Before I dive into the topic of “belting,” let me begin by saying that I (like many others) always appreciate the power of a singer or performer that can reach impossible pitches at impossible decibels. It can be a thrilling moment when an actor fires off all missiles into a single word or phrase. But that being said, I have come to wonder if the modern age of musical theatre belting has come to parallel the American stereotype of overwhelming excess.

I know, I know. If a composer likes to write songs strictly for belters, and a singer only likes to perform songs for belters, and an audience wants to hear said singers belting, then what’s the harm? Sometimes such musical moments can function in an immensely cathartic way causing one to rejoice, sob, or somewhere in between. However, like most things in life, too much of one thing can ultimately impair the greater objective at hand.

Belters... let it go. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

Belters… let it go. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

Belting, or screlting, or masking-belting-by-mixing, or whatever you want to call it could potentially be seen as an epidemic in musical theatre. Some nights I go out to the theatre and realize I’m being belted at for a solid two hours in which there is no juxtaposition or shifting of tone/ambiance at any point in the show. Now I am the last person to categorize rules when it comes to creating any type of theatre. But I can’t help but ponder the static feeling of hearing “belting song” after “belting song” after “belting song.”

What has lead to this type of environment? Is it the offensive skyrocketing of ticket prices, in which audiences want guaranteed moments that say their money was well spent? Is it the business of pop culture, in which the loudest tend to get the most attention? Or is it the theory that people will always be more dazzled by the flexing of a vocal range rather than the flexing of a thought or idea within a song?

Let’s create a scenario in which you, the reader, are sitting in a room with a musical theatre actor performing a song. The content of the song is about (just for the sake of an example) a woman who just lost her husband. The song is heartbreaking, the performer is equally moving, and the song generally has a reasonable range. But suddenly and without warning, the melody soars high into the stratosphere of sheet music. The performer is blasting all possible sound while sounding absolutely gorgeous. Now I’ll pose a question: is your mind still focused on all that the character is experiencing? Or is your mind focused on how impressed you are that the singer can hit those notes? Or both?

No wrong answer here. But I tend to find myself shifting my frame of mind from the content of the song to the skill set of the singer. I’m not saying both cannot be achieved at the same time, but I do believe it is a very intricate line to balance. And as a musical theatre writer, I’m constantly unnerved by having musical moments result in a muscular distraction (albeit a fun/sexy distraction, but a distraction nonetheless).

Another composer once (harshly) stated that “Some writers use belting as a means of hiding behind their own material.” That statement caught me off guard (as I’m certainly a composer who has asked his actors to hit their fair share of tough pitches). I would much rather phrase the statement in an alternative/productive way – “There’s a time and place for certain qualities of music, and sometimes the choice is in the wrong place and/or the wrong time.”

In old school musical theatre (for all of its glory and all of its embarrassments), the use of vocally charged moments seemed to arrive at very meticulous plot points. A former musical composition teacher once said to me, “The most important note should always be the loudest!” (there are those damn words again! Always or should.) And while those kinds of restrictions rub me the wrong way, I have come to understand it as a helpful tool. Take Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel for example. An incredibly emotionally draining play, Carousel handles heavy topics such as suicide, spousal abuse, misogyny, and a giant pile of pure self-loathing. And yet the one moment you hear any character belt is when the protagonist, Billy Bigelow, is deciding whether or not to support his unborn child or die trying. I’ll reiterate that: he’s either going to support his future baby or die. And that was the one moment in which Rodgers decided, “Yes. Let’s ask him to pump up the volume a bit.” (Not a direct quote, but it’s fun to imagine.)

Cabarets and concerts are a different experience entirely. With an influx of alcohol, social gatherings, and a crowd that sometimes consist of a short attention span, it’s understandable to have multiple singers stand onstage and create as much sound as necessary (although some song cycles/concerts manage to pull off the opposite in the most astonishing of ways, i.e. the works of Ricky Ian Gordon or John Bucchino). But when you’re dealing with a more direct linear narrative, such tools can often backfire.

Every show is different. Every composer is different. And more power to the composer who strictly writes song for belters (and the singers who love the material). However when the most poignant moment in a show can be as quiet as “Send in the Clowns,” “You Must Love Me” or the revelatory concluding duet, “Pierre and Natasha” (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812), my brain and my heart are equally dazzled. Many new musical theatre writers are able to capture that somber but resiliently breathtaking aesthetic in wonderfully dramatic ways. Everything from Gaby Alter’s “Deep in February” to Miller and Tysen’s “One of These Nights” can stir a cacophony of emotions, while asking the singers to exercise different parts of their instrument beyond their own vocal chords.

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26 Responses to A Meditation on the Overworked Belter

  1. Kim Stern says:

    Here, Here Michael! Great article. Thanks for writing it. ~Kim

  2. Drew Fornarola says:

    I always enjoy your posts, Michael, and agree it’s about matching the musical world with the character / setting / story. Look at two scores by the same composer: Christine never belts in Phantom of the Opera, and she’s the lead in the most successful musical of all time. Eva belts almost exclusively in Evita, and that show has done pretty well too!

  3. Peter Saxe says:

    Very thoughtful post, Michael

    My biggest issues with belty songs, are poorly set lyrics, awful syllables set to high-notes. There seems to be a lack of thought, or empathy for the human beings who will sing your songs. If all writers were forced to sing through their own songs in public before giving it to another singer, they might re-think a few things.

    Belting ain’t going anywhere soon. It might be nice to see a little more craft in how the songs are constructed.

  4. Great article – thanks!

  5. Amy says:

    @#$%^&* Thank You!!!!!!!

  6. Brian Lee says:

    Thanks for a great article. Human beings can’t even respond to bam bam bam all the time. It eventually becomes numbing. The human voice also is not happy having to perform at 100% effort for extended periods of time. It’s important for singer, composers, and audience members to understand that high and loud is only one way to reach people. There are many other tools in the box that are effective and necessary for telling stories with music. This article is getting shared all over the place.

  7. sarah J says:

    I wonder whether it’s the caliber of singer that seems to be around these days. The youngsters I hear seem to have only one volume with their nasal twang. Give me the wonderful Audra McDonald any day 🙂

  8. Well said, and to my mind, a call for those in charge (voice teachers, music directors, et al) to do their part in drawing a line and informing potential singers and actors that belting is only appropriate when conditions call for it, and then infrequently.

  9. Catherine D. Heine says:

    I loved this article. I wish the “coaches” on some of the reality voice compitition shows could read this. Shows of that nature encourage young singers to scream their heads off in lieu of finessing a phrase…and audiences to admire that as “ideal singing”!!

  10. Fantastic post! As a voice teacher in NYC I agree! Every possibility exists depending on what the music calls for, and the voice has to be able to access MORE than one gear. Real theatre is about narration, transformation and authenticity. The human voice gives us the possibility to bring those intangibles to life. We need to follow that larger vision in order to discover the possibilities and know that those quiet still moments are more revealing than anything else.

  11. Samuel Thiel says:

    I teach singing in Berlin and the problem here is not with the singers but the “music directors” who would prefer for every note of every song in the show to be belted at full power. I wonder why they think the singers are wearing buddy mikes. I try to educate my students thoroughly about telling the story and allowing the voice to infuse the text with the appropriate sound for the content. It’s an uphill battle against conductors and directors who think the audience likes to be yelled at for hours at a time. The audience does not like this! I have conducted an unofficial survey of musical theater goers over the last 20 years – not one person has said that they go to these shows to hear the singing..not one! For the producers it has become a business aspect. They wreck voices with such regularity that they can always hire a new batch (at cheap rates) right out of the conservatories into main roles. For the young singers this is very seductive – and frequently the beginning of the three-year-career.

    • John Patrick Thomas says:

      So true, Sam! A bellowing baritone in the Hamburg CATS production had been told by people in a provincial opera house to ONLY sing loud! He was singing a passage in Verdi marked PPPP at FFFF, and he didn’t notice the discrepancy. After working on a light Handel aria, the singer could show that he had a gorgeous instrument and got a job soon after CATS in an even better opera house. Souls can be saved if their interest in music is stronger than some kind of banal ambition. Charge on!

    • Tom Oliver says:

      Bravo. I totally agree re. MDs … who know very little of the vocal process or what the score is asking singers to do. It is so important that productions have vocal professionals involved to guide both artist and MD.
      Again thanks for your comment.
      T.

  12. Thank you for your thoughtful article! “Belting” in musical theater seems to be a facet of a larger, even pandemic problem. I know classical singers whose sole concern seems to be how to sing ever louder and louder. I once worked with a tenor who was thrilled to show me how he had developed more power in his higher range, oblivious to the fact that the result was so painful to hear that such a sound couldn’t be tolerated in any actual music. Then there was the former opera prima donna who, on hearing trumpet and pipe organ together on a festive number, was clearly miffed that they might possibly be able to produce a sound together than she could by herself. Then there are the pianists who pound the tar out of their poor instruments, larger bore brass instruments in symphony orchestras that require the violas to wear hearing protection… and the list goes on. Our culture is becoming louder and louder in every way, subtlety and nuance more and more discarded in favor of unwavering extreme force.

  13. John Patrick Thomas says:

    Thank you for this article! There’s also a problem with teenagers imitating the pop and musical singers and songs that we’re bombarded with by the commercial media. At a crucial stage of vocal development, the kids are tempted to employ an intensity way beyond their natural means. The lower register is pushed up, and pressure slowly locks in an increasingly inflexible intensity, which frustrates, even blocks, a vocal instrument’s natural development. At least that’s been my experience teaching musical performers. Also sad is that in clumsy efforts to connect with kids, some teachers in music programs in schools give in to the kids’ misplaced and premature ambitions by letting school bands do whatever they want with their singers, instead of guiding them effectively in more healthy directions, if only as an alternative now and then. I’ve encountered young girls unable to sing above an A or Bb above middle C, because of imitative, premature, so-called “belting”. They also have lost access to the softer end of the dynamic spectrum. It takes a while to calm things down and get a vocal function back on track. As Mr. Tiker points out, there’s also with some classical singers an almost neurotic preoccupation with volume, which has a similar effect technically, it seems to me. There’s a confusion between what is pressure (usually involving a contraction in the body) and strength (which comes from muscular development over a period of time). Like the song says, “Art isn’t easy.” But when it’s authentic and various and not just vocal effects, whooppeee!

  14. Christine Thomas-O'Meally says:

    I wrote a blog article on this very thing about 2 years ago, when a director at the college where I was teaching directed a girl to belt “Astonishing” ALL THE WAY THROUGH. The girl and I had worked for months to find the nuances of the piece, only to have the director say she had to belt it and take the whole song faster, oh, and by the way, if she couldn’t full-belt the E-flat, she should sing a different note (which she did).

    I really feel a belt should mean something, and that’s why I wrote this article, which you can find at: http://omeallystudio.blogspot.com/2012/06/now-ulla-belt-or-not-why-we-belt.html

  15. Heather Cariou says:

    Thank you Michael. To wit: Len Cariou’s recent performance in “Guys and Dolls” at Carnegie Hall. A beautifully modulated, tenderly rendered, impeccably articulated, deeply felt performance that stopped the show – in a show full of otherwise show-stopping, belt-worthy numbers. And by the way, not a single other performer BELTED their songs. Indeed, every performer sang with great feeling and aplomb without bowing to today’s imperative to sound like an American Idol contestant. The result was musical theatre as it is rarely seen these days, but should be, and for that reason the evening was an historic gem.

  16. Guest says:

    Ah it was nice to see a mention of the quiet, powerful songs like “Send in the Clowns.” Especially in a time when even community theaters are constantly telling you, “louder, louder, louder.”

    I love belting but agree it’s best used at certain moments. I.e.: I love how in Superstar the only high belted notes are when a character is sad or angry. “JESUS!” “WHY?!” “GET OUT!” etc.

    I like Let it Go. Starts out quiet and belts when she gets more confident, but yeah on the other hand it does inspire a culture of young imitators who think they have to sound like Idina (Wicked memories) to fit the status quo.

  17. Harold Raitt says:

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

    The above to be performed: poco a poco cresc e accel / mp “Yes. Yes. Yes.” mf.

    subito p / dolce “Yes.” Tacet.

  18. Harold Raitt says:

    This also exemplifies why all MT actors/singers need to do Shakespeare, modern drama, Lieder and English / American art song. All without mics, naturally. Then they’d understand.

    From HAMLET:
    Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
    you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
    as many of your players do, I had as lief the
    town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
    too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
    for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
    the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
    a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it
    offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
    periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
    very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
    for the most part are capable of nothing but
    inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
    a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant; it
    out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.

    From Ian Bostridge’s A SINGER’S NOTEBOOK:
    Fischer-Dieskau’s soft singing was unique and new. On record it offered a sort of intimacy and a return to the domestic roots of song-singing as Hausmusik. “What is this whispering?” the older baritone Gerhard Hüsch is supposed to have complained. The close-miking which Fischer-Dieskau demanded throughout his career – even more striking in the mono days – puts one in mind of a Sinatra or a Fitzgerald, a new sort of Lieder singing for a reinvented medium.

    I was going to ask “how many kids today know HAMLET or Dieskau doing Schubert or Schumann. Then I realised few probably know Sinatra or Fitzgerald. Music history IS important because it is still the basis even of our modern work.

    Without it, our theatre is doomed to return cyclically to the excesses of Henry Irving or music to the excesses of Wagner after the composer himself died and his finesses were lost …

  19. Harold Raitt says:

    Ironically, I feared the danger in musical theatre might be the opposite; the incredibly close-miked, intimate performance of esp Hathaway and Redmayne in LES MIS encouraging young singers to undersing when live on stage … Are people seeing that in schools and colleges at all?

  20. Dave Falk says:

    The only people who don’t like belting are people who can’t belt.

  21. Daniel says:

    Good article.
    The truth is – to invoke real emotion and real intensity in a song requires work, hard work. And a good enough technique to be able to express yourself in a connected manner. Too many singers don’t put in the work to really bring the music to life, and ‘fake it’ by belting their way through the song thinking that the fireworks will cover their inadequacy.
    To be really truthful on stage is terrifying. You have to be completely comfortable with yourself allow yourself to be that exposed. That’s why there are so few that we consider ‘world class’.
    Some singers aren’t willing to do the work because they are afraid of opening themselves up to that honesty.
    There are some that don’t have the skill or the knowledge, and more yet who are just plain lazy.
    Whatever the reason, we should be striving for more connection in performance. A truly great performance should ‘cost you’ as a performer. You should come off that stage completely drained emotionally and physically, not just with a sore throat from shouting for 90 mins.

    Singer.

  22. I’m late to this party. I’ve long been distressed at every song being screamed off the throat. No variety. No nuance. And a whole lot of frightening vocal technique. OK. Screlting. Got it. As a voice teacher working with a number of young community musical theatre singers who only know and want to achieve this sound, I am eternally frustrated. I always tell them to find their genuine voices and set a good foundation technique before trying on some of the risky stylings. Most of them, though, only want to cut to the chase. I mean… the audition is next week! We are so missing that singing-acting that wells up from inside. I’m exhausted from the yelling, and from the facade.

  23. lee colee' says:

    I can remember my voice teachers grumbling about “pop” music when I was a high school performer with lots of ambition and drive. Now 30 + years later I am the teacher groaning about what pop culture is doing to the kids. It seems to be acceptable now to either under sing with a nasal and thin tone or belt so hard that a raspy effect is indeed the underlying goal. I now require all of my students to listen to past artists who have had long and productive careers in their field – all genres. They listen but the looks on their faces! They think they are listening to aliens. People like kd lang, Sarah Vaughn, Mahalia Jackson, Kathleen Battle, Bing Crosby, Patsy Cline, Lena Horn, etc. The students are required to analyze why they do or don’t like the singer and describe the sound they hear. I laugh at some of their impressions. They do start to realize that whether its opera or belt, it takes technical training to achieve the chops required. Some even are intrigued enough to continue research. Hallelujah!

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