Crossover Corner : How Do I Know When I'm in the Danger Zone?

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any classical singers are curious about crossover styles but tentative to truly explore other genres. Read on for how to establish best practices in mix/belt styles and to recognize any warning signs that might require technical adjusting.

Belting can be a scary prospect for a classical singer. There are many legends and untrue beliefs about how belting can cause injury and ruin your voice. The truth is that the risk of injury for musical theatre singers is not any higher than it is for classical singers. With the appropriate training, you can safely explore and embrace the mix/belt technique while maintaining your classical skills and vocal health. 

If you are thinking about beginning to explore the mix/belt style and technique, then there are a few things that you should know before you begin. 

Find a Qualified Teacher 

First, do not attempt to do this alone. Find a qualified and experienced musical theatre teacher to work with. Once you have found a teacher, you should commit to a season of regular lessons with them. 

This is not a time to self-teach or to just occasionally check in with a teacher. This is an investment in your professional development and an opportunity to increase your future employment engagements. Obviously, when your training is consistent, your skills will improve much faster. 

If you continue to regularly study with a classical teacher, it is a good idea to put your two teachers in touch with each other. Give them permission to discuss their work and goals for you so that you don’t feel torn between the two. Chances are that if you are working on releasing tongue tension in your classical singing, you will also be working on releasing tongue tension in your musical theatre singing, and your two teachers can work together to help you. It is also important that everyone understands where the technique and vocabulary for each style is similar and where it differs. Allow both teachers to help you interpret all the information coming to you so that you can be successful at both styles and techniques. 

Pain-Free Phonation 

Second, singing should never hurt! This may sound overly simple and ridiculously obvious, and yet this is a reminder that no matter what style or technique you are attempting to learn, singing should never hurt. If you are experiencing pain, hoarseness, breathiness, or a need to cough while learning to access a mix or belt, then you are not doing it correctly. 

Do not continue to practice that particular song or exercise until you have consulted with your teacher and they can clarify their instruction to you. Do not assume that if you just keep working on these things, the pain, etc., will go away or get better. These are symptoms that you need to adjust in your voice function, and repetition may not bring those adjustments. 

Also, remember that there are no pain sensors on the vocal folds, so if you are experiencing pain while phonating, you are likely straining muscles in the neck or throat and, again, should stop whatever it is you are doing until you have further instructions and guidance from your voice teacher. 

Another thing to remember is that nodules and other pathologies develop from repeated and prolonged misuse of the vocal folds, so avoid repetition of things that do not feel easy and sustainable. Whether you are working on head voice-dominant or chest voice-dominant functions, it is the repetition of poor technique that increases the risk of injury. 

Volume Variety 

Another symptom indicating that you may need to adjust your mix/belt technique is if you can mix/belt only at a high-volume level that gets louder as you climb the scale. Generally, there is a brightening and lightening of the chest voice as you climb the scale. This allows for dynamic variation and nuance—and if you do not have access to quieter, more nuanced sounds, then you should reexamine your technique. For AFAB singers, a mantra that you may want to use to help you avoid the “danger zone” could be “too low, too loud, too long.” For AMAB singers, a mantra could be “too high, too loud, too long.”

Some singers, as they begin learning to mix and belt, will respond that they feel like they are just yelling. You should be aware that mix and belt are very closely related to speech, and when accessing heightened, emotionally charged speech, it may seem like yelling. Qualified voice teachers will ask you to call out rather than yell or scream. 

It is very common for beginning belters to spend a lot of time calling out as if communicating with someone at a bit of a distance using expressions like “Hey guys!” “Taxi!” “Oh, no you don’t!” and “Wait for me!” These called-out expressions are often turned into vocalises, but the function of calling doesn’t change, the vocalise just prescribes the pitches you call on. Calling out should feel easy and not quickly fatigue the voice. If this is not the case, then contact your voice teacher for more instruction. You may want to consider also working with a speech therapist or an acting speech coach if free-and-easy calling out is particularly challenging to you. 

Kinesthetic Sensations 

Just as important as knowing what to avoid while learning how to belt is knowing what to expect. There are some kinesthetic sensations you may experience while learning to mix/belt that may be different from the kinesthesia of your classical singing, and understanding this will help you recognize that you are doing it correctly. 

One of these new sensations may manifest as more forward resonance than you are used to. Some may refer to this as twang, others may say it sounds or feels nasally. You should remember, however, that it is not nasally like a French nasal vowel. If you plug your nose and can still sing, then you are using twang, but if the sound stops then you are making nasal vowels that would be appropriate for the French language but not for mix/belt. 

You may also feel that your larynx sits slightly higher when experiencing mix and belt. Connected to the kinesthesia of a higher larynx may also be the sensation of wider resonance space in the mouth and throat. You should expect that belting still requires a large resonance chamber in your throat, but it may feel like it is shaped differently. 

Some say the shape feels wider and less lofty. Others describe it as more inside their mouth as opposed to behind the molars. And yet others say it feels like they are singing with an open-mouth smile—a shape similar to the Joker’s smile in the Batman cartoon or films. And one has even described the space as cube shaped rather than the tube shape of their classical singing. 

Hopefully, these descriptions give you a guide of what kinesthesia to look for, and you will no doubt find your own vocabulary to describe these sensations in your unique body. 

Breath Support 

You should also be aware that the use of breath is different in mix and belt. There is a significant difference in the breath needed to fill a large opera house and sing over an orchestra than how much is needed to sing into a microphone. Also, the vibratory patterns needed for mix and belt do not require as much breath flowing through the vocal folds. 

You still need to release the inhalation and support the musculature in a dynamic way, but you are letting out less air with mix/belt so as not to build up too much pressure below the vocal folds. So, if you are using too much breath, you may find it harder to master the mix/belt technique. Something that may help you balance your breath is to think of breathing for mix/belt a little like acting for the screen rather than acting for the stage—think of it as more intimate, close up, and filling a smaller room. 

Start Simply 

Do not push yourself too fast or set unrealistic expectations for yourself. Make sure that the repertoire you begin with is simple and has limited range so that you can master technique before attempting a more contemporary high belt. Musical theatre is a highly specialized art form and may require more time than you expect to master it. But with the guidance of a voice teacher and your dedicated and consistent work, it is possible to truly become a crossover artist. 

Christy Turnbow

  Christy Turnbow is currently teaching at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and has taught at Montclair State University, Penn State University, and Brigham Young University. She earned an MFA in musical theater voice teaching from Penn State University and a BM from Brigham Young University in vocal performance and pedagogy. She has been seen in leading roles in regional music theatre productions and national tours.