Healthy Belting for gospel singing?
Bethany McKee-Alexander wrote: "I am a high school chorus ... teach the
gospel choir. ...trouble getting my females to sing above middle
...They all want to sing (scream) in their chest voice. ...help these
students sing the music they love without destroying their voices?
...suggestions on music selections and how to go about finding choral
This is a very interesting topic and I would imagine many school and
church choral directors run into this issue. I *love* Gospel, and enjoy
teaching the style to non-Gospel choirs - but it's a challenge!
The issues center on vocal technique and conditioning, culture and
experience, and ways to work around a "hard" gospel style while
capturing its essence.
voice teachers don't all agree, but more and more are teaching "healthy
belting". They advocate a way of accomplishing a strong middle mixed
voice (like the shouty Gospel sound) without the strain of using muscles
extrinsic to making sound. Personally I am concerned about teaching this
to high school students unless there is lots of balanced vocalizing that
explores the head voice. It's finely tuned balance to engage that much
power in the middle and kids rarely can achieve it healthily. But, if
you want to explore it, look at the pedagogy of Seth Riggs, Jo Estill,
Robert Edwin, Lara Browning-Henderson & The VoiceCare Network's
materials. (I'm sure there are more!)
If you could get a winsome specialist to some in a do some
demonstration, and teach the kids basics of what's happening in their
voices they might begin to share your interest in keeping their voices
But beware - as I said, it requires careful coordination to do this
sound healthily, and a kind of athletic condition of the voice. Kids
will have heard countless pop/rock singers use some version of this
style. Some do it healthily, others don't. (Listen to Whitney Houston
try to speak these days.)
There are two factors ... the ones who do it unhealthily will have short
careers. Other last much longer, but only if they learn to pace
themselves, and if they are in condition (from regular, aware, healthy
Culture and Experience -
But what about all those people who can sing Gospel who have no idea how
they're doing it? If someone grows up doing it, chances are if they've
risen to the top so that we've heard of them they have intuitively found
ways to sing this style without strain and without the extrinsic
muscles. And they're in good vocal condition. Watch some Gospel/pop
singers - you'll see some who are bundles of tension and struggle, but
many who sing from a calmly energized state. It's amazing to see.
We know that Gospel comes from black culture - that's ok to say, right?
There are some amazing examples out there of black artists to can sing
Gospel amazingly well but come at it with magnificent classical
technique. They're not as famous as Beyonce, etc. But listen to the
Three Mo' Tenors - amazing. See if you can find Charsie Sawyer of Calvin
College (operatic coloratura who sings incredible gospel), or Alfreda
Burke of Wheaton College. Same story.
Working around the style -
It's very hard to do this when you have a Gospel choir, per se. Kids
*might* find it to be less than authentic - they might not. If you have
just a "choir" they're singing literature that builds the upper voice,
then you can teach a little healthy belting and find Gospel that has a
good range for their training.
Try some things - find recordings of good choirs that are not true
Gospel Choirs, but pull off a great Gospel song now & then. The Saint
Olaf Choir does this a lot. (some might be of the opinion that it's not
a true Gospel sound - but it's very exciting as Gospel should be) Find
Larry Bach at North Central University in St. Paul, MN. His kids sing
In the "work around" approach, know that you will never get the massive
wall of sound that you get from a huge Gospel mass choir. Kids will
try! Be very careful of competing with loud accompaniment, too.
So what *do* you do?
Emphasize the rhythmic style, and the gesture and shape of Gospel
phrasing. You can get at this without the belting.
Celebrate the incredibly theatrical and experiential nature of some
Gospel music. Learn to really play with the interpretation.
Find a fabulous gospel pianist who can lock in a groove, fast or slow.
They will make you or break you!
Once you develop a shared understanding of the voice, identify in
rehearsal where to use the "belt" and where not to. Sometimes a very
rich a hooty sound works (St. Olaf Choir singing Gospel)
Take voice from a teacher who understands & teaches healthy belting, and
see if it works for you.
Teach somewhat by rote, and model a healthy but exciting Gospel sound.
If that's not your strength, maybe someone can come in and help. (Andre
Thomas is in Florida!)
Find literature that might use a great gospel solo but where the choral
parts sit in a more conventional range.
Off the top of my head repertoire thoughts:
Robert Ray - Gospel Mass, Gospel Magnificat, and anthem "He Never Failed
Byron Smith - Worthy To Be Praised
Jack Schrader (Hope Publishing) write very accessible arrangements of
some Gospel - "Lord Listen to Your Children Praying", "Soon & Very Soon"
(I'd want to add Crouch's verses back in) & "Order My Steps"
Josephine Poelenitz' "City Called Heaven"
Rollo Dilworth - many GREAT arrangements - specifically, I think for
the young singers
Keith Hampton - also some nice arrangements and compositions.
Whew - sorry to be so lengthy. I love this genre (for a middle-aged
All the best,
Director of Worship
Christ Church of Oak Brook
31st Street and York Road
Oak Brook, IL, USA 60523