Maybe You’re Just not a Belter: A Letter to a Young Actor with Vocal Strain

Dear Young Actor,

I get it.

You’ve listened to Barrett Wilbert Weed and Krysta Rodriguez and Sutton Foster and now you just want to sound just like them. We’ve all been there.

Contemporary Broadway is full of belters belting their faces off. It’s flashy and impressive and now basically everywhere you look.

Here’s the thing about belting.

Everyone has a natural shape to their voice. Everyone’s larynx, vocal folds, and resonators (like the mouth and sinuses) are built just slightly differently. This will change the way your voice sounds– speaking voices and singing voices alike all sound different from person to person for this reason. Some people’s vocal folds are longer than other’s, or thicker, or more slightly elastic– all of these factors will cause the vocal folds to vibrate slightly differently and produce different sounds.

Some people are built for different kinds of singing than others. This might be why some people you know can sing soprano with no training while you struggle to sing higher notes and vice versa.

Your speech patterns and habits can also effect your singing voice. For example, you might be prone to mumbling and always talk in the lowest pitches of your voice. You’d probably tend toward a closed mouth and the lower range of your singing voice, because this is what you’d be used to.

You can change the natural build of your voice. This is especially evident with training.

With practice, you can well and truly do nearly anything you want with your voice. Though certain biological disadvantages may stop you from being able to hit record-breaking high or low notes, you can achieve extraordinary results with training. The important thing is that you practice, and practice hard, with someone who can coach you to safely achieve these results.

Which brings us to where you are now: young, and early in your training, with a very sore throat.

Belting is not an in-born ability. Some might be biologically predisposed to it more than others, and some may have certain speaking or singing habits that helped them achieve their sound relatively naturally. However, no one is a natural belter. Belting takes years of time and practice to perfect safely.  The Broadway stars we know and love for their clear, powerful tone have worked likely for decades to achieve their sound. They have studied vocal technique extensively and learned to make habit certain behaviors that make belting easily attainable. They have specially trained the muscles that support breathing and phonation to take pressure off of their vocal folds and make the process safe.

When people don’t learn to belt safely, they end up ruining their voices. It’s common. The strained, tired throat you’re nursing now is in the very first stages of this downward spiral. When you strain to belt, you put pressure not on trained lungs or supporting muscles but on your vocal folds directly. The pain you’re feeling in your throat is from forcing the sound out instead of letting it naturally float. This can be traumatic to the vocal folds and the longer you do this, the more you risk permanent injury. At best you’ll find yourself in pain when you sing, or nursing vocal polyps or cysts that will go away on their own with vocal rest. Or you might end up with vocal hemorrhaging, which will require surgery to resolve and keep you from singing for months.

So give it a rest.

Your dreams are not in vain. You can learn to sing however you want. However, make sure you’re doing it safely. Find a good voice instructor. If possible, find one who can teach you the basics of classical singing technique– Barrett Wilbert Weed attributes her success with belting to her background in opera singing. Learn how to create a resonant, well-supported tone, and then worry about putting the power behind it. Feel free to explore pop and rock sounds, but do so in a safe way.

Remember, even with training, vocal injuries are incredibly common due to the demand for high, show-stopper belting. Even trained belters run into trouble when they have to belt at the top of their ranges 8 shows a week. So don’t rush yourself– take your time. Build up the muscles and perfect the habits you’ll need to keep your voice safe. Ask yourself if the song or role you really want is really attainable for your voice yet– and save it for later if it’s not. You’ll get there some day soon enough. Don’t blow your chances by being impatient.

And if you can’t achieve the belting of your dreams? That’s okay too.

Not everyone needs to be a belter. There is room for a wealth of voice types and personalities in performing. You’re better off performing in a way that is healthful and attainable for you than what is ideal for someone else. By all means, work and push yourself– but don’t lose sight of your own original sound, either. You were born with your own unique voice for a reason. Use it.

Take good care of your voice, and it will support your passion for the rest of your life.

You’ll regret it if you don’t.

Love,

A concerned friend

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