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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.

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.