternum with a gentle downward pressure to feel the tracheal vibration that is being produced. This anchors the larynx down without allowing it to come up so high. Important note here: The larynx does need to come up a little more in belt than in head voice, but it shouldn’t come up so high that it feels stuck in the top of a singer's throat!
I believe this is where many belt techniques are getting it wrong. There still needs to be acoustical space in the throat. We want the belt to sound beautiful, NOT squeezed and strained.
Once a singer gets comfortable with the meow exercise, I will then ask them to sustain the high note in the 5-8-5-3-1 scale. In other words, if we start the scale at D4, the singer will sustain the G4 for as long as they can comfortably, and then carry the "belt/mix" quality back down to G3.
If the student has trouble supporting this exercise, I will ask them to stand in the "rockstar stance" and give themselves a hug. The hug position allows the singer to hold the breath back and lets the exercise do it job, which is to create more chest connection.
Belting requires more back support than head-dominant singing. This is why the hug position is such a great tool to use when teaching belt.
As the singer becomes more comfortable with the "meow" I will then offer another phrase on the same scale such as: My (5) cat (cat being the top note 8) is (5-3) black (1).
These are simply more edgy, “twangy” sounds and will give the singer something to ride the mixed belt function on.
It is important to listen for tension when teaching belt.
If the tongue bunches up and gets rigid, the singer will begin pulling the chest too high. Singers still need to mix in the upper part of the voice, especially around B4 and above.
I will toggle between head voice exercises and belt exercises during a lesson. Sometimes female singers will get nervous about belting, especially if they’ve only been classically trained. But the more a singer uses the meow, the more they will begin to understand how the belt works.
The next step is to find songs (pop or musical theater) that require them to belt up B4, C5, C#5, D5, Eb5, or E5. When teaching younger singers, I tend to stay away from any of the music of the musical "Wicked" simply because they will have Edina Menzel's voice in their ear and will try to mimic that sound. Although Edina is quite an accomplished singer, I do not necessarily think her style of singing is the healthiest to emulate. One singer I really love right now is Tori Kelly. She is not only an amazing singer/songwriter, but her voice is flexible and completely free of tension. She often belts up to E5 and beyond without any sign of strain. My student Cinya Khan did a wonderful cover of Tori's song "Nobody Love" for YouTube. We transposed the song down a whole step to make it more accessible for Cinya's voice.
Most of the information many of us classically trained singers were taught about belting being dangerous is just not true. It certainly is a different function than classical singing, but it is just as safe as singing an operatic aria when done with healthy vocal technique.
If you are a vocal coach and are in need of more information about how to teach belt, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am happy to answer your questions and concerns about this very popular style of singing.
Have a great day everyone!