In today’s music lesson, voice instructor Abby offers some tips on building a foundation for singing fast vocal riffs.
How to Sing Vocal Runs
We’ve all been there. You hear an awesome singer on the radio perform some crazy fast vocal run, and you’re inspired! When you attempt the riff yourself, it just sounds like a hodge-podge of random, not-so-pretty pitches. How are all these vocalists, whether R&B, pop, or classical, able to pull off these lines? The truth is that it is not so impossible once you learn how to break the run down. With some understanding of how to sing vocal runs, you will learn how to practice them correctly!
The best first step is realizing what is going on music theory-wise. This is important to ensure you are singing the correct notes. When it comes to R&B and pop, 90% or more of vocal runs are made up of notes from a pentatonic scale. A major pentatonic scale is made up of five different notes that follow this interval pattern: major 2nd (M2), major 2nd, minor 3rd (m3), major 2nd, minor 3rd. For example, C major pentatonic uses these notes: C, D (M2 up from C), E, G (m3 up from E), A, and C. You can use this interval pattern starting on any note, and it will give you its major pentatonic scale.
Start out slow
Now that you know what notes to sing, begin by singing the scale at a slow, easy tempo. Use a metronome to sing along with to keep your rhythms even and steady. There are plenty of great metronome apps; I use Pro Metronome for iPhone. You can sing the scale ascending from the bottom up or descending from the top down, and then move keys up or down. Once that is comfortable, sing from the bottom up and back down and vice versa. As this becomes easier and easier, try turning up the metronome a few clicks. Patience is a virtue here. You might be eager match the speed of Beyoncé after so much practice, but you will be able to sing these runs much better at a fast tempo if you start slow.
Become Independent of the Piano
Now, I know this is a scary concept, but singing a pentatonic scale without the piano giving you every note is not as tough as you might think. The great thing about pentatonic scales is that they are very natural to sing. Also, because of the theory behind them, they pretty easily go along with any chord in the key. When you feel like you’ve got a basic familiarity with how the pentatonic pattern sounds, limit your use of the piano. Instead of playing each note, just hold down the tonic chord of the key (in C major pentatonic, C E G, or do mi so) and sing on top of it. Sing in all twelve keys.
Add Some Variation
Though the one-way pentatonic scales are often used in runs, music would not be as interesting if riffs could only go straight up or straight down. However, you don’t need to jump in to crazy complicated riffs. Sometimes, a simple change can make a huge difference in sound. Look at the example below in E major pentatonic. It only has two small alterations: change directions on the fourth note descending and ascending. Instead of heading straight down the scale, step back up for one note and then continue down (do la so LA so). Similarly, on the way back up, leap down on the fourth note and then resume ascending (re mi so MI so). Once getting a handle on the straight scales, try practicing this variation using the same steps.
Ready, Set, Run!
My final piece of advice is to always be listening to new music – really listening – and picking apart the riffs you hear. Apps like The Amazing Slow Downer (or the Lite version) are helpful in analyzing those runs that go by lickity split. You can import any song and make the exact notes of the vocal line easier to decipher. Practicing these exercises will give you a solid foundation for singing impressive runs. Once that foundation is set and these exercises become easier for you, don’t stop there! Remember: always seek out new music, new riffs, and keep reaching for the stars!