Chest Register/Belting

Most people sing in an undifferentiated mix. This means they have a middle voice but not much energy either very high or very low in whatever range they have. Training is supposed to develop the response of the instrument such that it can go higher and lower with ease. A few people have a powerful lower register and no top and a few people have a strong top and no bottom. Most people, however, are middle of the roaders. They can be very talented and have really good careers, so remember that those issues are separate things.

Classical training which emphasizes relaxation (yawn-sigh) produces a head dominant sound that is “silky” and “spinning”, beautiful and sweet, but not particularly dramatic. Configuring the sound to be “forward” makes it crispier and clear, but not warm. Allowing the sound to open up by making deliberate space in the back of the velo-pharyngeal port gives it depth but clarity of words can be sacrificed. If the voice is robust to begin with, this doesn’t much matter. (A lot of people didn’t like Joan Sutherland’s diction but it certainly didn’t interfere with her being declared one of the greatest sopranos of all time.)

Classical training like this, which deliberately avoids any direct use of “chest voice” or “chest resonance” or “heavy mechanism” makes for voices which can handle rapid scales and embellishments, jumps and leaps, trills and ornaments, and keeps the voice light (think Cecilia Bartoli). Classical training that “engages” the lower mechanism produces a powerful, cutting sound, a great deal of energy or brilliance and sturdiness (think Marilyn Horne), but can make soft singing and runs tricky (not impossible if the work is balanced with other things). Those with an active “chest register” must work on blending it into the middle, as they quickly find out if they do not, that they can’t go very high in a resonant sound.

The rest of the singing world who work on making the voice “more resonant” with whatever amount of sound develops through use of it in various exercises, music and breathing development may not address either register in any clear and deliberate manner. Is it any wonder, then, that when we go to belting, there is confusion?

True belting is chest voice, speaking voice, lower register, modal quality, or whatever else you want to call that sound carried up above the traditional “break” at about G above middle C, at a loud volume. [And let’s add here that we mean carried easily and freely above the break, otherwise you are just shouting.] If you do not have such a register, and believe me, a lot of professional singers do not, and you have not worked to cultivate it deliberately, (and even more people have not done that), you cannot possibly understand what true belting is. If you take a light speaky sound across the break and make it brighter by driving the sound towards the nose you will get a poor imitation of a belt sound and you WILL be confused about what belting actually is. If you don’t do any of this at all, well, stay out of the discussion, please.

True chest register occurs at the bottom of a person’s pitch range, but that supposes the person has knowledge of what is reasonable to expect as a pitch range in each voice category. If you are a tenor who can barely sing C below middle C at mezzo forte, you do not have an active chest register. YOU DON’T. If you had worked on your lowest pitches until they developed strength and power, fullness and depth without force or exertion in the throat, your entire voice would be different. To do this takes a great deal of time and cannot be worked on in isolation. It has to be coupled with other exercises so that the various ingredients in the responses of the vocal mechanism are all being attended to simultaneously, and none of this has to do with what happens in repertoire. If you were going to be a belter you would only be able to belt in a kind of light mixy chest which would take you up pretty far but would never be really cutting and “edgy”. In other words, not really a belt.

To some extent the work being done has to do with an individual instrument, the person’s age and experience, the kind of music they want to sing, their willingness to work and the amount of time being put into study. Lower voices can rise, high voices can learn to get lower, soft voices can become stronger and strong voices can develop flexibility. THAT is what training is supposed to be about. All of these kinds of behaviors require a strong body, an open and robust rib cage and belly muscles that are coordinated with the rib cage during the making of the sound itself and none of this work is a substitute for the sound — for what happens in the muscles within the throat, and within THE LARYNX. People who do not belt can learn how. Natural belters can learn to make others sounds. That is what training is supposed to be about. All of this can and should be healthy singing.

At master classes, I often encounter people who will tell me they are belters when, in fact, they are mixers. They don’t know they aren’t belting. They do not know that they do not have the real heft and power that a true belt voice has. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t sing. It doesn’t mean they should not perform or that they are not talented or that they are not artists. No. It doesn’t mean any of that. It does mean, however, that they cannot judge what belting is by what they do. They only way they would know that is to understand function as it applies to what is being HEARD by others AND someone would have to show them how much more chest register was available if they actually worked on developing it at the bottom (where it belongs) before they could produce the sound that they THOUGHT they were producing. That alone, and nothing else, is what would inform them.

I don’t see this confusion going away any time soon. Even the people who are working with this topic every day and who understand it often get lost and confused because we are always stuck, in the end, with words describing sounds. Sound production is subjective in that every person singing experiences that in a uniquely person manner, but vocal sound quality has recognizable characteristics for all human beings (no one mistakes a person for an elephant). I return always to the hope that there are singers out there who can belt or not, who can sing “legit” or not, who can sing “mixy” when they need to, and who know the difference between all that and “style” and “emotion”. THOSE individuals should get together sometime and talk about what they do and how and everybody else should take whatever they say as THE REAL DEAL.

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3 thoughts on “Chest Register/Belting”

  1. How high can a belter carry her belt up before she is forced to start mixing or runs out of room? I feel a texture change around B-C above middle C. Am I still belting? Or has that turned into chest mix?

    1. If you are allowing the throat to slightly adjust as you go, you will probably feel that shift at about the B-C the octave above middle C. Beyond that, the sound has to change if it is going to keep going without going to full head. The amount of change is a combination of how you shape the vowel, the amount of breath pressure at the level of the vocal folds, the vocal fold vibratory pattern and the actual volume of the sound. Patti LaBelle says she can belt a high C. She’s been around a long time, so I don’t argue with her on that point. Most people, however, top out at either the C5 (octave above mid C) or the F/G at the top of the staff. Much depends on your physiology, your training and your conditioning through singing and training.

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