Confused about belting? Here’s Broadway vocal coach Amanda Flynn to bust some of the most common belt myths.
Amanda is an accomplished performer and teacher and the author of So You Want to Sing Musical Theatre. She recently appeared as a guest on the Singing Teachers Talk podcast, where she discussed mastering belt. Here’s what she had to say.
Myth Number 1: If you’re classically trained, you should know how to belt.
If we look at the history of belting, it has nothing to do with Western classical singing. That doesn’t mean you can’t sing Western classical music and belt – of course you can. But Western classical training will not give you the information you need to belt. That’s why people get so confused; lots of things don’t line up when you look at it through a Western classical lens.
Myth Number 2: Belting is harmful to the voice.
There are pockets [in the singing world] where belting is still pooh-poohed and looked on as harmful and bad for the voice. But that is becoming less prevalent. People see so many others doing it and think, ‘if belting was really bad, no one would be doing it’.
Myth Number 3: Belting was pioneered on Broadway in the early 20th Century.
Listen to Indian classical singing and indigenous Hawaiian, African or North American music and you hear belting sounds. You can also find the roots of belting in African-American spiritual music, which turns into more blues singing. If we really want to look at belting as we know it, we can go back to black women blues singers. Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith – these women were taking calls, cries and speech-like sounds and giving them grit, growl, heart and emotion.
White women started co-opting that sound for vaudeville around the early 1900s. And it made its way to Broadway with people like Ethel Merman. While she might have been one of the first people to do it on Broadway, she certainly did not create the sound.
Around that time, the word ‘belt’ became associated with that sound quality. It was a boxing term before that; it meant to knock somebody out. People started talking about ‘belting out a show tune’.
Myth Number 4: Using mixed voice (instead of belting) is cheating.
There is no hierarchy between belting and mixing. Sometimes people feel like they’re cheating if they mix but one is no better than the other. If you’re making the sound that you want and it’s working for you and your creative team, then it’s working. If you’re using it in auditions and getting called back, it’s working.
People overthink it. We hear somebody make a sound we like, and we assign an effort level to it. We listen to people belt and think it’s such a powerful, big sound and assume we should experience that when belting. But for some people, it feels light and effortless. You have to go on your own journey of figuring out what the different sounds feel like.
Myth Number 5: Belting is always a bright sound.
Often, people think of it as being bright. I don’t think it’s so bright; I’m trying to get people more balanced. The reality is there are multitudes of sounds that can fall under the umbrella of belting.
Most successful belters can produce a variety of sounds within the context of a belt song. But the more of a beginner you are, the less access you’ll have to a multitude of sounds.
Most beginning belters make big, heavy, loud, open, projecting sounds. As they get more skilled, they start to realise that they can back off. As you begin to get better, you can let it get lighter and quieter without flipping out of it. You can close and open the vowels and change the resonance.
Listen to the full podcast interview with Amanda, Mastering Belt in Musical Theatre, where you will discover:
- A great exercise to help singers develop their belt.
- The reasons why Amanda might pull back from teaching a student belt.
- How belting in musical theatre has evolved over the past century.
Want to know how to develop mixed voice? This blog featuring BAST’s founder, Line Hilton, provides a useful introduction.