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Alicia Keys’s ‘Girl on Fire’ is emblazoned with messages about female empowerment and self-respect, and fittingly, the song itself is a test of willpower for any vocalist. Here’s an explanation about why this song is so hard, along with some techniques you can use to tame this inferno of a pop anthem.

Why The Song is Hard

There are simply two reasons this song is a catastrophe to most singers:

1. The C#5 is too high for most girls to put enough chest voice into it
2. ‘Fire’ is a hard word to sing with any power (we covered this when we addressed Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’)

During the Chorus, Keys sings ‘this girl is on fire’ almost exclusively on that nerve-wracking C#5. Unless you’re producing a coffeehouse cover of the song, this part needs to sound like it’s mostly coming from your chest to retain any of its power and integrity. The problem is a lot of female chest mixes peter out around B5 or C5. The repetition of this note just adds to how difficult it is, so you might get one, two or three powerful notes in, but sustaining it for the whole chorus is exhausting.

‘Fire’ is a hard word to sing with any power because both the ‘i’ and the ‘er’ tend to get swallowed. Go ahead and say ‘fire’ casually to yourself, and you’ll notice your mouth doesn’t open much, and your tongue has to move a ways between syllables. Even if you can hit that ‘fire,’ note, sustaining it adds a whole new level of hard. This is where most people start using muscles they shouldn’t use.

Instant Gratification

The fastest fix you could tackle is modifying ‘er’ in fire to more of a ‘yeuh,’ as in ‘fiyeuh.’ It should sound almost dopey when you speak it. The modification helps keep your tongue from retreating to the back of your mouth, it de-brightens your voice to give it depth, and it keeps your larynx relaxed so you can power through those high notes.

Notice that if you isolate the ‘i’ in ‘fire,’ it sounds like you’re saying ‘iyee.’ The result is that your note sounds closed off, and swallowed. Open the ‘i’ sound up so it approaches an ‘ah,’ as if to say ‘fire’ with an American southern accent. It should make the syllable sound natural and easy.

The resulting pronunciation should sound something like ‘fah-yeuuuuuh-er.’ Think this pronunciation sounds too dopey? Try easing it a little toward your original pronunciation of ‘fire,’ but don’t go all the way. Experiment and you should find a happy medium between the two.

Not So Instant Gratification

For this song, I give my students an exercise where they arpeggiate on the syllable ‘buh,’ sustaining the highest note for several seconds before descending again. The ‘buh’ exercise gives depth and chest resonance to the voice while counteracting some of those shrill, closed-off syllables.

The other exercise I use targets the tough runs in the song. In order to conquer any vocal run, you must have adequate breath-control and dexterity in your voice. The most obvious vocal run is the one that trails off of the second ‘fire’ in the chorus. Practice first by humming those five notes slowly and deliberately. Get the run up to speed until you can hum it accurately and to speed. Once you manage this, graduate to the actual syllable you’ll sing on, ‘yeuh,’ and practice the run on that. You may have to slow it down again to maintain accuracy. Finally, incorporate it back into the context of the song, practicing the passage as necessary.

Lyrics for Reference

She’s just a girl, and she’s on fire
Hotter than a fantasy, lonely like a highway
She’s living in a world, and it’s on fire
Feeling the catastrophe, but she knows she can fly away
Oh, she got both feet on the ground
And she’s burning it down
Oh, she got her head in the clouds
And she’s not backing down

This girl is on fire
This girl is on fire
She’s walking on fire
This girl is on fire

Looks like a girl, but she’s a flame
So bright, she can burn your eyes
Better look the other way
You can try but you’ll never forget her name
She’s on top of the world
Hottest of the hottest girls say
Oh, we got our feet on the ground
And we’re burning it down
Oh, got our head in the clouds
And we’re not coming down

This girl is on fire
This girl is on fire
She’s walking on fire
This girl is on fire

Everybody stands, as she goes by
Cause they can see the flame that’s in her eyes
Watch her when she’s lighting up the night
Nobody knows that she’s a lonely girl
And it’s a lonely world
But she gon’ let it burn, baby, burn, baby

This girl is on fire
This girl is on fire
She’s walking on fire
This girl is on fire
Oh, oh, oh,
She’s just a girl, and she’s on fire

Voice Lessons for the 21st Century

Traditional voice lessons are great! The Inside Voice is Better.