How to Cheat the High Notes in Karaoke
Illustration by Mike Gorman
Karaoke can be a dangerous endeavor. What can you sing that won't make friends shun you? How can you go balls-out during your next performance? Each week in "Ask a Karaoke Host," RFT Music writer and professional karaoke host Allison Babka answers your burning questions about maximizing your melodious mutterings and minimizing your friends' pain. Ask her stuff by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or hashtagging #rftkaraoke on Twitter.
When a man with a normal tenor range attempts a song that demands falsetto, does he have to maintain that upper octave for the whole song, or can he dip down to his normal range for a verse or two? -- Walk Like a Man
Sustaining a true falsetto is difficult if you're not trained for it or warmed up enough. When karaoke singers try to mimic Matt Bellamy, they often sound like they've been kicked in their boyparts (or ladyparts, though falsetto problems usually plague guys) and end up shrieking lyrics to reach for the notes. That can cause the vocal cords some pain for a day or two.
If you've got the stamina for the high notes and are driven to entertain others by being gutsy, by all means, go for it. But you're under no obligation to screech every word as high as Bono does. Plus, you probably want to avoid scaring customers away, right?
Here's a trick: If you know the karaoke version of the song well, you'll likely know where the track's backing vocals kick in and if they're loud. Because those vocals usually happen on the chorus and correspond to where the falsetto parts are, you can use this to your advantage. The backing vocals will take the lead and give you cover while you drop to your normal range or harmonize.
I do this myself with Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone." I'm fine for most of the song, but bits of the bridge simply climb too high for me to perform well. Thus, I harmonize in a lower octave just for those mega high parts and let the backing vocals take over. I felt like a cheater the first time I did it, but the trick is surprisingly effective and the audience doesn't notice much (or doesn't care). Stay away from Frankie Valli in general, and you'll be fine.
Can I do karaoke to an instrumental track, or does that cross over into performance art? -- Jukebox Hero
This might be the first question that caused me to make "WTF?" face while reading it. Are we playing "Stump the Karaoke Host?" If so, you've just won the fictional grand prize of $100,000.
Karaoke means that there are words on a screen, which you sing while a song plays. An instrumental track by nature has no words to post. Thus, what you're asking really wouldn't be karaoke.
Are you enquiring if you literally are able to sing some random words over an instrumental song? Well, I guess you can, but I'd probably take you aside and ask about your intent before deciding if I'd go along with the request. Most customers go to karaoke bars in the same manner they'd go to a cover band's concert -- they want to watch someone perform hits they can hum along to. If you start doing beat poet shit over "Green Onions," those customers likely will leave, taking their beer and appetizer money with them. And I can't have that. (See next question.)
While I applaud the creativity, I'd likely suggest you take your act to an open-mic night at a coffee shop.