"Just Mozart"

Suppose I said to you, “This song is not hard to sing, after all, it’s just Mozart”. Or maybe I said to you, “I don’t see what all the fuss is about, it’s just an aria by Verdi”. If you were a good classical vocalist, you might look at me and wonder and rightfully so. You could put any of the great composers there….it’s just Schubert, or Brahms, or Faure or Ravel.

This attitude implies that it’s no big deal, really, to sing the music of these composers well. It just requires a bit of finesse and then you’re OK. I doubt, however, if you spoke to any of the major artists who sing recitals and opera on the great stages of the world that any of them would use “just” in front of their endeavors to bring the fullness of their vocal art to the works of these composers and poets.

Yet I encounter this same attitude all the time in regards to contemporary commercial music, particularly in relationship to belting. People with no life experience, no training and no clue about what it takes to do a role on Broadway in this vocal style think that you can teach it, “no problem” after reading a book or watching someone teach it in a master class. After all, they say, “it’s just belting”. You yell a little, you sing in your nose, and that’s that.

Is is any wonder then, that young singers end up with constriction and stiffness, increased vocal fold pathology and no ability at all to express emotion authentically in belted songs? If you think that this sound can be tossed off blithely in a young singer, while at the same time the same person is also expected to sing classical songs without issue, then I would like to dissuade you from that thought. For every one natural belter I have encountered 99 who are not, and who have either been taught something that is just plain wrong or even something that is actually harmful, if not to the voice then to their artistry.

Some people think that screaming is belting and belting is screaming, but that opinion comes from ignorance. Linda Eder is not screaming but she is one of the best belters you will ever hear. If you listen to Lea Delaria, whose voice is louder than you could possibly imagine unless you hear her live, you could not possibly think that this voice was also going to sing an aria and sound good, but boy, can she belt. I refuse to accept the idea that belting or any style of CCM that asks for it is “just” anything. I really insist that the vocal quality being asked for in a belt song be made in a way that is healthy and musical as well as emotionally viable.

My colleague at Shenandoah, Edrie Means Weekly, is an amazing singer. Her opera arias are just fabulous but her belting is as good as it could be. She taught herself to make the belt sound and she can also sing a great mix. She isn’t the only person who has this capacity, but she is absolutely rare in the high quality she brings to what she sings in every style. I would say that she makes it look easy, but she worked to learn what she is doing. The “ease” part comes from practice and years of experience. When she belts, she is NOT screaming. The sound is musical and expressive, as it should be. It is my experience that it takes time, months and years, working diligently and consistently to belt well and be strong enough for it to hold up to professional standards in a show, either 8 times a week or on the road in a tour.

If you are a classically trained person, maybe someone who understands voice science or knows a lot about vocal pedagogy, and you believe that you understand belting but do not, yourself, belt in music and have not sung in this sound in front of knowledgeable experts who think it holds up to a decent standard, and you teach belting anyway, please have the decency to tell the truth about it and admit to your student that you are, at best, guessing at what you are teaching. And if you run into a belter who has been asked to teach a song by Mozart or an aria by Verdi and who thinks it’s no big deal, because, after all, “it’s just classical music”, take a look in the mirror before you protest.

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