To belt or not to belt, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler on the gig to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous demands, or to take arms against a sea of laziness and bad habits, and, by opposing them, end them. I think you know where I stand on this one. I refuse to recognize the word “belt” as having anything whatsoever to do with singing. A belt is something with which to keep trousers at an honorable altitude. Period. Basta, Finem Disputatio.
Somewhere in the last few decades it has become an acceptable thing, even a compliment of sorts, to say of a performer, “Golly gee, Bobby can really belt out a tune, can’t he?” Well I think that words are important. Especially those words which are used to describe the subtle nuances inherent in the expressive arts. Which would you rather have said about you—that you can “really belt out a tune” or that you “sing with conviction and determination”? Are you a singer? Or are you a mere hitter of notes?
Yes, words are important. We talk to ourselves all the time. There is a constant conversation taking place between our ears and, as singers, we must be very careful what we say to ourselves. The more we hear ourselves, the more we tend to believe what we say and act accordingly. Every time you tell yourself, “Man, I’m really going to hit that high note” or “I’m going to belt the crap out of this chorus” you will be distancing yourself a step further from being a more effective singer.
There might be an element of instant gratification in hearing an audience go nuts on the high notes. But the folks at home don’t see the clown madly waving the applause sign for the live studio audience. An audience will always respond to a compelling performance. And a compelling performance, a truly artistic interpretation of a song has nothing to do with belting, note hitting or mindless imitation of a favorite artist. Vocal coaches, teachers and mentors should call belting by it’s accurate name, yelling. And yelling has a genuine downside—ask any high school cheerleader after a homecoming game.
I’ve discussed the Bernoulli effect and the mechanics of phonation in an earlier article which can be found by scrolling right. The vocal mechanism is a fragile piece of equipment which can be easily damaged. You wouldn’t catch Pablo Casals or Yo Yo Ma shooting arrows with their cello strings, and yet this is the way many singers abuse their instrument. The good news is that the human vocal mechanism is a dynamic and regenerative instrument. Once you break a cello string, it stays broken. But with care and thoughtful rehabilitation, a tired or damaged voice can be made whole again.
Let me first identify the way a vocal instrument can be damaged by belting. As described in the Bernoulli article, the vocal folds or cords are drawn toward each other by the flow of air exiting the lungs. Put your hands together in the typical praying position. Now clap them together softly and make the contact between your hands consistent from one clap to the next. Let your hands bounce apart easily and let them separate by distance of no more than two inches. All you are doing at this point is touching your hands together softly at regular intervals. This is a graphic depiction of what goes on in your throat when you sing a tone. If you were able to touch your palms together 440 times in one second, you would be making the note A-440.
Now, Increase the distance between your hands to about 12 inches and bring them together with a bit more force, maybe something you might use when showing appreciation for an intimate string quartet performance. Keep it going for a minute or two and you will start to feel your hands heat up. Now, really go for it. Mick Jagger just showed up at your local grocery store opening and you really want to show how much you dig him. Make some noise with your hands and keep it up for a minute or two. Now stop and place your palms on your cheeks. Feel the heat? Could you imaging how your hands would feel after an hour of this abuse?That is what yelling does to your vocal cords.
Movement is good. Allowing your vocal cords to freely go through their cycle of turbulence in the wind tunnel that is your throat promotes muscle tone, flexibility and blood circulation. The moment the cords are put under pressure, they begin to smack into each other violently as your hands did when clapping hard. But wait, there’s more. Our body structures tend to protect themselves. Shake hands with a carpenter or a mechanic if you want to get an idea of how the skin builds up a layer of calluses to protect the hand from daily abuse.
Put under the pressure of yelling, your vocal chords will respond in the same way. The points of contact will generate calluses. These hard calluses will prevent the surfaces of the opposing cords from making flush contact with each other. Press your hands together and hold them up to a light. Press them together so that no light comes through the seam between your hands. Now imagine the hard callused hands of a working farmer. There would be spaces between the calluses where light would shine through.
When this condition happens on the surface of the vocal cords, one could say there are nodes on the vocal cords. These nodes are not growths but symptoms of abuse and the condition can be alleviated. The human body is an amazingly regenerative machine—if we use it wisely.
This type of abuse of the vocal cords can be heard as a breathy or husky element in the voice. The breathy quality is actually a result of air escaping through the areas of daylight where the calluses don’t allow the surface of the cords to meet completely. It is not uncommon for the lower voice to tire easily. In many cases, the upper or falsetto voice can be particularly inhibited. When there is pain, burning or any uncomfortable physical sensation, it is best to stop using the voice. Talking, whispering, singing, any vocal activity other than calling a doctor should stop.
If, however, there is no discomfort and the abuse is indicated by only the husky breathiness, there are things that can be done. Remember the soft hand clapping exercise? This is what the voice wants. A regimen of head tone or falsetto exercises should be undertaken that will allow the cords to freely vibrate under minimal tension. These exercises should consist of very unchallenging vowel sounds and in whatever limited range the voice can reproduce comfortably. It is much better to repetitively sing over the five notes that feel good than to attempt rangy exercises at this point. This is a time to heal, not a time to test endurance. When the head tone exercises can be performed in clear bell-like tones without the husky, worn-out cheerleader vibe, then, and not before, it will be possible to actually build on the foundation.
The hardest part of building a great voice is the element of patience. YouTube is loaded with precocious preteens that “can really belt out a tune.” But that which makes Granny beam with pride at Thanksgiving isn’t always the thing that makes for a long career as a singer. Sing aggressively, sing with conviction and force. Sing your ass off. But save the belt for the trousers.