Hard Songs to Sing: Burn, from Hamilton

Typically, I use this blog as an outlet to write about hard-to-sing pop songs that I get a lot of requests for. But occasionally, I’ll venture into the musical theatre realm, which poses its own unique set of challenges. The score of Hamilton, and the song “Burn” in particular, is widely sung and full of unexpected difficulties that are often more demanding than they sound. If the song’s sentences are leaving you defenseless, read through this Hard Songs to Sing tutorial and conquer Eliza’s brokenhearted ballad!

CHICAGO, IL -26 APR 2019- View of the CIBC Theatre in Chicago playing the musical Hamilton created by Lin Manuel Miranda. It won 11 Tony awards in 2016. | Editorial Credit: EQRoy/Shutterstock.com

I saved every letter you wrote to me
From the moment I read them
I knew you were mine
You said you were mine
I thought you were mine…

Why Is This Song Hard

1. It Takes a Lot of Control

Some songs are hard because they require a constant heavy or high belt. Not so with “Burn.” Control is what makes this one so tough. The quiet parts of this song tend to trip singers up as much as the loud ones because of how much precision they take. If you’re most comfortable as a belter, sometimes dialing it back can cause a lot of vocal tension.

2. The Series of D5’s

It may not be the highest note we’ve ever discussed, but if you have a nice light head-mix that you’ve happily glided through the song with, you might be in for some problems when you reach the climax and need to belt “forfeit,” “sleep,” “only,” and “when.”

3. The Sustains and Runs are on a Hard-To-Sing Word

Runs are already a pain. Couple that with singing a fairly frustrating word, burn, where the “r” wants to cut your vowel off, and you have yourself a difficult passage.

Instant Gratification

Modify the “R”

Let’s start with what I think should be most obvious to trained vocalists. Soften and delay your “r” sound whenever the consonant is in the way. This doesn’t mean you have to ditch it every time you sing, as you’ll hear from some voice teachers. In fact, if you listen to Phillipa Soo, the one who originated Eliza in Hamilton, you’ll notice that she doesn’t modify her “r” that much when she’s belting out the word world. But the sustain on the word burn is long enough that you don’t want to make that sustain (or the runs) sit hard on the “errrr” sound–unless you’re thinking of making the song into a classic country cover. Try sitting on an “euh” sound and saving the “rn” to the very end.

Modify the Vowels on the D’5’s

If you’ve read my Hard Songs blogs before, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I’m including some vowel modifications in here for the high notes.

  • Instead of “foreit,” try “fahr-fit,” using a softened “r” sound that almost verges on “fah-fit.”
  • Make sure your soft palate, that fleshy part toward the back of the roof of your mouth, is lifted on your “ee” sound when you sing the word sleep. You can do that by putting a slight “euh” into your “ee” sound. You can also purse your lips and see what happens to the vowel. Once you do that though, try to create the same sound without pursing your lips, because that is not the end goal.
  • Probably the hardest vowel in here is the “oh” in only, as the diphthong doesn’t make for a very good belt. Try modifying it to an “uh” sound. The line should sing, “wi-thunly the memory.”

Not-So-Instant Gratification

Interestingly, it’s not the belty parts of this song that take most of my students the longest to master. It’s the quiet parts: the beginning of the song; the verse that begins with “I’m erasing myself from the narrative”; and the final word, burn, on the A4. Developing a head-mix is the most important element of this. To find this voice, hover around the pitches the song centers around (lots of A4’s and F#4’s) and try speaking very quietly but without whispering, like you’re in a library. Don’t make the sound to breathy.

Try an Exercise on “Ng”

The “ng” sound is very difficult to belt and will most likely put you in a head-mix without your needing to tweak it that much. It’s also a great one because it forces you to work on restricting air in your exhalation. Sing a descending scale on “ng,” being careful not to push it into a belt but also holding back a lot of air on your exhalation.

Now, try replacing the difficult passages with the “ng” sound, including that last sustain on burn at the end of the song. Once the “ng” is at a good volume level and a place in your voice you’re happy with, put the words back in, but leave them in that same small, light space the “ng” sat in. If you feel your jaw starting to tense up, use some of these tips to relieve jaw tension.