Tag Archives: twang

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.

A Million Dreams - The Greatest Showman: Hard Songs to Sing

Hard Songs to Sing: A Million Dreams, from The Greatest Showman

By far, my most requested song to learn in voice lessons from both boys and girls right now is “A Million Dreams,” from the film The Greatest Showman. It may not be as tough to sing as “This is Me,” from the same movie, but it poses a unique set of challenges that singers new to belting sometimes struggle with. We thought it would be the perfect addition to our Hard Songs to Sing collection.

Why Is This Song Hard

1. The choruses start low and then quickly build to higher notes, leading some singers to tense up, get shouty, or flip into falsetto and drop out at the top.
2. The bridge has some sustained B4’s that can get tough.
3. The last “A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make” in the song will test your breath control. Seriously.

Instant Gratification

The Main Choruses

The problem with these choruses that move from low to high is that singers will have a tendency to start at an easy speech tone and then try to yank that speech tone higher and higher until they’re just shouting.

Try not to visualize the vocal line in the chorus as an upward diagonal line.

Instead, think of a series of waves that slowly drift upward.

This visual will do a number of wonderful things: your larynx won’t have a tendency to go higher and higher, the up-and-over visual will help your soft palate lift and your thyroid cartilage tilt (creating a warmer, more open sound), and the downward motion will help prompt you to use good breath support.

In addition to this visual, there are also some vowel and consonant modifications to try. On the word million, the “l” sound will cut you off prematurely, so just swallow it. It should almost come out “mi-eu-yen,” but maybe not quite that far.

Slightly open the “ee” vowels, like be and see. Your tongue should stay in the “ee” position, but your jaw should release in a way it normally wouldn’t on such a thin vowel.

The Bridge

It’s easy to want to shout up to the high notes in the bridge. Since they aren’t crazy high, it feels like you shouldn’t have to set up for them. But don’t be fooled. You still want to keep that up-and-over feeling we discussed in the chorus section.

When you sing eyes at “close my eyes to see,” visualize that up-and-over feeling and sigh down onto it on an “ah,” keeping your soft palate lifted, your face energized and your breath well supported.

The Final Chorus

The arc of the pitches in the “A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make” line in the final chorus is illustrated by the turquoise curves below.

It requires a significant amount of breath support to go up and down like that and tends to lead singers to run out of breath, go flat by the end, or sometimes just get very tense. However, you can mitigate these difficulties by visualizing the arc differently. Instead of thinking of the line as something that goes up and down, have your body in place for the high part the entire time. Visualize the vocal line as if it were more like the dark black diagonal line that moves downward over the top of the curves instead of the curvy turquoise line.

If you’re set up for the high notes before you get to them, instead of trying to readjust every time you feel one coming, you’ll probably use way less air and sing more comfortably and efficiently.

Not-So-Instant Gratification

Unlike some of the songs we’ve worked on in our Hard Songs collection, this one probably won’t be out of reach for that long. Whether or not you want to belt most of it, you’ll need a lot of twang in your voice to keep a consistent sound from the lows to the highs. Try this “na na” exercise. For now, just be kind of bratty or witch-like with it.

What have been your challenges with “A Million Dreams”? Let us know in the comments section below, and as always, if you have a song you’d like us to write a Hard Songs tutorial about, make sure to mention it!

How to Sing With Twang

How to Sing With Twang

Last year, we talked about what the term twang means in singing. In short, twang is brightness, forward resonance, or that little laser-focused crying point you hear in a wide variety of vocal genres. It’s not the same as country twang, but it’s related because both use that little cry and a high degree of narrow, forward resonance.

So How Do You Sing With Twang?

Find That Buzz

Let’s start with a buzzy hum. You can do some scales on a hum, or change the words of a song to the hum. If you’re having a hard time getting a nice forward buzz, try these quick tips.

1. Put a puppy-dog cry into your hum.

You know the sound I’m talking about. The little cry will do a number of wonderful vocal things for you, including tilting your thyroid, but in this instance, it will also help you control your exhalation on the onset of the note.

2. Hold Back Air

If the puppy-dog cry isn’t an image that you can get on board with, simply think about controlling your air. Hold back air on your exhalation to get a little more of that buzz instead of letting the air drain out.

3. Scrunch Your Nose

Nose scrunching is a physical maneuver that can help narrow your aryepiglottic sphincter (AES) and get that buzzy sound.

Be Bratty

Once you’re controlling your air and feeling that buzz, you can get a very tangible twangy sensation by simply singing like a brat. Try singing “nya nya nya” like you’re a 6-year-old teasing a slower rival. Be really bratty with it. Do you feel how small and laser-focused the sound is? That’s your AES narrowing, giving you frontal resonance. If you’re worried that this isn’t a sound you want, fear not! Once you add some other elements in, like lifting your soft palate and tilting your thyroid (technique tips for another day) the sound will fill out and become way less obnoxious, while keeping the bright forward tone.

Scrunch Your Nose

We talked about this one earlier, but it’s worth reiterating that you can apply it to other things outside of the hum. Scrunching your nose will help give you that narrow, focused sound. Be careful how you use it though! While pop and country singers use this trick all the time, it’s not usually stylistically appropriate for more open, operatic sounds.

Keep the Sides of Your Tongue High

First say, “i” (as in feet.) Notice where the sides of your tongue are. Now say, “ah,” as if you’re at the doctor. Feel how much narrower and more focused the “i” feels? Next, say “ah,” but keep your tongue a little closer to the “i” position. Don’t go crazy with it; it still needs to sound like an “ah.” I bet you’ll get a slightly narrower, more focused sound.

Keep the Tongue Fairly Forward

Say “i” again, and then try saying “ooh” with your tongue pretty far back in your mouth. I bet that “i” sound felt like it was buzzier and more forward. Next say “ooh,” but keep your tongue in more of an “i” position. More forward, right? Be careful that when you’re keeping your tongue in the “i” position that your vowel still sounds like an “ooh.”

Don’t Forget

Forward resonance, or twang, is only one aspect of good singing. If you’re only focused on frontal resonance, you probably won’t love your sound. It might sound a little shrill and bratty. Once you have some twang, work on things like controlling your soft palate to add other resonances in.

Hard Songs to Sing: "Stone Cold," by Demi Lovato

Hard Songs to Sing: Stone Cold, by Demi Lovato

Demi Lovato; The Neon Lights Tour (Belo Horizonte), by João Bicalho, under CC BY 2.0

Without a doubt, “Stone Cold,” by Demi Lovato is one of the hardest hit belt songs to come out in the last couple years. It’s extremely rangy, swinging between an F3 on the low end and a belted (or at least hyper-forward resonant) G#5 on the high end. As if the range of the belt doesn’t make the song frustrating enough for singers, it’s full of very challenging runs and sustains. If you’ve tried to sing this song and, like many singers, have given up on it halfway through, try some of the tips in this Hard Songs post. Most importantly, give yourself some time and don’t come down too hard on yourself. Along with Listen and Chandelier, “Stone Cold” is arguably one of the hardest songs I’ve written a tutorial for.

Why is This Song Hard?

1. It’s a High Belt

Let’s just start there. The G#5 is really high. Even if you leave that note out, the way Demi does in some of her live versions, the song still takes you up to an F5.

2. The Runs are Rough

First off, the chorus runs on the word if, (for example, the one at 2.20 in the video), go from low to high, something that tends to take more control than starting high and dropping. Secondly, they’re just flat-out long and high, spanning an entire octave, Eb4 to Eb5.

3. The Song Register Jumps a Lot

The jump from a belt to a breathy head voice between stone cold at 41s and baby at 43s takes an immense amount of support to be convincing.

Instant Gratification

Get Twangy

The best advice I can give you for this song is to get comfortable with the “a” (as in cat) vowel. Try to make it so forward that it’s piercing (think of a duck or a cackling witch). Then, once you have that crying point (or twang) open your mouth as if you’re biting an apple in order to open up the resonance. When you attack that G#5 on her at 3.09, instead of singing the actual word, just tack an “h” onto the thinnest, most piercing vowel (you can try “a” or “i” as in kick) you can find. It’s unlikely you’re going to get a very chest-heavy mix that high up, so think forward and in your face rather than thick and heavy. While the G#5 is the most extreme example of this, you can use this technique throughout the song. Luckily, there are plenty of words with “a” vowels, like am, can’t, and understand. Each time you sing one of these words, take a big bite out of that imaginary apple in order to drive the sound forward while lifting your soft palate enough to make a bigger sound.

Use Plenty of Support

I hate using the word support without explaining it well, because it’s one of those terms voice teachers tend to throw around a lot and expect singers to understand without instruction. If you don’t know how to find your support, try sitting on a stool, and grabbing the bottom of it, pulling up with your hands. Feel what that does to your body? These are some  of the muscles you’ll need to engage during passages that require a lot of support. When you sing that breathy baby, exhale through the note more than you normally would, but make sure you’re still using your support muscles and making the apple-biting face so these sections still sound controlled and well connected. Make sure to use these muscles for the runs as well, keeping the if light and buoyant and resisting the urge to shout up to the top notes in order to get more sound.

Be Lighter Than You Think

I said this once, but I think it’s worth repeating. Most people’s tendency when singing “Stone Cold” is to just go full throttle and push as hard as they possibly can. But if you carry too much weight (i.e. if your vocal folds are too thick), particularly through the upward runs that culminate in the word happy, you’re probably going to cap out and not make it high enough. You’ll have the best shot at making it if you (like Demi herself) use some sort of mixed belt instead of slamming into the notes with all your might.

Not-So-Instant Gratification

You’re going to want to develop a boatload of twang to accomplish this song. Regardless of which passages you’re belting, you’ll be a lot more convincing on the song if you can narrow your epilarynx and pharyngeal space (don’t worry. You don’t need to know what that means to learn how to do it). Try these vocal exercises, going up and down your range with them.

“A” Tongue Exercise

I use this one a lot, because it’s a good one for so many of these hard songs. Stick your tongue out, and use a gentle glottal onset (to understand what that kind of onset sounds like, try percussively exclaiming “uh oh”). Now say “a, a, a” (as in cat.) Now try arpeggiating on the “A” sound, making it sound nasty and witch-like.

“A” Tongue Exercise Sustained

If you want any shot at making that G#5 Demi sustains at the end of the recorded version of “Stone Cold,” you’ll need to figure out how to sustain a twangy sound.

Na Na Octave Jump

You’re going to want to do more than twang on this song. For at least some portion of the song, it’s best to try belting it. Try belting an octave jump on “na.” Don’t push too hard at the top. You’ll have the best shot if you just throw the sound, like a call.

Have any comments or suggestions for the next Hard Songs to Sing post? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Hard Songs to Sing: Stand By You, by Rachel Platten

Rachel Platten 08-20-2015-5, by Justin Higuchi, under CC BY 2.0

Rachel Platten’s latest hit, “Stand By You,” is an uplifting, catchy pop song that doesn’t seem particularly difficult until you try to sing it. Like her previous hit, Fight Song, “Stand By You” mostly falls in a range that’s pretty high for most people to comfortably belt but too low to not just sound anticlimactic in head voice. Throw in that high note in the bridge, and you’ve definitely got yourself something that belongs in this Hard Songs to Sing collection.

Why Is This Song Hard?

1. It’s in an Uncomfortable Range For Many People

That upper middle range is great for throwing out a few power notes, but not so great for having to sing almost an entire song in. It can be an extremely taxing area of your voice.

2. It Goes Really High for a Pop Song

That high F#5 at the end of the bridge on the word “I” is hard to make convincing.

3. It Requires Shifting into Head Voice

Throughout the song, there are various places that you’ll need to shift from middle voice into a head voice, like the “you” at 1.11.

Instant Gratification

Thin Your Vowels

Thin vowels tend to maneuver better in your upper-middle range. You can sing “make” as maeke”; “kaleidoscopes” can be “kal-a-disceuhps.” Love can be “leuve.” “Broken can be “brooken.” You get the idea!

Lighten Up on Your Mix

Singing too heavy in this song is most likely going to wear you out. I’m not saying you have to go into your head voice, but unless you’re just born with a high, heavy belt, you’ll probably be more comfortable thinking of the sound as a very light call and not as a Kelly Clarkson belt.

Modify the “I” in the Bridge

For most people, the roughest note in this song is going to be the F#5 on the “I” at the end of the bridge at 2.49. Modify the F#5 to an “A” (as in cat) and make a face that looks like you’re biting an apple. The sound should feel very bright and forward, whether you’re belting or not. To get a little extra back resonance, open the sound up to more of an “UH” on the E5 at the end of the little run. The sound should feel like it’s going back and up just a little bit.

Not-So-Instant Gratification

This song is one of the harder pop songs we’ve talked about and requires a lot of not-so-instant gratification. It uses a light, but still commercial-sounding mixed voice, a full-on head voice, and a very high climactic note at the end of the bridge.

Develop a Light but Commercial Mix

Try vocalizing on a buzzy hum. Where you shift registers is less important than keeping a lot of forward resonance. You can imagine that you’re imitating a squeaky violin, or a whining puppy dog.

Work on a Lot of Twang and Chest Resonance

Arpeggiate on an “A” (as in cat). Imitate a cackling witch or a quacking duck to get a nice twangy sound.

Develop a Light Head Voice

Sing 5-note descending scales on an “OOH” sound. Stay very light and imagine the sound coming from your head, as if you’re lightly falling onto the notes instead of pulling up to them.

Have a song you’d like to see a Hard Songs to Sing tutorial on? Let us know in the comments below!

Hard Songs to Sing: Listen, by Beyonce

Beyonce-2008, by Noemi Nuñez, under CC BY-SA

It’s not as current as most of the songs on this list, but it’s certainly one worth revisiting and, even more than many other songs I’ve written about, deserves a place in my Hard Songs to Sing collection. The first couple verses and courses of Beyonce’s “Listen,” while not easy, are relatively manageable. And then the confidence-shaking bridge happens, not to mention the out-of-control difficult last chorus. If you’ve found that “Listen” is a melody you can start but can’t complete, we’ve got some tips to help you find your own voice throughout the whole song.

Why Is This Song Hard?

The Runs Are Brutal.

Beyonce’s runs are tough anyway, but “Listen” includes a long Beyonce run that she belts all the way up to an F#5.

The Notes are High For a Belt. Really, Really High.

The end of the bridge isn’t the only F#5 in the song. The note is also used on the word complete in the last chorus.

The High Belt Notes Are Sustained.

The only thing harder than a high belt is a high belt you need to sustain. Beyonce may not be sustaining the F#5’s, but she does sustain some Eb5’s, along with Db5’s with very long holds.

Instant Gratification

Drill the Runs

Once you have the vocal chops to sing through a run and hit all the notes comfortably, you can drill the runs like anything else you’d practice again and again. Try putting “na” onto every note in a run so that you can get used to the individual notes. Learn a few notes at a time, starting at the end. Once you have 2 or 3 notes down, add some more, until you’ve worked your way to the beginning of the run. Eventually get rid of the “na” sound and put the word back in. If you feel your run getting muddy, go back to the “na.”

Modify Toward Twangy Vowels Wherever Possible

Modifying toward the “a” (as in cat) sound works wonders for a high belt, or even a faux-belt (basically a twangy head-mix.) “I’ll” can be modified to an “a” sound with the “l” almost dropped. “Listen” can be opened up until it’s almost “lasten.” “Me” can be opened to “mae.” “Find” can be modified to “fand.” If you listen to Beyonce, she even narrows the word “won’t” on the long run at the end of the bridge to almost an “a” sound toward the end of the run.

Kill the Consonants

On that high a belt, pronouncing all your consonants just isn’t going to fly if you want to keep everything open and relaxed. Beyonce gets rid of the “t” in “won’t” entirely. She modifies the “t” in “heart” and “start” to the softer “d” sound, along with softening the “r” in heart until the word is almost “hahd.” She also greatly softens the “l” in “will and knocks out the “g” in “feeling.”

Not-So-Instant Gratification

“A” Exercise

As with “Problems,” by Ariana Grande, “Listen” is also a clear case where the “A” exercise is perfect. Arpeggiate on a witch-like “A” sound, maybe even sticking your tongue out if your tongue has a tendency to retract. If you’re twangy enough on those incredibly high notes, not only is it easier to develop a relaxed, light belt over time, but it’s even possible to go into more of a head-mix early on and still sound like you’re belting.

“A” Exercise With a Sustain

Now try the exercise with a sustain on the last note. It’ll feel harder to belt this one, and you may need to go into a head-mix earlier than you did in the last exercise, but keep the forward witchy sound, regardless of which register you’re in.

Have a song you’d like to see a Hard Songs To Sing post on? Let me know in the comments section below.

What Is Twang in Singing

Jo Estill at Graduation, by OgreBot, under CC BY-SA 3.0
One of the major problems in contemporary (and even classical) vocal training is the disagreement in terminology. Not only are there multiple terms for the same vocal phenomenon, often the same term applies to multiple forms of singing. The term twang, one that I use all the time because of its utility, is one of those confusing terms. So what is twang in singing?

Estill Twang

Typically, when I use the word twang, I’m referring to a term coined by Jo Estill that refers to the narrowing of the aryepiglottic sphincter (AES) in singing. In practical singing terms, this creates forward resonance, or brightness. Twang is balanced with other darker resonance, and the balance can be created in a variety of ways. On one extreme you have sounds like Joanna Newsom’s in “This Side of the Blue,” using lots of twang and very little more open, dark resonance.

On the other extreme, you have the opera diva sound in Maury Yeston’s The Phantom with some brightness but much more dark resonance.

I’m not making a value judgment, just illustrating different ways resonances can be balanced.

All singing uses twang to some degree, but some genres tend to use a higher proportion than others. In country music and belty pop, for example, there’s typically a higher proportion of twang, while in classical singing and legit Broadway, there is a higher percentage of dark resonance added.

Country Twang

Country twang in singing is related to, but not exactly the same as Estillian twang. Country twang certainly uses a lot of forward resonance, but it usually refers specifically to singing with a southern dialect. A southern accent tends to use a lot of thin, drawn-out vowels, like “a” (as in cat), and emphasizing these vowels typically leads to an increase in Estillian twang. Country twang in singing can also refer to an abrupt register shift, either from belt to falsetto or vice versa–a sound reminiscent of a vibrating bow string after an arrow is released.

Hope I didn’t lose you! If you have questions, post in the comments below.

In an upcoming post, we’ll teach you how to sing with twang.