Photo of Chicago by Bob Sanders, Auburn University, 2018.
This article contains excerpts from a larger study. The full study can be accessed by contacting the author.
During the last half of the twentieth century, the number of high schools presenting musicals has steadily increased (Williams 1). While teachers on the collegiate level have begun to teach specific vocal methods to produce healthy belting, pop/rock styles, and so on, high school teachers often lack training in these areas. As a result, high school students, whose voices are still developing, are often left on their own to navigate the different vocal productions required for choral music vs. musicals, or legit training vs. belting, for example.
The vocal music industry has yet to adopt a common pedagogical definition of "belting." Through the years, several pedagogues have attempted to define the term: In 1988, Estill taught that belting is created, in part, by a nasal placement and described it as loud and brassy or sounding like yelling (38). Sullivan, in 1989, described many different types of belt, including the use of terms such as split-belt, twang, or nasal (42-45). Miles and Hollien based their definition of belt on four perceptual judgments of sound: loud, heavy phonation, little-to-no vibrato, and a high degree of nasality (65). LeBorgne (2001) used the words chest, pop, and mixed singing to describe belting. Tucker used three definitions for vocal styles utilized in musical theater: legit as in the style of nineteenth century operetta, mix as a melding of the chest and head registers, and belt-mix: a type of belt in which the larynx is held in a lower position, resulting in less tension (Tucker 11, 19-20).
For the purpose of this article, the following parameters will be used to define belting as it applies to the female voice: the vocal tract is in a shorter and wider configuration with a slightly raised larynx; the corners of the mouth are retracted, or slightly pulled wide and back towards the ears, as if smiling, which helps shape a bright, present sound. Most pedagogues do agree that safe production of belt requires concentrated core muscular support and high amounts of energy (LoVetri, 2003; Popeil; Estill).
In women, belt can be produced in two ways. Each of these methods is dependent on the balance among the cartilages and muscles housed in the throat and surrounding the vocal folds. These muscles and cartilages are in a constant state of change when the vocal folds are active. It is the balance of these muscles and cartilages at any given point in time that determines, in part, what pitch is being produced and the quality of the sound. When the muscles and cartilages known as the thyroarytenoids are predominately used, the resulting sound is heavier in timbre. This is referred to as a heavy mechanism. When the muscles and cartilages known as the cricoarytenoids are predominately used, the resulting sound is lighter in timbre. This is referred to as a light mechanism by several researchers, among them LeBorgne, McKinney, and Estill. Therefore, one style of belting is when a heavy mechanism is carried as high as possible, usually topping out at C5. It employs very limited use of the light mechanism. The other style is created when a mix of the heavy and light mechanism occurs in the mid-range, usually beginning around F#4. Allowing a gradual mixing from the heavy mechanism to the light mechanism allows the belt quality to be carried higher, sometimes even as high as A5. This method of production is often called the mix-belt. It is difficult for the adolescent to produce either style due to the immature vocal mechanism and the limitations of the developing voice (Tucker). Therefore, for the purposes of the article, no differentiation will be made between the heavy belt and the mix belt; both qualities will be referred to as belt.
Belting technique has struggled for respect among classical voice teachers. This is, in part, because the term belting has often been used to mean an unhealthy use of the vocal mechanism. In 1990, Miles and Hollien presented an essay on belting. Although they admitted that their findings were based solely on their observations and not on empirical study, they suggested that belting was an extension of the chest voice into higher registers than "normal," and said that the voice would break or crack at C5 due to the inability of the larynx to remain in a raised and tilted position at that pitch (65). They also promoted the idea that belting was an inborn characteristic, reserved for extraordinary voices, and not something that was teachable (69-70). Fortunately, later researchers presented information that healthy belting can, in fact, be taught (among them Sabella-Mills, Tucker, Hall, Melton, Ragsdale, LoVetri and Weekly, LeBorgne, and Schutte and Miller), and it is now known that the incident of vocal pathologies in belters and classical singers is approximately the same (LeBorgne 2011, 12). Unfortunately, the perception that belting can be detrimental, even dangerous, still persists in many vocal studios.
For many classical pedagogues, much of the criticism of belting is based on a personal dislike of the auditory and acoustic properties rather than authenticated study of how the sound is produced (Ragsdale 33; Bevan 23). Many classical teachers simply dislike the brightness of the musical theater sound (Noone 27). In an article written for the Journal of Singing, Edwin noted that what is considered beautiful singing is still judged by classical standards (39). It only has been in the last several decades that the use of the belt voice has gained validation through scientific study.
Although LeBorgne’s 2001 dissertation did not focus specifically on the high school experience, it warrants examination here as a definitive study on belt. LeBorgne’s study examined two aspects of the belt voice: perceptual and objective. The perceptual part focused on defining aspects of what makes a belt voice aesthetically pleasing. The objective part featured a comparison of the elite or professional belter with the average belter. LeBorgne’s study was large, examining 16 research questions. The study used 20 female subjects that sang primarily in the belt style. The subjects were all enrolled in a musical theater performance course of study at several major universities, and they had all actively been studying belt technique for at least a year.
LeBorgne first made an audio recording of all the singers singing several musical theater selections that utilized belt. These recordings were then rated by three judges on seven perceptual parameters. In the discussion section of her study, LeBorgne took the quantifiable findings from the results section and used them to define perceptual characteristics of the belt as a method of developing best practices. The elements of loudness, intensity, vibrato, use of the Singer’s Ring, timbre, focus, clarity, nasality, and registration were used to characterize a belt "sound" to which teachers and students should subscribe. The implications for study suggested that if teachers and students can agree on the definition of how belt is produced, it would provide a common language for further research and aid in the development of a methodology for the teaching of belt.
Tucker was very aware of the issues of musical theater belting and the young singer. He noted that an inexperienced singer will try to push the belt too high, so the vocal folds are not able to correctly elongate and thin. In fact, he writes, "In an adolescent voice with limited vocal training and endurance, the risk of misuse is high (in any vocal style)" (21). Tucker also noted that "There is not a great deal of material that deals with the teaching of musical theater to high school students specifically" (84). Outside of a choir, the musical is often the only other performance venue available to the high school singer, however, since choir has its roots in classical vocal tradition, Tucker points out that it is not helpful in preparing students for musical theater style.
While most studies of the adolescent voice agree that the voice is in a fragile and transitional state, little effort has been made to train secondary school teachers in music theatre singing pedagogy. Williams engaged in a study that examined the responsibilities and preparation of secondary music educators in teaching musical theater. Williams found that 84.6% of the schools surveyed performed a musical at least once every other year. The majority of the work in vocal direction (80.2%) was assigned to music teachers. Of vocal-only teachers, 65.7% agreed that undergraduate course work prepared them to serve as vocal directors. However, only 22.4% of instrumental-only teachers agreed that undergraduate course work prepared them to work on musicals. Teachers who had a general music education degree reported undergraduate preparation for musical theatre at only 7.8%.
Neither the 1974, 2002, or 2013 recommendations of the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) included training in musical theater vocal pedagogy as part of the pre-service course work for music education majors. The requirements are only that the music educator be trained and accomplished in one major area of performance. In addition, the requirement for a vocal performance major is just for vocal pedagogy course work, but it does not specify style. The NASM requirements for musical theater majors call for "vocal production and technique sufficient to present complete roles in full production" (Handbook 158), but do not specify a particular vocal style.
In an attempt to further clarify the use of belt by adolescents, and the high school musical in general, this author developed a survey comprised of 114 questions sorted into three sections. Section One served to collect demographic information including the subject’s in-service teaching assignments. Content was written that examined how much classroom experience music educators had and what courses they taught at their specific high school. Section Two examined knowledge and opinions of high school music educators regarding the use of musical theater belt as a style and the use of belt by female (ages 13-19) adolescent singers. Section Three collected information regarding the subject’s undergraduate course work such as private voice lessons or vocal pedagogy and training in the use of belt. Each section consisted of a five-point Likert-scale or simple yes/no responses. Each question was followed by an open-ended question that allowed (an optional) written response by the subject.
The participants in this study were choral music educators who were members of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) in the state of Ohio. The population of this study was limited to choral music educators (middle-school through professional level) as representative of educators that would have both an undergraduate degree in teaching music and would have received some type of vocal music training as part of that degree.
The findings showed that most respondents had 6-10 years of teaching experience. The number of Master’s degrees was slightly less than double the number of Bachelor’s degrees, and there were 4 Doctoral degrees. Seventy-one percent (71%) of respondents were female and twenty-nine percent (29%) were male. Many different types of choirs were represented by the respondents, including traditional, show, jazz, a cappella, gospel, and contemporary pop. Subjects came from multiple teaching backgrounds, including vocal music, instrumental music, general music, or a combination of two or three areas. Several respondents teach voice privately, but most subjects indicated that private lessons in the school setting only occurred around the annual solo and ensemble adjudicated events.
A majority, nearly 87.4%, reported they are involved with their high school's musical. Over eighty-five percent (85.6%) provide vocal direction and approximately sixty-seven percent (67.2%) of subjects also conduct the pit orchestra. A large percentage (86.2%) reported knowing what belt meant and 43.7% of subjects reported feeling confident in teaching it. The percentages were not as high for knowledge-based questions about belting. Sixty-two percent (62%) knew that belting is not the same as chest voice and 28.4% agreed with the statement that belting is more strenuous on the voice than classical singing. There was disagreement on two questions: first, that belting causes damage to the vocal mechanism and second, whether belting is produced using a nasal placement. A large percentage (92.2%) agreed that belting can be taught and 77.8% were able to identify that belting is a style, not a classification of the female voice.
The final five questions of Section 2 focused specifically on the use of different vocal types by adolescent females. The first three questions asked if it was appropriate for adolescent females to sing in the style of opera, legit musical theater, and belt. The remaining two questions asked it if was safe for adolescent females to sing in the bel canto style or belt. A little over seventy-eight percent (78.5) of subjects felt it was appropriate for adolescent females to sing in the non-belt musical theater style (commonly known as legit) and 73.7% felt it was appropriate for adolescent females to sing in the bel canto style. However, only 26.3% of subjects felt it was appropriate for adolescent females to sing in the belt style. Several provided written comments which gave further clarification. Most subjects who provided comments stated it would be inappropriate for adolescent females to sing opera. However, approximately half of the responses to the other four questions were some version of "if done correctly." Only a few responses focused on the preparedness or maturity of the young voice to sing in any style. It is of interest that music educators would feel it inappropriate for young female adolescent singers to sing in one vocal style yet seem to feel there is room for the utilization of other styles that have been shown in the research to be equally, if not more so, strenuous on the voice (LeBorgne 2001, 189).
Responses to questions regarding the sort of training subjects received as part of their undergraduate experience were revealing. Slightly over ninety-two percent (92.2%) of subjects had a degree in music education and 97% hold state licensure in music. When asked if they studied applied voice in college, 85% said yes, although the amount of time was not specified. Most of the subjects studied in the classical style (98.6%). Only 9.2% studied belt, and 59.3% studied in the musical theater legit style.
A higher-than-expected number of subjects (49.6%) reported that their college had a musical theater voice specialist, but only 15.6% reported having studied with that teacher. A little over seventy-six percent (76.5%) of subjects reported having taken a vocal pedagogy class, but only 11.1% of those who took the class received any information regarding belt. Zero percent (0%) reported taking a class in belting, but 20.1% reported attending classes or workshops focused on belting and 28% reported reading material that focused on belting. It was interesting to discover that 43.7% of subjects felt confident in their ability to teach belt, even though only 9.2% of subjects had personally studied in the belt style.
This study revealed many avenues for further research on this topic. One of the major areas to examine would be what influences the way educators feel about belting. Further research could focus on developing a method to determine if beliefs and understanding of belt are based on knowledge, misinformation, or fear. It would be worth replicating the original study with a different population, either vocal music educators in other states or those who identify themselves specifically as high school theater/musical theater educators.
Another strand of research would be to follow the success and longevity of graduates. High school students who have the opportunity to work with music educators who know how to properly teach belt might be more successful at getting into collegiate vocal programs or building professional careers. It would be enlightening to mine the beliefs and knowledge of the college professors who are training these high school teachers.
There is little in the literature regarding the use of belt by males. Indeed, there is disagreement as to whether men belt at all, or if they do belt, if it is vocally produced in the same manner as it is in females. It is unclear if the issues that are present for adolescent females are the same in adolescent males. Any study into the use of belt by males would indeed be exploratory and an entire strand of research in its own right.
Collegiate programs that train music educators need to add content regarding belt to their curricular requirements. The one written comment that appeared over and over again in my study was a recognition that more training was needed. Many subjects were aware of their personal lack of knowledge regarding the use of belt. Here are some sample comments:
As educators, we have an ethical and moral responsibility to provide best practices for our students. It therefore follows that we, as educators, must know those best practices. If the trend in the number of productions of high school level musicals continues, educators must be given the tools to guide young singers in good vocal practices.
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