10 Songs for Altos Who Don’t Belt
Go to your local music store (or to Amazon.com and light a mournful candle for Colony Records as a silent tear rolls down your cheek) and check out the sheet music section. Overwhelming, right? So many options, and no idea where to begin! Lucky for you, you can find there the musical theatre anthology books, conveniently sorted by voice part so you can easily find your perfect song whether you’re a soprano, tenor, baritone, or… belter?
When I say I’m an alto, I really mean I’m a tenor. Since I got sick and lost the top octave and a half of my range, I sing with the boys in choirs and never know on any given morning if I’ll be able to hit the E at the top of the staff. That’s not even high, guys. They write church songs that go up to an E because that’s a note that everyone is supposed to be able to sing without even warming up on a Sunday morning. And frankly I don’t even know what I’m doing half the time when I’m singing anymore, but I’m pretty sure it’s not what belting used to be like.
Needless to say, this unfortunate combination leaves me with an extremely limited array of song options, especially within the realm of new musical theatre where sometimes it seems it’s all about the highest belting and not about, well, anything else. But that’s the nice thing when you do manage to find one: with not a ton of vocal pyrotechnics going on, the focus on many of these songs is in the words and in the story, which is particularly awesome if you consider yourself more an actor than a singer.
“Not too high” and “not too belty” doesn’t automatically mean “easy and boring”. There’s a lot you can do within a limited range — just ask Billie Holiday, whose voice spanned just over one octave and is still one of the all-time greatest heartbreakers around. Some of this shit gets real deep. And I mean, it’s not like anyone’s going to stop you from belting every note of these after transposing them all up three steps if you really feel like it anyway. I guess.
1. “IT’S AMAZING THE THINGS THAT FLOAT” by PETER MILLS
The first time I ever heard a Peter Mills song, I just sat struck speechless trying to figure out how to breathe again, which is a really big deal if you know how much I love speeching and/or breathing. No one writes like this man. What I love most about his songs (besides everything) is how complex they are. Every one is like a well-constructed, pleasantly fragrant onion, with layers upon layers to explore. They’re never just about the thing that they’re about. You know, kind of like real life.
2. “EVERYTHING A GIRL WANTS” by TIM ROSSER and CHARLIE SOHNE
I had a songwriting teacher once tell me that half the battle is finding a good idea for a song. Sometimes you come up with a concept that’s so brilliant that it’s impossible to screw it up. No matter what, the song will be successful. He pointed to this song as a prime example — and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the music is gorgeous and the lyrics are charming as (New Year’s) balls. At this point, I’d say Rosser and Sohne are just being greedy.
3. “THE LITTLEST” by SAM SALMOND
Tisn’t the season for Christmas songs? Fie on that, man. It’s always an appropriate time for Rebecca Naomi Jones’ onstage magnetism, not to mention Sam Salmond’s inimitable knack for beautiful, hilarious, and gut-wrenching slice of story songs. And if you’re anything like me, you’re going to want the nine months of obsessive practice to get it ready for your holiday cabaret anyway.
4. “I WANNA FALL IN LOVE” by ALEXANDER SAGE OYEN
One of the newest kids on the NMT Writer’s Block (see what I did there? I love bad puns and nobody loves me, oh God), Alexander Sage Oyen’s already made a name for himself on the scene with his quirky nerd-bro sense of humor and surprisingly lovely, occasionally heart-stabbing ballads. And sometimes he’s just plain sweet. Such range, much wow.
5. “I’M SORRY” by KAIT KERRIGAN and BRIAN LOWDERMILK
I love this song so much I own it in every available key — even the ones I can’t sing, so I can make someone else sing them instead. We’ve already discussed layers — I love finding something new in a story song (or just a story) every time I sing it, or listen to it, or read the lyrics out loud or just sit around idly thinking about this one weird line that never made sense before but suddenly means everything. You know what I mean?
6. “BEFORE IT’S OVER” by BENJ PASEK and JUSTIN PAUL
I always knew I was going to love Dogfight because Pasek and Paul, duh. But what really got me intrigued was a Craptacular post talking about Lindsay “Go-To Cabaret Beltress Like Crazy” Mendez’s completely belt-free performance. I wondered what that sounded like. And in case you’re still wondering, it sounds pretty damn gorgeous.
7. “I STILL LOVE YOU” by ADAM GWON
I first heard this song shortly after an extended car ride with someone I thought I might have loved. Spoiler alert: it didn’t end well, which would be all well and good if I didn’t always think of that particular car ride every time I hear this song. But you know, you know a song is good when you can’t stop loving it even after all personal memories and connotations have been shot to hell and back. (I’m looking at you, discarded mixes from high school. Thanks for ruining Something Corporate for me.)
8. “I THINK THAT HE LIKES ME” by MICHAEL KOOMAN and CHRISTOPHER DIMOND
One of the happiest moments of my life was when I bought the Kooman and Dimond female songbook and realized I could actually hit like, 84% of the notes in it. (I mean, I can’t do “Random Black Girl”, but I was never going to be doing “Random Black Girl” anyway.) A lot of these lower belt-free songs tend to be of the somber and contemplative bend, which I’m all for, but I love that this one gives you an excuse to be unabashedly giddy.
9. “HOME CALLS” by JOSHUA SALZMAN and RYAN CUNNINGHAM
(I refuse to believe this song isn’t available on YouTube, and yet.)
I grew up about two towns from Needham and always get irrationally excited when anything Mass-related pops up somewhere, like the whole damn state is some long lost grade school friend I haven’t seen since graduation. Having moved about seven times in the past two years (and gearing up for an eighth), this feeling of limbo and displacement is something I can definitely relate to. And I love how it can turn from somber to teasing on a dime.
10. “THE SECRET OF HAPPINESS” by PAUL GORDON
Oh, Daddy Long Legs. Apparently it was my favorite book when I was a kid, though I can’t remember a thing about it now other than the cover. But I watched the 1955 film version (easily the best, which I feel I can safely say despite not having seen any of the others, because do any of the others have Fred Astaire? I think not) a few years ago and fell obsessively in love, so when I discovered the composer of the musical on NMT I obviously pounced all over it.
So there you go. The best of my secret stash. Maybe it’s exactly what you’ve been needing, maybe it’s a new and different challenge, maybe it’s just another list with way too much rambling veering into TMI territory. But I mean, are we really surprised at this point? I like lists. Sue me.
What about you? What’s your favorite non-belty alto song? Help me replenish my book, NMT. You’re my only hope.