Runs, also called riffs, can add so much to a vocal performance. For me there is nothing better than a perfectly executed and placed run. My all time favorite vocalist is Mariah Carey. (I’m talking about “Butterfly” Mariah Carey from the 90’s.) On top of being a top notch vocalist with out of this world range and power, she knows how to put together a beautifully and effortlessly executed run. One of my favorite runs is the one in the beginning of the song Honey. It is a 13 note run and is so beautiful! Well let’s get down to it. In this post I’m going to talk to you about what makes a great run and give you insight on how to sing them.
We will cover:
What are runs/riffs?
What’s the difference between a run and a riff?
What makes a good run/riff?
How to learn a run/riff?
Exercises you can do to get better at singing runs
Don't feel like reading? Watch the video instead:
WHAT ARE RUNS/RIFFS?
A run or riff is a musical passage that moves quickly up or down the scale, where the singer has small changes in the melody. Another formal term for riff is a melisma. You hear this in classical music when opera singers sing really fast and long passages. In the pop world, you would probably think of someone like Christina Aguilera when you think of some who sings riffs.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A RUN AND A RIFF?
They are the same thing :)
WHAT MAKES A GOOD RUN?
There are three things that make up a good run in my opinion.
1. Vocal Agility. Vocal agility has to do with how quickly your voice can move. Runs are typically quick and require a good amount of flexibility in your vocal folds. I trained as a coloratura soprano and one of the characteristics of this voice type is having a light agile voice. I was singing runs before I started training classically, and I really think learning how to sing runs set me up for being able to sing those passages as a coloratura soprano.
2. No tension. A run will come out best if there is no tension or constriction while you are singing. In addition to not having tension in the vocal tract, you don’t want tension in the face either. While flapping jaw around when you’re singing a run can be nice for dramatics, I think that the best approach is to let the inside of your mouth do the work for you to prevent unnecessary tension.
3. Cleanliness and Clarity. This is so crucial in executing a good run. You need to know exactly what the notes are that you are singing. A sloppy run separates an average vocalist from a polished vocalist. Practice singing lots of different scales. Major, minor, pentatonic. Sing up and down and transpose to different keys. This way you will train your voice and your ear to know what notes are supposed to be present in specific keys and when you sing your runs, you won’t be flat or be singing notes that shouldn’t be a part of the key.
Watch the video at 2:13 to learn an exercises to help with agility, tension and clarity for runs.
Watch the video at 5:05 for a vocal exercise on my favorite inversion of the Pentatonic scale.
How to learn a run/riff.
· Figure out what the notes are. First things first! Figure out what notes you’re supposed to be singing. If you can, play it on the keyboard, do it in solfege if you know how, or
· Break it up. Work in small sections. Take the first part of the run and get that down good before moving on to the next section and so on.
· Slow it down. This is super important and goes along with helping make sure you’re singing the right notes. When you have to sing it really slow, it becomes apparent when you don’t know what notes you’re supposed to be singing. Additionally when it comes to learning a new skill, trying it in a bunch of ways is helpful to reinforce what you’re learning. That brings me to my last point.
· Change the rhythm. Sustain one of the notes that is normally shorter. Play around with changing the passage up, you might even find that you’ve created a new run you want to use!
So there you have it! Those are my tips for learning to sing runs! Thanks so much for checking out this post. Leave a comment and let me know what your favorite run is and how you go about learning it!