Bad Choices

There is currently a new, and somewhat deadly, trend amongst teachers of singing who are open to the idea that belting is not harmful. It is this: if you want to belt, just sing loudly all the time, or sing in your nose. It is sounds bad, that’s OK, because that is what it is supposed to do.

This idea, surprisingly, throws away not only what has been solid vocal technique knowledge for a few hundred years, it also flies in the face of speech language pathology, yet there are many SLPs who have latched onto approaches that teach a screechy squawky belt sound as being just fine. You have to wonder where the common sense goes.

You also must know that I have discussed this topic at length with all of the top voice scientists in our field and they still do not understand or really know what belting is and who belters are. This is probably more scary to me than anything else. If these men (and we are talking about men only) do not know, then all whom they mentor are not going to know either. Think about that. When I told one of them that Connie Francis was a wonderful belter, he told me she was not a belter at all. What was she then, a classical singer? a folk singer? a gospel singer? A music theater singer? No, she was a warm, wonderful belter who sang with freedom and ease, same as Mimi Hines (same era). We think of belting as screaming because, in 2011, that’s what it has become in many styles, but that is a present moment phenomenon and doesn’t discount what belting was in the 1950s or even in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s when it was Ethel Merman, Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters who were doing the singing.

If you also consider that almost none of the research on professional singers has been conducted in the field, what do we have, really, in terms of research that reliably reflects the marketplace’s actual working conditions for these singers? Yes, people who have participated in some of the tests (including me) are professional (but not working at the moment professionals — rather, they are people who have been paid pros in the past) but many of the studies have been conducted either on students or faculty, because they are done at colleges as required papers. Some of the subjects of these papers should have never been considered professionals of any kind because they were not yet or had never been singers working in a well-known or accepted venue (particularly in CCM styles). There is no CV provided to say exactly what the credentials of the subjects were in terms of experience. You have to take the word of the researchers that the subjects were “professionals”.

If you base your teaching of belting on what you have read or what you have picked up at a workshop or two, then you will be lost when it comes to intelligent application, because any research you find may or may not help you, and little has been written about belting that makes any kind of sense with what is known about vocal function in a scientific manner.

So, is it any wonder then, that students are given belty material that is completely wrong for them? Some belted songs are simple and can be sung by anyone who has a strong sturdy speaking voice that carries over to singing without issue as long as the song isn’t too high in range. “Day by Day” from Godspell is the easiest “belty” song to start with. Almost anyone can sing it as printed, in that key. All one has to do is cut the endless repeats.

If, however, you give a student learn “Bye Bye, Mein Liebe Herr” from Cabaret, you had better know that the female is a good solid belter with a good wide range who is comfortable with sustained belt sounds and can also be provocative while singing. In other words, it’s not a song for a beginning belter or actress. Same, in my opinion, with “Maybe This Time”, “Don’t Rain On My Parade” and “Defying Gravity”. These are not songs for people who haven’t been belting, and belting well, for many years.

Classical singers are supposed to understand how to assign material that is suited to both voice type and weight. Younger voices do material that is not “too” anything (high, loud, sustained, complex, etc.) for a reason. If you assign “Adelaide” (Beethoven) to a first year voice student, it should be a very very unusual, exceptionally capable student, otherwise, the student is going to struggle.

This happens EVERY DAY all over the place and guess who gets blamed for having problems with intonation, breath control, resonance, legato, articulation and expressivity? Do you suppose it’s the teacher???????????

And, when you have to listen to someone screaming their way through a belt song, or singing a piece that was meant to be belted in a hooty soprano because she has been taught that “this is the correct way to use the voice in all music”, you have to feel sorry for the singer (the student). Teaching of this sort is not education. In a perfect world it wouldn’t exist or be tolerated.

If you assign a song to a student, young or old, know what kind of a song it is, what it takes in order to sing it well in terms of vocal technique and ability, and what it takes in terms of performance BEFORE you assign it. If you do not know, go find out. This is the day of Google and it isn’t hard to do the research. If you can’t assess what you are listening to and do not have a context to appreciate the criteria as I have described it here previously many times on this blog, then stay away from the material altogether until you learn how to handle it appropriately. Have the integrity to teach only what you know you know and do not guess. It doesn’t help you or the student, it disrespects the music, and it brings the profession down across the board.

Bad choices are bad. Learn what you need to in order to make all your choices good ones.

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