The Confusion About Belting

Why there is so much confusion about belting? Why is everyone so confused?

There are quite a few “research oriented” teachers who either teach belting from a “I don’t do it but the students can” point of view (!), or “I can teach belting even though I could never belt myself” attitude, or a “belting is just shouting and singing in the nose” idea, who are quite willing to “define”or explain belting for others. Some of these teachers do not sound very acceptable as classical singers, so you can only wonder how they have the nerve to explain or teach belting in any form. There are also singers who belt very well but do not know a thing about vocal function or voice science so their ability to describe what they are doing is very limited. It may be that they are very good at doing the sound but have no idea how to explain to others what that “doing” is.

There are other reasons why there is no clear-cut definition of belting. A good many of the people who have tried to “define” or “explain” belting have:

a) only perceived it “from the outside”
b) not looked at registration as being a key ingredient in belting
c) not understood “chest register” as a component in vocal fold response, or a function of vocal fold behavior coupled with a specific (aural) sound quality, but think of it as a kind of “resonance” (or vowel sound) behavior
d) never gone by, or even been interested in, what the marketplace was seeking (as found on Broadway, where the term was originally coined in the 20s or 30s)*
[*I consider this a very important issue on its own.]

In my opinion, so much of what is now “accepted” as research on belting should not have been, but there was no one around “back in the day” to dispute what early research was done, by one person in particular. When I raise this issue at various congresses, I am seen as griping in a “sour grapes” way. I can assure you that that is not the case. If I thought that what had been published was all very reasonable and highly accurate, I would have been just fine with that. However, I, like most of the NYC teachers who were already teaching belting, didn’t go along with the precepts presented because we didn’t think the sound was good or even viable, and certainly it didn’t sound healthy. Unfotunately, what didn’t make sense 30 plus years ago still does not. It added to the confusion about belting, and that confusion continues to grow.

Research done on just one person (including the paper done on me) isn’t particularly representative of a larger population, particularly if the research subjects are primarily teachers and not working singers. Research done on college students or faculty or on those who are emerging professionals without longstanding careers, isn’t representative either.

In research done on one person, in some cases by that same person, you can get a good representative model, as some of the new researchers have, or you can get a very skewed model, as I believe was the case in the original research.

The research that was done on me in Sweden in the late 80s was criticized because I was the only subject and what I did may not have been the same as what others did. I refuted some of these criticisms by establishing that my sounds were representative of the marketplace. In that research, I sang with the same sounds I had made in performances of music theater material. The shows were all done in Connecticut. The qualities were: belting — Ella in “Bells Are Ringing”, legit soprano and mix in Magnolia in “Show Boat” and Marian in “The Music Man”. I also sang these vocal qualities in the shows I did after I came to New York City in 1975. I was in a children’s musical (pop/rock, mix), a choral presentation (folk, mix), and sang at Riverside Church and Marble Collegiate Church as section leader in the soprano section. There were other performances, but it varied in a similar manner. I took my vocal cues from the New York professional productions in which I was cast or from the concert hall or religious liturgy.

I cite these examples to indicate that I was singing in vocal qualities that were accepted by the marketplace as being OK. If they had not been, I would not have worked or been cast in anything. The marketplace determined what it wanted. Since I was self-employed, I was highly motivated to sing in a way that got me work.

Unfortunately, much of the early research done on belting was not accompanied by audio recordings of the examples being studied or evaluated when being submitted for peer review. The author of a large number of these research studies used herself as the subject, deciding that what she was doing was belting. When I heard her sing these examples, I was stunned. It certainly wasn’t belting to me. It was a squeezed shout. It didn’t sound like anyone I had heard on Broadway or anywhere else. Nevertheless, the scientists who accepted her research and allowed it to be published must have taken her word that what she did was representative of belting. They would not have known if they had heard her whether or not it was good or bad, market viable or not. The statistics were given and they were accepted and published but no one talked about the market viability or the health of her vocal examples, or the pertinence of her terminology.

She chose to use the word “twang” to describe the quality she assigned to belting. This word, for years used in Nashville to connote the sound as found in that area of the country in its music, was meant to reflect the sound of a plucked banjo string. The Broadway word (and remember, it was on Broadway that the term belting was first used) was “brassy”, as in a trumpet. Ethel Merman’s voice was “brassy” and she carried like a trumpet…..clearly, and with energy, right to the back of the house. A plucked banjo string does NOT sound like a trumpet, but to this one researcher, it was the same thing. Not good. I consider this a very important issue on its own.

Without basing the research on a large population of professional belters, or even trying to find a small group of these individuals to investigate, a rather large body of “research” was published that was based on a skewed perception of what was being investigated. The work has been around a long time now and has influenced many people all over the world. It isn’t that all of what she looked at was wrong or not useful, it’s just that the “OK” stuff and the “not OK” stuff were lumped together with no one there to clarify what worked and what did not.

There are other issues involved here.

If you have people who do not belt well as subjects, if you have researchers who do not know what the belt sound should be, if you do research without also having experts listen to submitted examples (typically, there are no audio files for singing research evaluation, just written data), and if you do not care whether or not the marketplace where belting is found matters, how can that be good? Can you imagine people studying opera who had no idea what good operatic voices sound like? What if the evaluators couldn’t tell the difference between Renee Fleming and Florence Foster Jenkins? Well, that’s what we’ve had in a lot of the belting research.

There are other factors at work, too, in published belt research. The senior scientists factor into what has been presented about belting, but not always in a way that has been helpful. This matters because their input into this issue has a significant impact.

Belting as it existed in past times can be quite different than it is now. This difference is pretty much ignored by everyone who is looking into research. To them, all belting is the same. I make the analogy of “early music”. In the 50s and 60s, Handel was considered an early music composer and was sung, pretty much, at least here in NYC, by very light voices in a straight tone. That was the expectation about style. After Beverly Sills did her Cleopatra in the 70s at City Opera, the style expectations began to change and now we have Renee Fleming and David Daniels filling the Met with substantial sound, and both have vibrato. Things change. High rock belters do not sound exactly like Al Jolson or Ethel Merman, two of the most well known early American belters.

Some researchers, in Europe, Asia or South America, are using their native singers singing American music in CCM styles, but without regard to their historic American roots or to any accurate, USA-based, professionally accepted, standard performance practices about any one style. Some of these people have published research on belting and, therefore, their work has been accepted by the larger “voice world”, not so much on its own terms but because of who guided the research. In other words, if you use non-native American singers who perform American gospel or R&B songs in Sao Paulo, Tokyo, Amsterdam or Stockholm, and you have no idea how the songs are/were intended to be performed in the USA, you may not actually know that your research subjects are not producing what the world marketplace would consider professionally viable sounds, musically speaking. In many cases, if a young researcher is being guided by someone with a recognized profile in research, that probably counts more than almost anything else in getting published, for political reasons. If the research mentors don’t know the difference, and many do not, and if they do not actually try to find out what the marketplace expectations are, and many do not try because they do not care, everyone involved in the peer review then assumes the research singing excerpts are acceptable, when they may not be. If the paper is then published, then it has just replicated the problem of the original research from decades ago. This does not contribute to the clarity of information being gathered about belting.

As long as academia and science are deciding what [they think] belting is or isn’t, without conducting research “in the field” alongside professional belters of long standing and experienced casting directors or producers who can corroborate for the researchers that the person claiming to be a belter, is, in fact, a belter of high quality, and one who understands whatever style is being performed, we are in still in trouble. I realize that this may be very hard to do, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t have been done in the first place or that it should continue to be not done now. A real researcher will deal with the difficulties somehow or other.

So, confusion continues to reign.

If no one writes about all of this in a significant publication, it will never get addressed and corrected. Maybe 100 years from now someone will dig around and realize, “Hey, this was never right in the first place” like they do presently with assumptions about dinosaurs, (archeologists are changing what they thought they knew about dinosaurs virtually every day), and rectify it with newer knowledge. [I can only hope].

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4 thoughts on “The Confusion About Belting”

  1. I think the confusion lies in the fact that we qualify several different aesthetics as belt. Sutton/Patti/Sherie Renee–all belters and all clearly different aesthetically, and also studying with the same teacher who was a student of the specific researcher and teaches using her findings. Your work is wonderful, but your prejudice is the objective of this article, and it could be about your work and clearing up confusion as the title suggests.

  2. I do not understand your comment. Are you saying that my prejudice is showing in the article? (How could it be missed?) Are you saying that I should say what I do to teach belting? (That wasn’t the point of this article.) Are you saying that I should clear up the confusion in some specific way? If so, what way did you have in mind?

    The people cited here (Foster, Lupone, Scott) might all study with the same teacher but the musical styles they sing demand different things in the vocal production. Amneris wouldn’t make the same sounds as Gypsy. I doubt whether Lupone or Foster could have sung Amneris, but I don’t doubt that Scott could sing Gypsy and Reno without issue.

    All three women sing very well as belters but they are not all making exactly the same belt sound. The point of the article was to say that this is generally not acknowledged because of the pervasive attitude that “all belting is the same” and that is simply not true.

  3. I don’t think ANYONE would disagree with US that there are many different qualities of belt. I think this, and the attempts at naming them subjectively is what is causing all the confusion, NOT that anyone argues that all belt is the same.

    Luckily, we have observed the larynx and vocal tract under endoscopy, MRI, and the like and understand better than ever how different vocal aesthetics are created.

    The greatest common denominator observed in the variety of aesthetics that we call belt is that the vocal folds are thickened by the assistance of the cricoid cartilage (which you can feel with your finger as a widening in the cricothyroid ‘visor’ between the cricoid and thyroid cartilages). This explains the extended closed quotient (as seen through EGG) and the resulting decrease in breath flow.

    My analysis may not be understood by everyone, but it can act as a launching point for investigation if anyone wants to actually clear up confusion rather than just state opinion. I welcome evidence to the contrary.

    My comment about prejudice is not in regards to what you practice and believe, but how negatively you feel about what others teach. This blog entry is actually a backhanded complement at those who you mean to criticize. It certainly sparks my curiosity to find what may be accurate about their theories while you haven’t provided any–just theirs.

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