>Crank Up The Noise, Maestro

>I want to talk about belting, or what I understand the word to mean.

In high school, I just sang. I started taking private voice lessons at 17, and things like “breath support” or “placement” didn’t come into the picture until I got to college. Even then, for a long time, I just didn’t get a lot of the concepts. I was told I thought too much about it, which is probably true. But it was this elusive thing, this “singing technique”, which had to come into existence through imagery and trying to use some muscles and relax other ones, which I just couldn’t “get” but which seemed to be the source of all my difficulties, which occupied my thoughts so much. Trust me, it’s hard not to “think too much” about something when you really want to master it and can’t.
I say all this because, under these conditions, occasionally the subject of belting would come up (not often, as I wasn’t given those kinds of songs to learn), and always, always treated with super-thick, hazmat antiradiation kid gloves. Probably my voice teachers knew absolutely nothing about belting, but they were pretty sure that it could ruin my voice, lead to getting “nodes” (we students were all convinced that people who got them had been singing “wrong”, and we judged them harshly, even not knowing exactly what “wrong” was), and that it was generally not healthy and shouldn’t be attempted. I did, on rare occasions when I sang pop music, but I always felt a little like I shouldn’t be doing it. It was the singing equivalent of having an occasional cigarette, I guess.

In 2006 I was cast in a musical, a children’s piece by an Austrian composer based on Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost”. To my delight, I got to play the American wife as a combination of Liza Minelli, Joan Rivers and Tootsie, which then demanded a certain “Americanness” in the vocal part — so I belted it and put on big Liza vibratos on the long notes. It worried me at first — would I find my opera voice suffering from this? If not instantly, then down the road? We performed for school classes, which meant shows at 9am. It didn’t hurt. I kept doing it.
I started singing old pop rock songs from the 60s (Simon and Garfunkle, etc.) on small concerts with a guitarist. We mixed up the program and put them between songs from Schubert and Dowland. It seemed to work well, surprisingly. Now we mix up the program like this all the time, and flit back and forth between classical and rock styles, and I have found myself doing a lot more work with musicals onstage as well, sometimes the night before or the night after a classical opera performance. It can be a little tricky, sure, but not the way I feared it would be. I’m wondering if being over 40 has anything to do with it, either physically or just mentally — when the pressure is off to prove oneself, everything gets a little easier and more things start to make sense.

So now I’m teaching teenagers myself, girls who sing in the cathedral youth choir. In this choir they do that straight boy-choir sound, and I try to teach them the simple, basic things: to relax, to think about how they’re breathing and how to use it to sing, how to modify vowels to make certain passages easier and more flowing. Every one of them wants to sing songs from musicals. Do I let them belt? Not yet, it’s too early (and honestly, they are not trying it either.) But I’m not going to steer them away from it, either, if they really want to go there. When they get around to discovering for themselves how to use those abdominal muscles for breath support, and don’t tense up when they sing, then they can sing anything at all. Any of us can, actually.

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