Belting can certainly strike fear into the hearts of singers and voice teachers alike. Improper belting keeps many a voice doctor in business, so unless you enjoy being scoped and taking steroids, learning to belt properly is a must.
I am going to look at the belting singing technique primarily in female singers as it is the most removed from classical singing. While male singers arguably “belt” in opera, women use a very different acoustical tuning in belting vs. classical vocal performance.
I have worked with female belters for over 25 years, with a number of them working professionally without any major vocal issues.
Here is some of my best advice for learning a healthy belt.
Defining Belt Singing
There are two primary components to a female belt voice. First is more intense contact between the surfaces of the vocal folds, and secondly, there is more pronounced energy in the upper harmonics.
What does this mean in plain English? First, your vocal cords come together more intensely and hold back more air in a belt, creating a stronger sound wave. You then generate brighter sounds (with your resonators) to give more edge and bite to the vocal quality.
These two factors are reversed in classical singing, where you want to put more energy into lower harmonics, which creates the flute-like beauty of classical singing.
A common problem in belt singing is when the singer overdoes one, or both, of these factors. For example, too much cord closure combined with an over-bright or over-wide vowel can quickly lead to vocal fatigue and strain (and many trips to the voice doctor).
Let’s look more closely at an unhealthy belt.
The fact that the vocal cords are coming together with more intensity creates conditions for vocal fatigue and damage.
We need to be very careful when approaching belt tone so that we do not get into the condition of pulling up too much vocal weight or effort.
Although the acoustics behind this can be a bit tricky, we need to be aware that certain acoustic relationships happen on lower notes that are hard to maintain on higher ones.
When your acoustic resonators (your throat and mouth) interact with the sound wave, two primary energy spikes in the sound wave are created, one lower and one higher. These resonances are called formants, but there is a move by Dr. Ingo Titze to call them Resonance One (R1) and Resonance Two (R2). Let’s go with these terms.
Think of R1 as the bass in the sound and R2 as the treble. Much like with a mixing board or EQ, we can boost (make louder) or attenuate (turn down) these parts of the sound wave. In your lower register, R1 is more pronounced.
The tricky part about R1 is that it is very powerful in our nervous system. A strong R1 is how we yell, a critical survival mechanism, so we are all very good at it.
When doing incorrect belting, singers can get stuck in this strong R1 resonance, which leads to tense throat muscles, shouting, and vocal strain in the singing voice.
Singers are left with the decision of either yelling or flipping into a weak, heady tone, which is not stylistically appropriate for a barnstormer of a belt piece.
What to do?
Healthy Belt Singing
A healthier belt alternative is to have more of the acoustic energy in the higher resonance boost (R2). This is because R2 can tune into the higher, brighter parts of the sound wave much more easily than R1, which gives the singer a more powerful sound with less effort.
There is a balance between R1 and R2 and the parts of the sound wave they are boosting that is critical for a contemporary belt. For example, if we lose too much energy in R1 (the lower boost), we won’t sound strong enough.
However, getting these resonance balances correct has an additional effect of creating acoustic energies that feed back to the vocal cords. This energy pushes down on the vocal cords and helps them hold back more air with less muscular effort.
This gives the singer more vocal sound with less effort, greatly reducing the impact on our precious vocal cords.
If you’ve ever wondered how elite singers make these huge vocal sounds with seemingly little effort, this is it.
But how do we control this R1 and R2 interaction?
The good news is the control mechanism is built right into whatever language you are singing.
The key to much of healthy belt is controlling vowels.
Vowels are a great way to control the size and shape of your resonators, which changes their interaction with the sound wave.
Your vocal tract, which runs as a tube from the top of your vocal cords to to your lips, is a filter that sound travels through.
Just like blowing across the top of a water bottle will give you different pitches depending on the amount of water in the bottle, your vocal tract can change length and size to bring out different parts of the sound wave.
When the lower boost (R1) tries to hang onto notes that are too high, it does so by spreading your lips really wide and by hiking up the larynx. Every singer that is straining makes the same face of over-wide lips, raised chin and a high larynx.
When making a belt sound, the key is to use vowels and vowel modifications that will lower R1 and allow R2 to take over.
In general, the vowel sound UH (as in "up") is one that tends to lower R1 and stop shouting. The more you can pull your vowels toward an UH sound, the easier you should find your higher-range belt to sing.
Try These Singing Exercises
We will focus on the primary belt range area of Ab4 to D5 in the female voice. This is the Ab above middle C to the D an octave above middle C. While you can arguably belt higher than this, I recommend working this area first before trying to sing with intensity in what is commonly called the “head voice” vocal register.
This is where we want to start turning down the lower resonance (R1) and boosting the upper (R2).
Vocal exercises I find especially helpful are using the “bo” sound of “book,” and also the word “won.”
These vowel sounds are particularly good at getting the R1/R2 balance necessary for healthy belt.
You can use your favorite vocal exercise scale to work this area with both “bo” and “won.”
Then take a piece of belt music and do the tricky sections substituting “bo” and then “won” for the text.
Be sure to drop your jaw, as this will also help with the resonance side of things.
If you keep these vowels from distorting or going wide, you should be able to start singing with more intensity in this area, while reducing vocal strain and fatigue.
If you start to strain as you go up in your vocal range, pay close attention to what the vowel is doing on the higher notes. It is likely going a bit wide, towards “ah” as in “cat.” This will cause R1 to rise with the pitch and bring on the vocal strain.
Learning to control the vowels on neutral sounds like “won” is key before moving towards language.
Next, try adding in the text, but keep the vowels moving towards an “uh” sound. This can be tricky and is beyond the scope of a single article, but at the very least, drop the jaw and keep the lips from spreading wide.
You should start to feel more at ease with regular practice, even when singing intensely.
Even when using proper technique, belting is an intense vocal activity, so you must take care not to overdo it.
Be sure to take regular breaks when working your voice and learning these vocal techniques, at least a minute or two every five minutes. It is recommended to have a regular daily practice routine of shorter workouts rather than extended practices once in a while. Taking your time and gradually building muscle memory when practicing the belting method is the best bet to learn healthy belting.
Caution: If you feel any significant fatigue or pain, stop immediately. If you are trying to do this on your own, you need to use restraint and caution.
Although the proper vowel and acoustics help greatly, you also need to make sure you are not squeezing or bringing the vocal cords together too intensely when using the belt technique.
It is my experience that most singers, once they have found the correct resonance balance, are able to naturally back off excess cord closure because of the helpful back-pressure created.
However, if you continue to feel tightness or squeezing, you may need to back off to lighter sounds temporarily as your nervous system gets used to the new acoustic sensations or “placement.”
Ultimately, if you can find a great voice teacher to walk you through the belting technique, that is the best situation for safe belting.
If you would like to learn more about my books, courses, and Contemporary Voicer Teacher Academy, please visit johnhenny.com. And if you are interested in online vocal lessons, you can reach out to our front desk at [email protected], and we would be happy to answer your questions.