Bel Canto/Can Belto

To Belt Or Not To Belt:
Is That Still the Question?

Although there are many concerns, interests, questions and mysteries concerning singing technique for theatrical singers, there are more misconceptions, old wives’ tales and prejudices concerning belting than any other subject. For this reason, I have chosen belting as the topic for the first Singers on Stage newsletter feature article. I hope this article will clear up any misunderstandings you may have about belt singing, and that you will write or e-mail to me any questions or comments you may have. It is a very controversial subject, so I am looking forward to your response.

If we were all to become ethnomusicologists and take a trip around the world listening to aboriginal people sing, what we would find is that when trying to communicate with the voice out of doors over any distance (beyond a fairly close range), people use their calling voice. Whether summoning their children, bringing workers in for meals, communicating with war or hunting parties, or chanting or singing for ceremonial occasions, the calling voice has the acoustical properties and the amplitude to be heard outside of an enclosed resonating space. The calling voice, as opposed to shouting or screaming, is the basic vocal technique of the belt singing voice and is a natural, harmless, and very useful way to use the voice.

We are all born with the capacity to belt. It is prejudice and ignorance, usually coming from the academic world, that has given belting (and those who teach it) a bad name.
In western civilization, the history of singing reached a fork in the road with the advent of the great cathedrals in Europe. Within the walls or the cathedrals, the music for religious services became increasingly sophisticated, and the singers more skillful. The choirs of mens’ and boys’ voices were no longer calling outdoors, warning of danger, locating food or finding each other, but creating the sounds of angels resonating within the walls of the cathedral. Angelic, indoor singing required a new singing technique, and created a whole new vocal aesthetic which developed into what we now call classical singing. In the theatre world we call it legitimate singing, or the “legit” voice. Meanwhile, on the streets and in the marketplaces outside the walls of the cathedral, the common people used their outdoor calling voice to sell their food and wares.

Just as the cloistered world of the Catholic Church became the center of learning and the forma arts, the new indoor style of art singing became institutionalized. Over the centuries as the centers of learning shifted to the universities, classical singing moved with it, and the separation between classical singing and popular singing styles grew ever wider. As the oral and written traditions of classical singing grew and became standardized, popular singing styles remained a folk tradition with no intellectual underpinning. I know of only one university in the western world where belting technique has been institutionalized and accepted as a valid course of study: Brigham Young University.

So how can you learn to belt? Whereas popular culture is a course of study at many institutions of higher learning, belt singing is simply not offered. (There are scattered university voice faculties who teach belting, but it is usually done after hours outside the university environment.) There are no standardized tests that singing teachers have to take to get a license to teach, so finding a good singing teacher is chancy-even more so with belting. Teachers who teach belting have to learn the technique on their own. You can’t get a degree in teaching popular singing techniques.
What follows is some information that should be helpful in finding your belt voice. You can learn only so much from written instructions. In the end there is no substitute for a good teacher. Good luck!

-Bill Reed