In today’s column I have solved a problem that I bet you didn’t even know was a problem. Namely, the singing of the Happy Birthday song…
My sister asked me, “Why is it that every time I sing Happy Birthday at a party it nearly always ends badly?”
So, I took a look at this deceptive little ditty, and have come up with strategies to take the anxiety away from that moment when the glowing cake appears in the doorway.
The most recognised song in the English language is Happy Birthday to You and it’s as much a part of our lives as the air we breathe, the water we drink and the chocolate cake we eat. In fact, most of us don’t even think of it as ever having been written. But it was.
And it is not easy to sing.
What makes Happy Birthday tricky is that it has a whole octave between the lowest and highest notes of the song. This would not be an insurmountable range for most people but many are tripped up by the fact that the first note of the song is also the lowest. It only goes up from there. Therefore, if you start the song too high you will eventually find yourself trying to sing a note that only dogs can hear.
Try it now. Find a note somewhere in the middle to higher part of your vocal range and sing the song Happy Birthday to You. You soon start to notice the genius of the tune in the way that it keeps climbing higher and higher towards its ultimate crescendo on the next-to-last “Birthday”. Which is exactly the moment where so many part-time singers discover they’ve gone beyond the upper limit of their vocal range and their voice is no longer a warm bath of acoustic joy but has become a cold and tormented screech of wretched tunelessness.
What can we do to prevent this all-too-common problem?
To ensure that the song stays within the loveliest part of your range you must make absolutely sure that you are the person to start the singing. It doesn’t matter how you do this:
Often the singing begins before the cake has even entered the room because the song is usually led by whoever is carrying the cake in. Do whatever you can to be that person. Beg, bully or bribe your way into being the bearer of the cake. If this doesn’t work, for example if some unreasonable person, such as the child’s mother, insists that she ought to carry the cake in, then you’ll need to switch to plan B.
In the case that someone else, who isn’t you, starts the song, it is vital that you find some excuse to interrupt it asap. so that the singing has to begin all over again (example: knock over a drink, fake a brief medical emergency or shout, “Stop! I think this will go much better if we all start at the same time.”)
Once you have taken control of the song there will be a brief moment where everyone is slightly flummoxed and are waiting for leadership and guidance. It’s up to you to step into this power vacuum and begin the song on a note that is settled well down in the lower part of your voice range. Do your best impression of a tugboat horn as you sound the note which tells everyone else where to begin. Remembering that the first note of the song is also the lowest note, get that first note comfortably low and the rest of the song will fall into place.
I guarantee the above tactics will work every time you are at a birthday party – but with one obvious proviso: As a regular reader of the Ukulele Entertainer eNewsletter it is highly likely that among your social circle other readers will be attending the same parties as yourself and they will also be trying to take over the singing of Happy Birthday in the manner I just described. If that other person is the same sex as you then the outcome should be a happy one as both of you are likely to have similar vocal ranges.
But if your “competitor” is of the opposite sex then I’m afraid the likelihood is that your vocal ranges will be mismatched and that a good starting note for him or her will almost certainly end the song badly for you. In such a case there are some whose first resort would be to take down the opposition in a way that renders them unable or unwilling to sing a note. However, I urge you to remember that you’re at a nice party so any gestures of threatening behaviour or violence will not show you in a good light.
Therefore, I recommend you engage in friendly negotiation in a nearby room or closet in order to work out an agreeable starting note for the song to begin on. But remember this is a fun and relaxed occasion so don’t go to too much time and trouble.
Having successfully tackled Happy Birthday you may discover that other song performances can benefit from even a small amount of thought and planning before you go lurching blindly into them!