by Camille van Niekerk
Riffs and runs, though they originated in gospel music, have made their way into almost every contemporary music genre, including r&b, pop, and even country. We might define a run as “one lyric or syllable sung with many fast-moving pitches in succession”, while a riff is often more improvisational and can be vocal or instrumental (ie: guitar riffs). Riffs and runs are difficult for 2 main reasons:
1. The pitches go by too quickly for many beginning singers to follow, and
2. The speed requires a higher level of vocal agility than most beginning singers have developed
To address both of these issues, here’s my step-by-step guide for learning and practicing any run.
Slow it down
.75 speed on Youtube is a good place to start if it goes by too quickly, but you can also use the “custom speed” function. On a laptop or desktop (not the app), click the Settings gear > Playback speed > Custom. You can also use an app like Anytune (https://anytune.us/).
Determine the individual pitches
You don’t need to notate the pitches (by pitch letter name), but you do need to match pitch slowly before you can speed it up. For very complex runs, I’ll stop and start every 1-2 seconds while I listen and repeat, just working on a few pitches at a time. It’s a somewhat tedious process, but it gets faster the more you do it.
Make a note of repeated pitches or directional changes (turns)
Those can easily trip you up! Also take note of which pitch is stressed (or held longer): that will help you with timing and inflection later on.
Break it into manageable chunks
This is usually 2-3 sections - sometimes more if it’s a very long run. Practice each section alone before putting it together.
Add a consonant and practice slowly
Singing on DOO or DAH will be much easier than singing on a vowel. The consonant gives some separation to the pitches so they don’t “bleed together”. Riffs and runs require speed AND specificity; it’s not a “clean” run if the pitches just blend and slide into one another with no distinction.
Use that app or custom speed function on YouTube! Once you can sing the run at .75 speed, bump it up to .8, and so on.
Remove the consonant
Return to the vowel or lyric within the song. This can be tricky, so you may want to start on a narrow vowel like OO or EE (those are easier than wide open vowels like AH or EY at first).
Keep speeding up and add inflection
Do your best to match the dynamic and inflection of the original artist. This will take you from a somewhat “boring” string of notes to an exciting run with dynamic variety and phrasing.
Learn your first easy, 5-note run in this short lesson, using song examples from Carrie Underwood, Beyoncé and Boyz II Men:
Exercises to increase vocal agility -
Anything fast and/or wide-range will help train you to sing smoother, cleaner riffs and runs. Voice teacher tip: challenge yourself to sing just a little faster than you’re currently comfortable with.
If you’re a 30 Day Singer student: look for exercises titled “9-tone” and “long line agility” within the beginner courses. Full access students: watch our riffs + runs tutorial (https://www.30daysinger.com/tutorial/runs-and-embellishments/1) and any tutorials labelled “advanced” or “pro” for more exercises to train your agility.
All students: we have another great riff & run lesson right on YouTube for you, with exercises to increase your agility. Check it out:
Other tips: vowel choice, tone, and registration
A. Vowels: narrow vowels (like EE and OO) are easier than wide or open vowels, so learn a run on a narrow vowel and/or modify to a narrower vowel when you actually sing it.
B. Tone: lighter tone is usually easier than heavy; nasal is usually easier than chesty. Start there (if it helps) and gradually move to your desired tone.
C. Registration: consider your passaggio! You can (1) use your break stylistically (the “pop flip” or “falsetto flip” in Madison Beer’s “Selfish” run is a good example of that), or (2) use some skillful vowel modification to achieve a consistent tone, even if you’re singing over your passaggio.
Listen to the best
Add these singers to your playlist for endless riff + run inspiration and practice:
Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Brian McKnight, Jazmine Sullivan, Beyoncé, Usher, YEBBA, H.E.R., Tori Kelly, Avery Wilson, JoJo, Jessie J, Pink, Ariana Grande, Scott Hoying, Clark Beckham