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 [email protected] 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.

How much power does the KJ have to control the stage, to tell a singer they must stop, chill or leave? -- Shaddup You Face

As a KJ (also known as a karaoke DJ, karaoke host or *gulp* karaoke jock), my job is to help the bar rake in moolah, which I do by making sure the guests are safe and happy, providing sufficient entertainment and keeping the show moving. If something or someone disrupts any of that -- and, consequently, the good vibes that contribute to big bar tabs -- I need to eliminate the source. Not in the Sopranos way, of course.

In The Wedding Singer, Adam Sandler informs the crowd, "I have a microphone and you don't, SO YOU WILL LISTEN TO EVERY DAMN WORD I HAVE TO SAY." I'm not quite so belligerent, but the sentiment stands. My fictional Uncle Ben told me that with a great microphone comes great responsibility. It's my responsibility to let a guy know that dropping the mic upon finishing a song isn't acceptable. It's my responsibility to tell a girl that jumping into someone's tune when she's unwanted isn't cool. It's my responsibility to inform more people than you'd think that hovering over me while I'm trying to do my job won't be tolerated. In varying degrees, I'm an emcee, a bouncer, an entertainer, a daycare chaperone and a protector. And I'm extremely lucky to be stationed at a bar that supports me in all of those roles.

I don't mean to imply that I'm the principal from The Breakfast Club or anything. The majority of customers are well behaved, and most karaoke nights pass with more revelry than incident. But if you ever see a KJ cut the music or dismiss a singer, it's likely that there's a good reason.

As a Friday-night karaoke host at a south-county bar, Allison Babka receives her share of drunken song dedications, occasionally makes people cry and even has been glorified by a singing psychic. She's considering adding "Call Me Maybe" to her personal karaoke repertoire, and she hates herself for it. Bug her with karaoke nonsense on Twitter at @ambabka, and use #rftkaraoke.

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