Why everyone wants to learn about Belting …

Last century, when I left drama school, everyone wanted to Belt. It seemed every musical theatre audition was all about how high and how loud and not much else. This was when Les Miz was the musical of the moment and ‘Sha-a-a-a-ammmme!” was the phrase that everyone wanted to emulate. (Thanks, Patti[1].)

Back then, it was pretty much accepted by all teachers that Belting was something you either could or couldn't do, you were born with it in other words and it could not be taught. To even attempt to do so was to invite certain vocal trauma. And of course it was such an ugly sound. Those who could already do it were nurtured but for anyone not so fortunate and who wanted to learn how to do it (like me), it was a pretty hit and miss affair.  There were of course, valiant attempts by the more progressive teachers, some more successful than others but still a pervasive belief among many respected teachers that it was fundamentally dangerous and should only be approached via the safe route of traditional classical singing technique.

This view sadly still holds some sway despite more than thirty years of research that categorically proves that the muscular set up for Belting is totally different to that of classical singing. Surely the overwhelming success of the West End where Belting can be heard loud and proud on any night of the week also proves that it cannot be as dangerous as some people believe.

Much of what we know about the physiology of Belting and its differences to lyrical singing comes from the work of Jo Estill.  She herself was a classically trained singer who through dedicated, scrupulous research identified clear shifts in muscular patterns in different uses of the voice.  She then developed specific training exercises based on her research to help singers bring about the necessary changes in muscular patterning to consciously control and vary which voice quality they wished to produce, when they wanted it.  She became known in New York in the 1980s as someone who really understood Belting and could teach it safely and reliably.

As a result of her detailed investigation into Belting and other voice qualities, came other, surprising observations perhaps the most controversial of which still is that Belting requires a very low airflow. However, once the physiology is clearly understood and how this directly relates to what we hear, it ceases to be controversial and instead becomes simply common sense.

I have spent over 20 years teaching people how to Belt, first teaching myself with the information I learnt from Jo Estill. In that time I have realised that there are some very simple principles that can make an immediate difference to the success of learning how to Belt and in taking that initial practise further to build a reliable and expressive sound that is as individual as the singer who uses it.

I run two workshops on Belting, the first is Belting – the Basics Explained that outlines a clear and methodical approach to successful teaching using the superb information offered by the Estill Model.

I have since developed another course for those who can already Belt called Advanced Belting which deals with the particular problems encountered in performance, extending Belt outside of the singer’s comfortable range and how to build Belt into a new role. 

Belting is a way of singing that is simply unavoidable. It is required not just in Musical Theatre but also pop, rock and commercial music. All teachers who work outside of classical singing need to learn how to teach Belt and how to progress safely through the different technical stages in order to develop a sound appropriate for the age of the student and for the material they are singing. 

It needn’t be confusing. The Estill Model offers clear, practical advice that makes sense, both physiologically and aesthetically. It also feels great when it is working well and is fun to do. If you haven’t had the opportunity to get up and have a go, then both you and your students are missing out. So dip your toe in the water and you’ll find lots of others encouraging you to go that bit further. Soon you and Shirley[2] will be getting along famously.


© Anne-Marie Speed September 2014

[1] Patti Lupone

[2] Dame Shirley Bassey