How To Sing Like Kate Smith


`EH! Francesco!'' More than a dozen otherwise well behaved students and voice teachers in a Wellesley College classroom are yelling those words with all the energy of street vendors from Naples. They are on the road to ``belting'' with Jo Estill. Wearing a ``vocal power'' button, Ms. Estill is a New York-based voice consultant who takes a decidedly unconventional approach to the teaching of singing. Belting, or singing at full blast, is only part of that whole.

An alto who began her career singing lieder in recitals and opera, she went on to pursue a special interest in the anatomy and physiology of singing. She has shared the findings of her postgraduate study at professional voice conferences from Sweden to Japan. Her unique approach puts her on the cutting edge of a new way of teaching singing, says Wellesley College voice teacher Hazel O'Donnell.

Rather than lump words, music, style, and the overcoming of production problems into each lesson, Estill separates the mechanics and the artistry. Her theory is that by understanding first how the palate, larynx, and other parts of the voice mechanism work, and why sounds vary, each person can gain firmer control over his voice for improved speaking or singing.

``It's like a carpenter with a box of tools,'' she says. ``You learn how to use each one before using them together.''

In her view, singing is something everyone can do. ``It should be an enrichment, a joyous thing,'' she says.

That includes belting - the loud, often brassy sound made famous by the late Ethel Merman, Kate Smith, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and others. Often heard in ethnic, rock, and gospel music, belting is a real crowd pleaser, says Estill. ``People like to see someone giving his all.''

Still, for a mix of reasons - from the sound level and an aesthetic bias to the widespread assumption that it can damage the voice - belting has never been embraced in classical music circles. Yet as Jo Estill sees it, a singer such as Luciano Pavarotti is essentially belting when he hits the high notes in ``Nessun Dorma,'' the Puccini aria. And belting critics are often among the warmest applauders, she says.

Estill had long suspected that belting, even on the high notes of a song, could be done without harming the voice. Merman, who sang well into her 80s, never sang any other way, she says.

A little over a decade ago while doing research at a medical center in Syracuse, N.Y., Estill attended a particularly lively party. Suddenly, the Italian grandmother in the host's family said something easily heard above the din. Actually, it was her normal tone. She wanted the door shut.

Reminded of her own Italian grandmother, who also found it natural to speak loudly, Estill imitated the sound when she got home. She found the pitch higher than she expected and the effort exhilarating rather than tiring.

She followed up her observations with laboratory research. She used a variety of techniques, including videos taken by a special camera inserted through the nasal passage and the electrical measurement of muscle activity. Estill says her research proves that the voice need not be damaged if belting is done correctly.

Belting requires a consistently high energy level. In her view, retaining that energy is less a matter of proper breathing, as most voice teachers say, than of exercising head, neck, and back muscles.

At Wellesley, Estill listens to each student try spoken belting first. A few then go up to the piano and belt out such favorites as ``New York, New York'' and ``Maybe This Time.''

Sandra Stewich, a voice teacher from Chelmsford, Mass., whose version of ``Maybe This Time'' drew wildly enthusiastic applause, says this is the first time in her training that she has acquired some tools she can use. ``Before, I'd been given generalizations - images and `You should feel this way.' Now I know what to do ... to change the quality of my voice if I want.''

Estill, who did not pursue her college degrees until her mid-40s, says in her ``next retirement'' she wants to teach belting on a cruise ship where the decibel level can bother no one. ``I'd like all those retirees to know the joy of letting it all hang out. ... There's real joy in stretching yourself....''

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