Riff Without Fear!

Weekly Teaching Tip – Jan. 5, 2016
by Tricia Grey

Riffing, like any other musical skill, can be learned. Just like we
learn to speak as babies by imitation, we can learn the scales that
riffs and runs come from and then learn the language of riffs by
memorizing and practicing some of the more common riffs. After awhile
you realize that most of the riffs you hear are similar patterns of
notes- a language of specific notes and musical phrases. Texture is
adding musicality and various interpretational devices to make those
phrases portray emotion. In this step you are going to learn the
language of riffs and runs, and you will learn to sing emotionally by
creating texture!

Let’s face it- it is very impressive to most of us to hear someone who
riffs well- who chooses just the right notes and executes them with
perfect intonation, flexibility, and speed. Let’s talk about those
three factors.

Intonation: That means singing in tune. It doesn’t matter how fast
you can riff if you are even slightly out of tune on some of the notes.
Being flat (under the pitch) or sharp (above the pitch), even just a
little bit, is the surest way to evoke a “cringe reaction” in your
listener. The best way to make intonation precise is to learn and
practice riffs and runs slowly, then gradually increase the speed,
paying attention to intonation.

Flexibility: Flexibility is a key component of riffing. Flexibility
requires that you are use a lighter coordination of the vocal folds and
that you are not blowing a lot of air. If you sing hard all the time it
will be more difficult to develop the lightness and flexibility you need
to execute fast runs. Back off on the volume and air pressure and
riffing will become much easier.

Speed: Not all improvisation is fast, but dazzling bursts of high-speed
runs are a large component of singing today. However, you don’t need
only speed- you need speed combined with precision. A lighter approach
will help- it’s harder to make a big and dramatic voice move quickly.
In order to develop precise speed you should practice fragments or
sections of a run slowly, gradually increasing the speed. If the run is
long, break it down into chunks or segments and practice each segment
slowly, over and over. Finally, put all the sections together and
practice the whole run slowly. Then, gradually increase the tempo.

If a run is complicated and hard to remember, it helps to assign numbers
to each grouping of notes, or to come up with some kind of notational
pattern of your own that will help you remember each section, and write
a visual depiction on paper. Pictures, numbers, a graph with a line
going up and down along with the melody- any way to use your visual
skills as well as your auditory skills to memorize the pattern, will
help. Some people use their hands in the air, or just their fingers,
making patterns that go high or low, along with the melody.

Of course, doing a “take-down” – writing down the exact pitches
used- is great if your musical skills are that good. Using a simple
program like Finale Notepad can be very helpful for notation. If your
music theory isn’t that advanced, just draw a simple picture
representing the ups and downs, or hills and valleys of the musical
excursion. Any graphic representation of the run will help you remember
it. The more styles of learning you combine (visual, auditory,
kinesthetic in this case, if you sing it, write it down, and use your
hand motions) the faster and more effectively you will learn.

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