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Sam Smith Oct 23, 2014 at O2 ABC, Glasgow, UK, by marcen27, under CC BY 2.0

Sam Smith’s songs are full of intricate runs and fluid adjustments between registers. I’ve worked with many frustrated students on one of his most popular ones, “Lay Me Down.” The song’s opening verse meanders stream-of-conscience style in a way almost reminiscent of recitative in an opera. Seamlessly, the rambling style comes to an end at the pre-chorus, “You told me not to cry,” and then becomes a difficult belt at the onset of the chorus. Listening to Sam Smith’s effortless-sounding voice, you’d almost think that this wasn’t a a difficult song, but as soon as you try it, you know it belongs in the Hard Songs to Sing collection.

Why Is This Song Hard?

1. It Requires Seamless Register Transitions

Listen to the run in “next to you” on 1.28. It may sound easy, but it requires a lot of control.

2. The Chorus Uses a Well-Controlled Belt

Not all belting is created equal. To pull this one off, you need to have a nice strong belt that’s also flexible and easy to pull back on when necessary.

3. The Whole Song is Full of Difficult Runs

Sam Smith uses his characteristically difficult runs throughout the song, providing a challenge for even advanced vocalists.

Instant Gratification

Register Transition

Luckily, the “OOH” vowel is not a particularly difficult one to transition to head voice in. To figure out where to make the switch, it’s best to not mimic Sam Smith exactly. Take apart the run on “you” at 1.28 and experiment with different notes to move to head voice on. If you’re a female singer, you’ll probably want to transition on a later note than if you’re a male singer.

Modify Vowels For a Better Belt

The first line of the chorus is particularly easy for vowel modification. Because “A” (as in cat) tends to make for the easiest belt, try modifying most of the vowels in the first line toward the “A.” The line should sound something like, “Can a la bah yuh sahd.” The second line is a little more difficult. Open “make” up to “mack.” Because the second line has more “ooh” sounds, which have a tendency to sound heady, try opening “sure” and “you’re” up to “shuh” and “yuh.” Take out or greatly soften the “l” in “alright” so that the word is more like “awraht.” Too many consonants will cause throat constriction and cut off some of the resonance.

Take Apart the Runs

Vocal agility is something your voice can gradually improve at, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make some progress on runs just by taking them apart. For example, the long run starting at 2.18 sounds daunting, to say the least, when you listen to it and try to imitate it, but taken piece by piece, it isn’t so bad. Start with the end, C#4, D#4, C#4, B3, C#4, E4. Then go back, adding a few notes to the beginning at a time and eventually speeding up. If it helps you, broken down, the run (starting with the lyric “crazy” on G#4, B3) is G#4, B3, C#4, G#4, F#4, G#4, F#4, E4, D#4, C#4, D#4, C#4, D#4, C#4, B3, C#4, E4. Ouch!

Not-So-Instant Gratification

Work Your Vocal Agility!

Vocal agility can be a difficult balancing act. You’ll need to develop solid breath control in order to keep your runs from becoming muddy-sounding. At the same time, if you push too hard and don’t keep your sound light enough, your runs may get clunky and slow.

Humming Exercise

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Try starting with a hum. Don’t let much air out as you sing it, and don’t try to push the sound out too hard. It should feel nice and light. Just a simple 5-note scale is a good place to start. Do the exercise from low to high and back down, and see if you can speed it up over time without letting it get muddy.

Voice Lessons for the 21st Century

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