In this part one on our two-part series on belting, we’ll define what is happening physically when we belt, discuss how to do it sustainably and ways to maximize your power (while minimizing your output!).
What exactly IS belting? Is it safe to do? How do I learn?
Well, let’s first acknowledge that the term “belting” is subjective. What one singer might feel is a “mix” sound, a listener might perceive as a belt. What another singer might describe as a belt, someone else might argue that it’s more of a “strong heady mix.” It can be really confusing, and the lines are blurry!
Belting is also controversial. There are teachers out there who will tell you that belting is unhealthy, and if you do it you will injure yourself. It makes sense, right? Teachers who specialize in genres of music that DON’T use belting may not actually have a good understanding of it. Therefore may make false assumptions around whether or not it is “healthy” or “proper singing.” See more of my thoughts on that line of thinking here…
So if belting is so subjective and controversial, what can we agree on? Well first, it is an extreme form of singing. With anything extreme, doing it without control or too often can be dangerous. In order to belt sustainably, we need to learn to manage the intensity and be in control!
Now let’s dig into the facts, physically speaking, belting can be defined as:
More thyroarytenoid engagement, vocal fold closure and thicker vocal folds higher up in our voice than normal.
To help understand the full picture, let’s get into a little bit of anatomy. Stick with me here…
- The thyroarytenoid muscle (let’s simplify it as the TA muscle) is one of the main drivers in helping the vocal folds come together especially in our speaking/lower/”chesty” voice and causes the vocal folds to thicken and come together for vibration.
- The cricothyroid (CT muscle) helps to tilt the larynx and stretch the vocal folds, which they need in order to produce higher notes.
In all singing, these two muscles are both engaged throughout – generally with one being more contracted than the other. As you ascend and transition into a more “head voice” sound, the TA lightens up and the CT muscle takes over. It’s important to learn to balance their engagement for a smoother sound. **Metaphor alert: Think of it as a car switching gears – one is always driving. So while both muscle sets are engaged somewhat throughout our singing, in the lower more “chesty” sounds the TA is “driving” and the higher “headier” sounds, the CT is “driving.
To effectively belt, we have to keep the TA “driving” but also allow for the CT to become involved as we ascend so that our vocal folds can stretch and reach those higher notes. The tricky thing is that the TA muscle can be a very strong, stubborn muscle! Once it is in control, it doesn’t want to let go. So it’s important for a singer to develop the skill of allowing the CT to become more involved along with the TA muscle, and this can take time. Be sure to read part 2 next week for advice on developing muscular balance.
Once you have muscular control and flexibility, there is another piece – acoustic power! The way we shape our vocal tract (i.e. vowels, mouth shape, and larynx positioning) can actually make you sound more powerful! Certain vocal tract shapes are going to lend themselves to a more “classical” or “heady” sound, while others will help give you a more “belty” or “chesty” color. Achieving acoustic power can get particularly nuanced, but here are a few (very broad) tips;
- A more narrow lip, rounder mouth, and lower larynx shape are going to lend to a “darker” or more “classical” sound – which can be very difficult and effortful to belt with high up in our range.
- A wider lip, more trumpet-shaped mouth with a slightly raised larynx will help boost your mid to high belt notes giving more perceived power, with less physical input at the vocal folds.
Again, regarding acoustics, these are some broad generalizations in a very detailed, nuanced and specific world, and depending on your voice, gender and the pitch you are trying to belt – this can vary. With both the muscular agility and acoustic nuance that belting requires for sustainability, I highly recommend you work with a vocal coach who understands and can help you apply!
Stay tuned, because next week in Part 2 we’ll dive into practical exercises to learn to control your belt!
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