Sunday, September 13, 2009

Reincorporating the belt voice


"People just do not want to hear my kind of voice singing those type of songs!"

I overheard words to this effect when I was a teenager. They came from the mouth of a classical singer who had been hired to sing the lead with our community theater's Gilbert & Sullivan production. She was referring to herself singing Broadway tunes and popular-style music. Little did that singer, nor I, realize that a seed was being planted that summer in a young person's mind that was going to remain embedded for years without her realizing it.

The belief that took hold at that time was this: Classical singing and popular or broadway-style singing were mutually exclusive. You developed one or the other. Another part of the belief was this: people didn't want to hear the classical sound in popular or musical-theatre.

Well, when I was a teenager, I did not admire the classical technique, although as a singer, I had a secret interest in it that I was not aware of. I guess I kind of wondered why people liked it. And when I heard the hired artist in our little Gilbert & Sullivan company sing, and I heard the gasps and awes at her developed voice, and experienced the strength, power, versatility and, most of all, high notes, I had to admit it was intriguing.

But I was far more interested in getting the lead role in the current year's high school musical. I was interested in belting out songs and show tunes. The singers I admired and listened to and tried to emulate were ones who could do that. They got me excited and I wanted to sing excitingly like they did.

I never thought a person needed lessons to be able to do this type of singing. I thought lessons were for the people who wanted to sing opera. I certainly wouldn't want to take lessons if they were going to "ruin" my belt voice. And so I spent hours and hours and hour in my living room practicing my belt all by myself and wondering and wondering how some of my favorite artists were achieving the effects they did.

But because of an imbalance in my voice, I was limited in what I was able to do with my belt voice. So as a young adult I did end up starting lessons to try to figure it out. This eventually led to my falling in love with voice and wanting to learn to sing in the classical style. When I made the decision to train classically, I thought I was leaving my belting behind for good. I feared that belting as something that could damage and harm my voice and my new aspirations to sing operatically.

Little did I know that by abandoning these roots and disavowing them, I was cutting off a part of myself that was a strength. Cutting this side of me out was like denying I grew up in a small town, or being ashamed of my parents or something like that. There was a great strength in these roots and I did not know that by doing this, I was to impede my progress as a classical singer.

Well, recently everything has been coming around full circle. I have been studying with an amazing teacher, Susan Eichhorn Young, who teaches a very healthy technique for balancing the voice. I have been training with her to sing classically.

But recently an unexpected and surprising consequence has occurred:

My belt is back!!

It is very exciting because I am able to revisit the old songs of my youth, that back then had somehow been lacking, with newly balanced range. I know more about what I'm doing than I ever have and find that I am able to sing both styles of music and I can just feel that it is healthy.

I remember my father, who held the New York State high jump record for 11 years, telling me that he felt he had developed his high jumping skills when he was young and used to cut across the back yards as a short cut to school and leap the fences.

That act of fun and joy developed his muscles and later became an asset in his athletic career.

Well, in the same way those hours spent belting in my living room developed muscles that I need in my classical singing. The problem was that this set of muscle action was overdeveloped and there was an imbalance. It was kind of like if a runner had one leg stronger than another and let that leg do most of the work while running. Over time, favoring the stronger leg might lead to the underdevelopment of the weaker leg, and perhaps injuries for both legs.

So, while it's true that the imbalance needed to be addressed, I was operating under a false notion that what was really a strength in disguise was a detriment and to be avoided and feared. It is true that I needed to leave this strength to the side for while in order to develop other aspects of my voice, but it was wrong to think this must be a total abandonment. It was merely put on a shelf for while, like a favorite piece of clothing, to be rediscovered and reincorporated into the new wardrobe later on.

My new belief is that there can be such a thing as a total singing athlete. A new category of singer for modern times, an almost Greek kind of ideal, who can crossover and sing in many different styles. Kind of like the idea of "fusion" cuisine, but a kind of "fusion" vocalist for modern times. I even suspect that this ideal, and attempting to approach this ideal, could produce more total kind of vocal fitness and be very healthy for the voice.
Here a sample of a "Belt Workout" (Maybe This Time)
Another: (Star Spangled Banner in F)
Last one: (Happily Ever After)
Added 10/27/09  What I have read here on the Exuberant Animal blog in a post titled "Putting the Physical Back in Physical Education," by Franc Forenrich seems to substantiate this approach, even though he is applying it to another kind of athleticism.  He sums up the ideas of a conference he has attended with Greg Thomson, an elementary physical educator:
the distinction between “adapted” and “adaptable.” Those who train exclusively in a single sport, movement style or discipline simply dig their neurological ruts deeper and deeper; they become adapted to a specific challenge. But for true athleticism and holistic health, more is needed – the ability to move across challenges and disciplines, always adjusting and adaptable.
This matches the ideas I've been mulling regarding cross-training for singers. Singers moving across different vocal disciplines, so that their voice is not stuck in one muscular rut, nor their neurology stuck in one particular groove.  Thus, the adaptable, adjustable singer!!

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