Tag Archives: healthy belting

5 Tips for Learning to Belt

5 Tips For Learning to Belt

Belt technique is controversial in the voice world. I grew up with the belief that if I did anything other than sing in head voice that I *would* destroy my voice, and even in 2018, I meet students and voice teachers all the time who share that sentiment. The truth is, belting can be dangerous for your voice if you do it with bad technique or if you force yourself to do it when your voice isn’t in shape for it. But if you learn how to do it in a healthy way and listen to your body when your voice isn’t up for it, all will be well. For better or for worse, belting is an indispensable skill in most commercial styles of music, and there’s really no substitute. If you’re ready to take your singing to the next level, here are some important tips for learning to belt in a sustainable, healthy way.

1. Set the Foundation

Great support is absolutely crucial for healthy belting. Think of it this way. When you’re backpacking, you strap your pack on with a variety of straps to distribute the pressure around your body. That way the full force of the backpack isn’t crushing your shoulders. When you belt, you don’t want those tiny laryngeal muscles doing all the work.

Stand up straight. Your back should feel wide and long, and if someone were to try to push you over, you should be so stable that you could weather it. Your spine should be stacked vertically, and your sternocleidomastoids, that pair of muscles that extend from your chest to the base of your skull, should be at work keeping your neck in line with your torso.

When you have a stable base, everything from your breath control muscles (the diaphragm and external intercostals in particular) to the small muscles in your vocal tract can work more efficiently.

2. Use Very Little Air

One of the biggest mistakes newbie belters make is using more air than they need. When you hear a big voice, it may sound like the way to recreate it is to take a giant breath and shove all that air out at once. What this actually does though is force your vocal folds to work significantly harder. Part of the chesty sound belters achieve is created by a longer closed phase. This means that your vocal folds stay together longer during each cycle of vibration. If you use too much air, your vocal folds will have to work very hard to stay shut.

When you belt, don’t take in too much air. Use a relaxed inhalation, and then hold most of the air back when you create your sound. Keep your ribcage expanded so that your diaphragm stays in a low position instead of rising quickly and crowding your lungs. Your exhalation as you sing should be extremely slow and controlled, even more so than in classical singing.

3. Crush the Constriction

One of the biggest culprits in injuring your voice when you belt is the constriction of your false vocal folds, the muscular folds that sit above your vocal folds in your larynx. Your false vocal folds have a tendency to constrict when your body thinks it’s under duress. Constriction is triggered by a variety of things, from heavy labor to anxiety. When your false vocal folds are constricted, you’ll feel your throat get tight and close up.

To retract your false vocal folds, in other words, to open your throat, you can use a variety of visual cues. Visualize inhaling and smelling a rose; laugh silently and hold the position; or pull your ears apart. You can test whether your folds are retracted by covering your ears and breathing. When you can no longer hear your breath, your false vocal folds are retracted.

Keeping your throat open like this is by far the safest way to belt.

4. Learn to Twang

You know that hooty, woofy sound you hear when someone does a bad imitation of an opera singer? Well that ain’t gonna do it. You need a boat-load of forward resonance to make this happen. Try cackling like a witch, quacking like a duck, or saying “nya nya nya” like a bratty kid. You don’t have to be belting yet, but you should feel an extreme narrow, pointed quality to your sound. This is often called twang and is the result of your aryepiglottic sphincter (a tube above your true and false vocal folds) narrowing.

5. Don’t Be Afraid

It may seem contradictory, but the less afraid of belting you are when you do it, the healthier it’ll be. Fear causes tension and constriction, when what you want is freedom. Try fearlessly yelling, “yay!” With a lot of excitement in your voice. Not a trebly, tepid “yay!” A “yay” that someone could hear across a crowded room that’d cause them to smile. There shouldn’t be any real pushing, and it’ll quickly become clear how easy this can be if you let it.

how to sing healthier

How to Sing Healthier in Almost Any Genre

Voice teachers will sell you a lot of bunk about what you can and can’t do with your voice: “healthy belting” is an oxymoron for a lot of people, with “healthy breathy singing” trailing right behind it in the imaginations of fear mongering vocal technicians. Granted, I’ll be the first to tell you that you can injure your voice belting (or singing breathy, or singing operatically) if you consistently over-push air, sing with uncontrolled constriction, and don’t listen to your body and back off when you’re feeling discomfort. Luckily, there’s a quick and surprisingly easy way to sing healthier in almost any genre: to retract your false vocal folds. Yeah, yeah, I know that probably sounds completely foreign and intimidating, but it’s not as weird as it sounds.

What Are False Vocal Folds?

First, a very quick rundown of true vocal folds: Your true vocal folds are two bands of tissue in your larynx (or voice box) that vibrate when you speak or sing. Your false vocal folds are two other bands of tissue above your true vocal folds. Their main role is to squeeze together and protect you during heavy labor, coughing, or swallowing in order to prevent any unwanted substance from entering your airways.

What Does This Have to Do with Singing?

Squeezing your false vocal folds might be great for keeping food out of your windpipe, but it’s not so great for singing. When the FVF are constricted, your true vocal folds can’t freely vibrate. This can be dangerous over time in any form of singing. Unfortunately, the same stress reactions that cause your FVF to say, “Hey! This person might be choking! Let’s close up to protect her” often cause them to say, “Hey! This person is about to sing in public and is terrified! Let’s close up!” What’s helpful in the first situation is actually detrimental in the second.

So What Do you Do? How Can You Learn to Sing Healthier?

To sing healthier in any genre, it’s useful to learn how to retract your false vocal folds so that your true vocal folds can freely vibrate. As with any bodily coordination, over time you’ll learn to pull them apart at will, and beyond that, your muscle memory will get you to this healthy place when you sing if you do it enough. But at the beginning, you’ll need some images to help you out.

1. Laugh Silently

You might look like a lunatic, but in the privacy of your own home or your voice teacher’s studio, try laughing silently. Do you feel how open your throat feels when you do that? That’s how it feels to retract your false vocal folds.

2. Moan

I don’t like this one quite as much because while the silent laughter gives you a lift before you sing, moaning tends to bring everything down. But for some people, this is the best way to feel false vocal fold retraction. To do this one, let out a giant, relaxed moan, not a tense whimper.

3. Imagine your Ears Pulling Apart

This one is probably my favorite, because you can be discreet about it and continue to use it even in performance settings. Simply visualize your ears pulling apart. You’ll probably feel your cheekbones rise, your eyes smile, and your throat open.

Test It!

To see if you’re really retracting your false vocal folds, cover your ears and breathe normally. You’ll most likely hear your own breathing, and it’ll sound like the ocean. Then retract your false vocal folds and keep breathing. Everything should go almost or entirely silent.

Apply it to Your Singing

It can be challenging to remember to do at first, but if you work on applying this technique to your singing, everything, from operatic singing to heavy belting, will be more comfortable and healthy. Make sure to continue to listen to your body though. The best indication that your singing is healthy is that your throat is comfortable. If you feel a scratch, tickle, or cough as you’re singing, it’s time to take a break. And if this continues long term, it’s best to see an otolaryngologist.

Online Singing Lessons: Healthy Belting Technique, Part 2

Back in September, we had a post called Healthy Belting Technique, Part 1. As often happens after a part 1, we have a part 2 for you. To recap, in the last Healthy Belting Technique post, we discussed developing a mix and then gently adjusting your headmix notes to create more of a chest-dominant mix. Today we’ll talk about making your belt prettier and sustaining belted notes.

How To Make Your Belting Voice Less Shrill

Warning: Don’t start this section until you’ve already learned how to sing in a chest-mix comfortably.

As you’ve worked on developing your healthy belt, have you noticed that it sounds kind of shrill as you sing higher and higher? If that’s the case for you, you’ll probably want to work on some exercises to help lower your larynx and create a little more space between the back of your tongue and your soft palate (what some voice teachers call “open throat technique.”) Be careful though. Keeping the sound too “open” can be harmful for the inexperienced belter, because wider vowels make mixing less natural and can result in a singer’s shouting up to higher notes. When I work with trained classical singers, I often notice that it takes them longer to belt comfortably, because their lower-larynx, open-throated singing makes it less natural for them to get the narrowness needed for a healthy belt.

Try This Vocal Exercise

Arpeggiate on BUH BUH BUH.

Keep the sound as dopey as possible, as if you’ve just been to the dentist and got a shot of Novocain. This will help gently lower your larynx from the high position it may have risen to as you’ve learned to belt. Even though I often use this exercise whether or not a singer is trying for a chestmix or a headmix, for the purposes of the exercise right now, restrict it to a belt. You may need to concentrate on staying chesty with this exercise harder than you’d need to for a twangier exercise, like NAY or NA. Some singers will find that they can’t belt as high when they sing this way; others will find that the reduced pressure on their larynx will actually allow them to belt higher comfortably. If you’re in the former camp, bear with the exercise. It’ll be worth it when you have a full, relaxed-sounding belt from low to high.

Continue to Work on Twangy Exercises

Work on the twangy exercises I gave you in Healthy Belting Technique, Part 1 alongside the dopey exercises so that you can continue to work on a balance between bright, forward belting and darker, larynx-lowering sounds.

Gradually Reduce the “Brattiness” in the Twang Exercise and the “Dopiness” in the Low-Larynx Exercise

The hyper-twangy quality in the NA NA exercise and the dopiness in the BUH BUH exercise are just tools to help you reach a certain sound quality. But in the real world of singing, unless you’re playing a very specific character role, you won’t want to sing in these extremes.

See if you can do the NA NA exercise without making your voice intentionally bratty-sounding.

It should take on a slightly more open quality. If it starts to feel as if you’re drifting into head voice early, or if your throat becomes tense from the more open sound, go back to a little more brattiness.

Now see if you can do the BUH BUH exercise without quite so much dopiness. If it starts to feel like you’re straining, add some of the dopiness back in.

Over time, you’ll be able to strike the balance you’re looking for, and that balance may even shift depending on the song. The optimal place to get to with your belting is to be able to thin out your sound (making it sound more like the NAY NAY exercise) or thicken your sound (more like the BUH BUH exercise) based on what sound you’re after in a particular song. Often, a casting agent for Disney might prefer a slightly thinner, brighter belt, while someone casting for the role of Fantine in Les Miserables might prefer a thicker sound. It’s all about balancing the relaxed, open sound with the forward twang.

Listen to Alanis Morissette at 2.30 of “Uninvited” as an example of a thinner belt:

Next, listen to Whitney Houston throughout the belted parts of “I Will Always Love You” as an example of a thicker belt:

How To Sustain a Belt

Unfortunately, belting becomes a whole new beast when you begin trying to hold notes. The most important thing to keep in mind is to not make the sustain happen by clenching your throat. It should feel more like a core workout than a throat workout.

Try a Vocal Exercise

Let’s go back to the dopey BUH BUH exercise and add a sustain in on the last high note.

Now that you’re holding the notes, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to belt as high comfortably. There’s no shame in quitting at a lower note to preserve your larynx! In order to continue working on expanding your belting range, work on non-sustaining exercises alongside the sustaining ones.

In Healthy Belting Technique, Part 3, we’ll work on belting an actual song!

Have any questions about healthy belting technique? Post them in the comments below!

Online Singing Lessons: Healthy Belting Technique, Part 1

Ariana Grande PNG2, by YaelHunter, under CC BY 3.0
Unlike full belting (or what some call “unhealthy belting,”) healthy belting technique uses a blend of the chest and head registers but is on the chestier side of the mix, or middle voice. While a mix is a blend of chest and head voice (regardless of whether you lean further into your chest or into your head voice), healthy belting has an edge to it that a head-dominant mix doesn’t have, even a head-mix with lots of forward nasal resonance. Even though the sound feels like it’s resonating from a very similar place, the resonance should feel as if it’s pushing slightly upward from below rather than downward from above.

Healthy Belting Technique: How To Belt

Unless you already have some solid technique under your belt (no pun intended) and understand how to shift into head voice, this may not be the first thing you want to rush into, as it can be easily abused. Depending on where you are in your vocal training, learning to belt can be a multi-step process.

Develop Your Mixed Voice

First thing’s first. You’ll need to develop your middle voice—even if it’s more of a heady mix.

Try These Vocal Exercises!

1. Lip Rolls or Tongue Trills

If you can do lip roles or tongue trills, it’s easy to create a natural blend in your registers.

Without your having to think too much about moving from register to register, your voice should seamlessly shift on its own.

2. Humming

Either in lieu of lip rolls or along with them, try an exercise on a hum. Keep your hum buzzy, and exhale very little through the hum. Blending your registers doesn’t tend to be as tough on a hum as it does on open vowels.

Add Some Twang!

Next, you’ll want to brighten up your mix and give it some twang.

Try This Vocal Exercise!

Sing an arpeggio on Nya, Nay or Na, whichever makes your voice feel bright and speech-like.

Give it a bratty sound. The exercise should feel very forward, as if it’s coming from your teeth (many vocal teachers call this “singing in the mask.”) Don’t let it remain hooty or hollow, like it’s coming from the back of your head. When you get this down, your sound should be bright and forward from your chest all the way to your head. Try to be aware of where your chestmix breaks into a headmix. On these brightness exercises, if you’re doing them correctly and have a strong headmix, it’s sometimes hard to tell where the transition area, or passagio, is.

Turn Your Headmix notes into Belt-Mix Notes!

This is a very gradual process and will not happen over night. You should be happy with adding only a note or two at a time to your chestmix. If you try to do too much, it could cause strain. Your chestmix should feel like it has a slight edge, as if you’re pulling very slightly up to the note from your chest rather than sinking down onto the note from your head. Unlike a full belt, however, it should not feel like it’s pulling from way below. It often feels very similar to a headmix and only requires a slight adjustment. I like to imagine the note as a thin line with a chestmix as a tiny arrow pointing from below up to the line and a headmix as a tiny arrow pointing down at the line. It’s roughly in the same place and not varying too much anatomically.

You can use the same Nya Nya, Nay Nay, or NA NA exercises from before. If you’re doing a chestmix up to an F4, see if you can stretch it to a G4. If there’s any soreness, stop. You’re probably not ready for it. If it doesn’t hurt, go for it! If it sounds a little shrill at first, don’t worry about it, as long as it isn’t hurting. The two biggest reasons I’ve seen students give up on this technique are because of fear of hurting their voices (usually stemming from someone in their past telling them that all belting will cause vocal damage) and because of fear of sounding bad. It often doesn’t sound good at first, especially if you’re used to hearing your voice with ringing head tones. That’s okay! The only way you’ll feel and sound more comfortable is by practicing it, just like everything else.

Anatomy Lesson

Please note that this section gets very technical, so if you aren’t into it, just skip to the “Physical Exercise” section. In more scientific terms, you’re using more of the thyroarytenoid (TA) muscle for chestmix than you are for a headmix or head voice, but less of the muscle than you’d use for a full chest belt. I’ve read a number of teachers report that the TA (the vocal cord shortening muscle) is the one used for chest voice, that the cricothyroid (the cord lengthener) is the one used for head voice, and that the mix uses an even combination of both, but this is actually false. In reality, the register that comes in second for cricothyroid use is chest voice. With a successful chestmix, you’ll actually be working to minimize cricothyroid use. With less CT, you’ll need less TA to keep it sounding chesty, and you’ll have an overall less muscular and less vocally taxing process.

A belt-mix typically (but doesn’t always) use:

1. More vocal cord adduction than headmix and head voice but less than chest.
2. More TA than headmix and head voice but less than chest.
3. Less CT than chest voice, headmix, and head voice.
4. A larynx that tilts upward. It may rise but should not stay too far up. There is evidence that too much laryngeal tension can lead to vocal problems. This concern is not something to get carried away with though. If you’re always singing with a very high larynx, you will probably become quickly fatigued, and this may lead to long-term problems down the road. But if your larynx rises once in a while to grab a few of those top notes, especially if you’re a more advanced singer who knows what the signs are for when it’s time to give your voice a break, don’t sweat it. It’s very unlikely that it will do any damage.

Singing Is Like Physical Exercise

You may find that a note that feels completely comfortable to belt at the beginning of a lesson feels scratchy and tired by the end of the lesson. That’s when you should back off and give your voice a break and drink plenty of water. Students are often scared that it means their voice is being ruined if it feels tired at the end of a belting lesson. As long as you aren’t in pain and working to push through the pain (please don’t do this!) you should be fine. I liken it to any other form of exercise. If you’ve never run before and then go out for a run, your muscles will be tired. If you’ve never run before and go out and run a marathon, you’ll probably injure yourself. You aren’t in shape for the marathon and may not even have good enough running technique, so if you’re learning to run, start slowly. If you get sore, take a break, drink water, and maybe give yourself a day or two off or do something lighter. Then try going back to it, and I bet you won’t get quite as sore the next time.

Good news! Same goes for belting. If you’re belting your new G4 for a whole lesson and your voice is tired by the end of it, give your voice a break for a couple days until it feels good as new. Spend those days off drinking lots of water and only doing light, heady singing. Then go back to your belting when your voice feels strong again. You may just find that you can sing the G (and maybe even a G# or A) for longer without getting tired. NATS belting expert Robert Edwin likened singing to cross-training: work on belting one day and head-voice dominant singing the next.

I’ve seen students use this method for a year or two and go from being able to do a chestmix up to a G4 all the way to a G#5 or higher. One girl in particular would complain to me that the G4 was pulling whenever she tried to belt it in a song. She worked diligently on these exercises, adding just one or two notes at a time, and sometimes going long stretches of time without adding any notes. Two years later, she effortlessly belts up to a D5, and now it’s D#5 through G#5 that make her slightly tired when she does them for too long. I have no doubt that if she keeps it up, those notes too will become easier over time.

Online Singing Lessons: How to Sing High Notes

I often have singers come to me complaining that they don’t have a large vocal range and that most songs are too high for them. I know this may seem surprising, but most songs are probably within your range, once you learn how to use your range effectively. Of course, if you have the time and budget, it’s always the safest bet to hire a qualified voice teacher, but if that isn’t an option for you (or even if you just want to get a jump start on vocal technique before you start singing lessons), these techniques should help teach you how to sing high notes.

1. Find Your Head Voice:

While I’m a big advocate of healthy belting, to reach the top of your range and really hit the high notes, you’ll need to learn how to sing in your head voice. To find your head voice, try squealing “Wheeeeeee!” like a little kid being pushed higher and higher on a swing. You could also call out, “Woooo-hoo!” with a high voice or imitate the siren you hear on a fire truck. If you want to try a whole sentence in your head voice, try imitating how Minnie Mouse might say it. Feel how the vibrations seem like they’re coming from somewhere in your head rather than down in your chest?

2. Explore the Top of Your Squealing Range:

Don’t even worry about singing yet. Go back to imitating a siren, your “wheeee,” or whatever worked best for you. Try to squeal as high as you can possibly go. It’s okay if it sounds shrill, but it shouldn’t feel as if you’re pushing from your throat. Play around with this, preferably when no one is watching or listening, so that you can unselfconsciously squeal as loudly and as high as you can.

3. Learn How To Sing Those High Notes!

Here’s the great news. If you can squeal up to those notes, you can learn to sing those notes too. It may not happen over night, and it may take a while before you can tweak them to sound the way you want them to, but those notes are there! Start with a descending arpeggio. If the “wheeeee” exercise was easy for you, you could start by singing “wheeeee” in the arpeggio: C5-G4-E4-C4; C#5-G#4-E#4-C#4, etc. Just because you’re singing now doesn’t mean that you should start doing anything different anatomically. Don’t start reaching for the notes—just descend in a relaxed way the same way you did when you weren’t singing. Sing the exercise higher and higher, and if you feel your throat muscles kicking in too much, go back to just squealing “wheeee” without thinking about pitch.

4. Learn To Connect Your Registers:

Once you know you’re able to sing high notes, the next step is bridging your registers so that your voice sounds connected from bottom to top. This is beyond the scope of what we’ll cover in this entry, but you can learn about middle voice here.

Anatomy Lesson!

When you sing, different parts of your voice require different muscle use. The larynx houses many muscles responsible for vocal processes, including the thyroarytenoid (TA) (see figure 1.1) and the cricothyroid (CT) (see figure 1.2). Chest voice and mixed belting require a lot of TA use, while head voice is largely CT. When your vocal registers don’t blend together well, it’s because the TA muscle is being used more and more as you go higher and higher, until it can’t take the strain anymore and breaks off suddenly. When your registers are blended, on the other hand, it’s because the TA muscle is gradually releasing until it’s hardly used for head voice. Using too much TA will prevent you from hitting the highest notes in your range.

Figure 1.1:

Thyroarytenoid Muscle

Thyroarytenoid Muscle

Figure 1.2:

Cricothyroid

Cricothyroid

Belting Collection: Belting Studies, Part 1

Lea Michele at Walmart Soundcheck for Louder in 2014,” by Lunchbox LP, under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic

There’s little in the way of vocal pedagogy that sparks such heated debate as belting. Opposers talk about it as if it’s a one-way street to nodes, polyps, and your all-around vocal demise. Advocates denounce the opposers as ivory tower snobs who don’t live in the real world of singing. Given the rabidly heated opinions on the matter, there are very few studies on it one way or the other and none that suggest with any kind of convincing evidence that belting in a chestmix (a mix of chest and head resonance that has a predominantly chesty sound) is harmful. Before I start posting blog entries teaching you how to belt, I’ll first begin with a discussion of the belt debate so that you can make a more educated decision about whether it’s something you want to learn to do. In this entry, we’ll discuss one of the most famous belting studies. Please know that the information in this entry is denser and more scientific than usual, so if you’d rather skip it and wait for the more lighthearted how-to-sing entries, I won’t take offense!

American Academy of Otolaryngology Study

Findings:

Probably the most oft-cited belting study was presented at the American Academy of Otolaryngology in 1995. You’ll often hear it referred to by classical singing advocates to show that belting is damaging. The study measured muscle tension patterns in the larynx that can potentially be connected with vocal disorders, such as nodes, polyps, and cysts. In its findings, there was a statistically significant negative correlation between classical singing and muscular tension (MT) compared with various types of commercial singing. There was also a statistically significant negative correlation between singers with vocal training (of any type) and those with MT. When professional singers sang in their own style instead of the standard (the Star-Spangled Banner), they had significantly less MT. When classical singers sang in other styles, their MT increased dramatically.

My take on this:

I really appreciate that people are taking the time to conduct research on this subject, rather than simply relying on their trust of authority, but unfortunately, the study doesn’t really prove a whole lot. Here are two reasons I make that claim.

1. There are too many different ways to sing commercial genres.

There’s a wide variety of ways to sing in commercial genres, all the way from being breathy to belting with a full chest belt. We would need to know more about how these commercial genres were being sung to make any determinations one way or the other about belting. Even if we were to make the leap and say that everyone singing in a commercial genre was belting, we still don’t know if they were using a chestmix belt or a full chest belt. It’s much more likely that someone untrained would belt in a vocally abusive way than sing classically in an abusive way, since the stereotype for commercial genres is loud and forceful, while the stereotype for classical singing is soft and melodious. This does not mean that, as a rule, all belting is evil.

2. We don’t know what type of training these singers had.

The results about training–that there’s a correlation between amount of training and healthy singing–sound promising, but these are inconclusive as well. One explanation is that trained singers tend to belt in a healthy way. Another explanation could be that trained singers tend to not belt! We would need to know exactly how these trained singers were using their voices.

So what can you learn from this study?

The study revealed that professionals had less muscular tension when singing in their own style and that classical singers had significantly increased muscular tension singing in other styles. This could actually be a plug for learning to sing your style (belt, breathiness, opera, or otherwise) in a healthy way, practicing and training in it in order to build the appropriate muscles and breath control necessary for that task–rather than simply training classically and assuming it’ll translate into all other areas of singing.

In other words, there’s nothing definitive about this study. It’s often cited by classical teachers to warn of the dangers of belting, but in reality, it does just as effective a job at warning against singing in a style you aren’t trained and equipped for! Do I think it’s possible to harm your voice by belting? Yes, absolutely, if you aren’t trained for it or if your voice is out of shape! But I don’t think this study (or any other I’ve read so far) has convincingly proven that all belting is harmful.