Close to a decade ago, when Kesha (then Ke$ha) was out there performing “Tik Tok,” it didn’t feel likely that one of her songs would eventually make it into our Hard Songs to Sing collection. But “Praying” is a whole different beast. If you’ve tried it, you may have found that it begins lower than you can sing and/or ends the bridge higher than you can sing. You may also notice that the belt notes (if you even opt to belt them) in the chorus are high and wearing. Luckily, some of this can be worked on and improved over time, and the rest can be modified. Before you know it, you’ll be able to use technique to make it through this song instead of, you know, just praying.
Why Is This Song Hard
I think the better question is why isn’t this song hard? Here are a few of the many reasons this is a monster.
The Low Notes
Let’s start off at the very beginning. Those notes are low for most women! The word “fool” is on a D3, the D below middle C. Most of the female singers I work with have low ranges that stop around F3 or G3 at the lowest.
The High Note at the End of the Bridge
The note that Kesha slides up to on “forgive” is an F6, 3 F’s above Middle C. So just to be clear, the song sits in over a 3-octave range if you don’t plan to make any melodic or stylistic adjustments. For your own peace of mind though, Kesha neither hit the lowest, nor the highest notes in her live Grammys performance, so there’s no shame shortening the range.
The Chorus is a High Belt
The syllable “pray” in the second chorus’s “praying,” along with many of the other words, is belted on a D5. To top that off, it’s a sustained belt, one that you need a high degree of breath support to conquer.
The Upward Runs
Upward runs (i.e. vocal flourishes that go from low to high) tend to be more difficult than downward ones. With upward runs, the tendency is to not set up for the high note and to clench more and more to get up there when your body realizes it isn’t prepared. In “Praying,” Kesha uses both runs that move from low to high in a belt, and ones that transition from a belt into head tones at the top. Both types take a ton of control.
How to Sing Low Notes
Let’s get the ball rollin’ by discussing how to sing low notes. First thing’s first. There are anatomical limitations here. If your vocal folds can’t achieve a certain level of thickness, there are just some low note that are going to be out of reach for you. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to gain a few notes at the low end. First off, stop trying to push them out. The more you push at the very bottom of your range, the less of a shot you’ll have at hitting these notes (at least in any way you’d want to hear them). Try lowering your larynx by slightly yawning into the note (a lower larynx can help you grab a few notes at the bottom of your range); as you do this, hold back air and just sing quietly. You may not hit every note you’re hoping for, but you’ll probably get closer. Read some older posts for a more in depth look at how to hit low notes.
How to Sing Whistle Tones
While whistle tones might be a little more achievable as a long-term goal than extreme low notes, there are also anatomical limitations. The two key ingredients to work at are support and extreme lightness and agility. Create the smallest sound you can muster (i.e. don’t push out a lot of air), aim it for the top of your head, and allow your larynx (located in your neck where your Adam’s Apple is) to gently rise without constricting.
How to Belt High Notes
The second chorus and bridge have some high belt notes, but they do have one thing going for them: the belt happens on a lot of “ay” sounds—something fairly conducive to a belt.
To get a healthy belt, first start with those support muscles we talked about earlier. Stand with a stable stance–with a straight spine all the way up through your neck. If someone were to try to push you over, they shouldn’t be able to. You can try bending your knees, scrunching your nose, and gently lifting your chin (without jutting it out). You should feel muscles throughout your torso working all the way down to your pelvic floor, but be careful not to suck in your stomach and ribcage in the process.
Use Vowels and Mouth Shape to Your Advantage
On the word “praying,” pretend you’re biting into a big apple. The vowel should start off in a big open “a” (as in cat) at the front of your mouth and an “eh” (as in sweat) at the back of your mouth to lift your soft palate. The same goes for the “change” syllable in “changing.”
Don’t pronounce the “ing” sounds. The “ng” will force your soft palate to drop when you need it to stay lifted the most. Instead, sing “prah-ehhhn.”
On the word, “I,” as in, “I pray for you at night,” modify it to an “ah” verging on “a” (like cat).
Open the word “peace” way up. Keep your tongue in an “i” (as in “feet”) position, but make your mouth large and rectangular. It won’t quite be an “i” vowel anymore and may be closer to an “ay” or “ih” (as in “kick”), but no one will be able to tell when you’re that high up.
On the bridge, try modifying the word “sometimes,” to “zahm-dahms” and “someday” to “zahm-dah.”
How to Sing Upward Runs
Upward Runs on a Belt
For upward runs that remain belted, the number one thing to do is set up for the high note before you get there. Take the word, “give,” in the bridge, for example. If you just sing that word as if you’re only ever going to hit the Bb4, you’ll have next to no shot at sounding good on the D5 the word slides up to. You probably won’t have enough support, your soft palate won’t be lifted enough, and your vowel will be too closed. Try hitting that D5 first. Figure out how open your mouth needs to be. Figure out how much support you need. Figure out exactly what your body is doing to make it work. Then be there before you even sing the word instead of trying to do a rapid adjustment when you realize the high note is coming.
Upward Runs on That Switch Registers
For upward runs that start in a belt and then flip into a head voice or falsetto, start by taking it apart. Practice the belt note separate from the head voice part, and make sure all the elements are there. When you start to put them together, the tendency when you switch registers will be to back off your breath control and just let a bunch of air stream out at once. Instead of doing that, keep the same stable stance from bottom to top and continue to hold back air as you transition. As with the fully belted upward runs, make sure your soft palate is lifted before you even get to the head voice part so that you aren’t having to make such a quick modification.
So you’ve gone through all these tips, but you’re just not getting those low notes at the beginning or that whistle tone in the bridge. Don’t despair! You can still sing this song like a pro. In fact, you can sing it like Kesha did at the Grammys!
Here’s some of what she did so that you can do it too! For “Well you almost had me fooled,” try the melody line: C# C# C# B D C# C#. For “After everything you’ve done,” modify to C# C# C# B B A A. For “I’m proud of who I am,” modify to C# C# B D C# C# again.
At the end of the bridge, you can easily just skip the slide up to your whistle register and either just hold out “forgive” or pick any other note that fits into the chord to slide to–maybe a Bb5 if you’re feeling ambitious!
If you aren’t currently able to pull this song off the way you’d like, you can work on your vocal strength and range over time by running through some targeted vocal exercises. Try to do a little a day. Even 5 minutes a day to build muscle memory and strength tends to be more effective than doing one long session a week.
Na Na Octave Jump
Start with this one to learn how to belt higher without tension. Keep a very stable stance, and pretend you’re just throwing that top note like you’d throw a ball instead of clenching or jamming into it.
Na Na Sustain
Before you know it, you’ll be solid on those belt notes, but now it’s time to work on sustaining them the way you’ll need to in “Praying.” Try the exercise again, this time sustaining the top note. Instead of visualizing it as a horizontal attack, imagine that you’re falling onto the note and that it continues to move in a relaxed downward motion as you hold onto it.
Along with a great belt, you’ll also want to be able to shift seamlessly into head voice for this one. If you’re having a hard time finding this register, try this exercise on an “ooh,” making sure to keep it light.