To Belt or Not To Belt – when to belt in a musical theatre song

To Belt or Not To Belt - when to belt in a musical theatre song_550
Photo Credit: Family MWR via cc
Always give them the old fire, even when you feel like a squashed cake of ice.
Ethel Merman
There’s nothing wrong with belting. When done the right way it won’t damage your voice.
Today’s young singers hear belting all the time on the radio and think it is the right way to create a powerhouse song, the likes of Mariah, Whitney, Celine and Christina are all big ole’ belters and give the impression that the right way to emote through a song is with a lot of loud belting.
However inexperienced singers and belters occasionally believe that belting entails singing at 110% for the duration and it just ends up sounding like you are screaming your way through the entire song.

What is belting?

Belting isn’t screaming. Belting is not even always chest voice.
Real belting is pushing your chest voice into head voice range, it takes practise and technique and can be learnt. Once you have it mastered it is vital that you don’t overdo it.
It’s so important as a young belter to not push it and give more than you have, this will just be a sure-fire way to damage your voice in the long run.

What do casting directors mean by ‘belting’?

In musical theatre there is no real voice classification system (like there is in classical music) so descriptions can just get ‘made up’ as they cast the show. As you never know what type of voice a new show is going to call for, you’re better off just being yourself and singing the way you normally do.
When a casting director asks for a powerhouse song sometimes they are looking for power belters, but they also could just be looking for someone with a non-classical sound – a sound which is more like speech – and they might generically call it ‘a belt piece’, other casting directors and musical directors might call it a contemporary sound.
Casting directors, directors and musical directors quite simply want to hear artists, not just loud singing.

Most Musical Theatre ‘Stars’ have help with their belt!

I know I’m known for singing some of those high notes, but that’s really not what giving someone goosebumps is all about. It’s about really trying to find what makes you unique.
Idina Menzel
Younger singers often forget that actors and singers in professional musical theatre are nearly always using microphones or head-mics.
Amplification gives power to a voice that could never come from just the throat alone.
Obviously there are some amazing singers out there with incredible and huge belt voices, but those tend to be the superstars.
For every superstar belter, there are many other professional musical theatre actors who work night after night on stage but will rely on a microphone for their belting power.

Videos of how controlled singing and occassional belting can add light and shade to your performance

Watch and listen to these YouTube videos and pay close attention to the levels of volume, tonal qualities and variations, and variety of expression which the various singers find in the song.
A good idea is to print out the lyrics to the songs and write numbers between 1 and 10 throughout the video to match the volume levels which you hear the singer using throughout the YouTube clip. What I am hoping is that you will be surprised at how few times the singer will hit volume 10.
These musical theatre singers are not ‘belting’ out a song, they are colouring the songs with warmth and shade and really acting the song, this is something which with practise I hope you will be able to do too.
Rachel Tucker demonstrates how using a mix belt adds power and originality to Defying Gravity without overdoing it
Stephanie J. Block from 9 to 5: The Musical performs “Get Out and Stay Out”. This song is full of anger and emotion which could become a belt-fest in less experienced hands. Look for when and where she uses her belt and to what effect.
Asmeret Ghebremichael from Book Of Mormon sings the highly emotional Now That I’ve Seen Her from Miss Saigon, watch how she keeps the emotion in check and keeps her belt under control.
When people think of belting in musical theatre, they often think of Elphaba in Wicked. Here Broadway Elphaba Dee Roscioli sings a medley – take note of the light and shade she brings to the songs.
Singing coach Mary Setrakian sings the emotional Winner Takes It All from Mamma Mia, look for when and where she belts and understand why.
Katherine McPhee in the tv series Smash shows how to add story and emotion to a usually overbelted pop song.
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