Blasting Back to the Past

In this month’s issue of Opera News there is an article about belting and the Sweetlands, (it’s called “The Family That Belts Together”) voice teacher and accompanist aged 90 and 95 respectively, and their son, middle aged. I have heard from more than one person over the past years, as I lead various workshops and master classes, conducted research and published articles, that Mr. Sweetland, (his first name is Lee) invented belting. Invented belted. Invented. Belting. !*!?$#*@!?@^$!!

This article really pushed my buttons. (What? Little calm, quiet old me?) It was absolutely full of nonsense and I was truly dismayed that the publication of record for classical singing would print such a dismal mess. I wrote to them the next day, but it is for naught, as what’s done is done.

For those of you who have access to it, I encourage you to read it on your own. For those who don’t, here are some of the pithier points.

First, Ethel Merman was not a belter. Nope. We don’t know what she was, but she wasn’t a belter. Too bad nobody told HER. When she knocked out Irving Berlin and Cole Porter singing their songs to the back of the theater with crystal clear diction, she actually had this little digital mike implanted in her collarbone and there was a speaker in her corset that broadcast through her dress…….oh, sorry, that’s the sci fi channel. Anyway, because La Merman could sing lightly and softly when she was young, she WASN’T a belter, except maybe when she was.

AND

Did you know that the belters to emulate are Betty Buckley (who went hoarse every single night in Sunset Boulevard), Patti Lupone who had vocal problems in Anything Goes, Idina Menzel who was in vocal trouble a couple of times while on Broadway and Alix Korey who says she belts (yells) with a low larynx……right. Not the vocal role models I want my students to hear.

And, did you know that opera singers use belt on their low notes? And that virtually everything is some form of speech, no matter what it is. Tell that to David Daniels. He is just using his speaking voice when he sings in his countertenor wonderfulness.

These poor folks are typical of older singers who were operatically trained and think there are two kinds of sounds, belt and “legit”/opera. If it ain’t opera, it must be belt. Anything that isn’t “bel canto” has to be CAN BELTO. They confuse chest register quality or speech with belting, they confuse screaming with belting, they can’t hear the difference between normal speech, screamed screechy yelling and head voice? Is there no difference between the G at the end of Defying Gravity in Wicked and the same G (top of the staff) in a classical soprano? They are both speech?

AAAARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGG!

And, Mr. Sweetland once “rescued” Barbra Streisand long ago when she wasn’t doing too well during a recording session. We don’t know how, exactly, and we don’t know if she thinks he rescued her, or if he actually did, because she didn’t have a chance to respond in this article…..which would have been nice because I have heard of a whole bunch of folks who claim to have “taught” La Streisand and I have also heard that she claims she didn’t study with anyone…..so what does one believe?

So, for the record, let me say it again.

Belting is chest register carried up across the tradition break at E/F/G above Middle C at a LOUD volume. Speaking voice quality, otherwise known as modal voice, is chest register (Thyro-arytenoid or vocalis function) and can be carried above the break with much less effort than belting requires and is the basis for most singing styles that do not require powerhouse volume. Classical music is head register(Crico-thryoid)dominant production, although very high sopranos and countertenors use almost no chest register, very low basses use very little head register, and baritones and tenors carry a certain amount of chest register into their high tones, depending upon the type of instrument they have. The vowel sound quality that can be sung in a chest register dominant position is just as variable as that of the vowels that can be produced in head register dominant singing, provided the system is free and relatively unstressed. If someone is singing primarily in chest register, they are not belting, they are just singing in chest register. Why is his hard to understand? A belter who is good doesn’t HAVE to belt, he or she can sing softly, too. That’s what makes it good singing, for pity sake!!! (And, yes, men belt. Think of Al Jolson, think of the men in Jesus Christ Superstar.)

As to who invented belting….well let’s see. There are the Mexican Mariachi singers and the Spanish Flamenco singers, and the Bulgarian women and the Africans of many nations and the Gospel singers in the South, and there are the Moslem Muezzins calling people to worship, to name few. There were Judy Garland and Betty Hutton and Carol Burnett, and Joe E. Brown and some people might even include Bruce Springsteen. There’s Patti LaBelle and Tina Turner and James Brown and Christina Aquilera. The list goes on. Do you think they all somehow met Mr. Sweetland, or one of the other people who claim to have invented belting? How about one of the people who claims to have THE method to teach it. You think maybe these singers have found those people to tell them that they were belting? Maybe they have all studied with Seth Riggs!

The Sweetlands may well be very nice people and good teachers. I wish them well in their ninth decade. BUT, in this profession, we can no longer afford nonsense put forth as fact. We cannot get anywhere if we let people who do not understand vocal function make up ideas about what they think is happening, without regard to some kind of objective information to back up what they say. We can’t get anywhere if every teacher feels free to make up any and all terminology and label things the way they see fit, regardless. Someone has to say, “wait a minute……let’s take a look at that and see if it makes sense with other things with know”. Maybe it shouldn’t be me, but I don’t see a whole lot of other people standing in line to take my place….unless maybe it might be one of you reading this. What about it?

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