How to Play or Sing Runs – A Mixture of Two Techniques

There’s a method for learning to sing runs that is a mixture of two techniques.  The first technique is one used at Juilliard – though at this point, I think the technique is taught more broadly by good classical music teachers, called “rhythms.”  Part of the difficulty with singing runs is a brain-programming issue – it’s not that your brain doesn’t know what it wants to sing, it’s that it has to be able to coordinate how it fires the signals to your fingers (if you’re a violinist) or vocal chords (if you’re a singer).  When it’s firing away at a slower rate, there usually isn’t a problem.  But if you’re coordinating a variety of things, or firing a sequence in rapid succession, it has a much harder time.  “Rhythms” is a method that developed to get the brain to fire these sequences in rapid succession in the order desired.

Suppose you have a sequence of 8 notes.  You start out by performing the sequence, except you perform the first note slow, and the second note fast.  If we were to symbolize them with “F” and “S”, you would play the sequence like this:  SFSFSFSF.  The key really is to make sure that when you transition from the fast note to the slow note, you transition quickly, and in a somewhat exaggerated manner.  Play the sequence a number of times.  Then after that you switch the sequence around, and start out with the fast note, and alternate the other way.  FSFSFSFS.  After that, you do combinations of four in the following order (each one, multiple times):  SFFFSFFF, FSFFFSFF, FFSFFFSF, FFFSFFFS.

Take breaks in between.  Have a cup of coffee.  All you’re doing through this exercise is training your brain to concentrate on how to fire the different sub-sequences – and you’re allowing it to do that by giving it manageable chunks for it to work on.  By going through the complete mathematical cycle, you’re also covering your bases by letting your brain digest every chunk and sub-chunk that it needs to.  Go have a beer afterwards.  When you come back, an 8 note sequence that you’ve had difficulty with should be a lot easier.  Of course, you can perform this technique with 16 note sequences, etc…, and sequences in multiples of three.  It’s that easy.

The other technique is one that doesn’t really apply to non-vocal instruments – it’s really a technique that is necessary for singers.  When it comes to difficult note passages, the voice is actually one of the worst instruments there is in terms of accuracy.  There are two things going on:  First, your vocal chords effectively act as a 1-stringed instrument, where you only have one finger to change pitch.  Second, your vocal chords have no natural “open string” to go to as an anchor or default.  So this other technique is the concept of “anchoring.”  Basically, when you sing runs, they generally are relativized or anchored in particular keys.  Anchoring just is the idea that you have to become comfortable singing certain intervals from a base starting point, such that you can reproduce them comfortably.  For most singers, the default intervals are perfect 5ths, perfect 4ths and major and minor 3rds – or notes at the I, III, V, VI, I position usually.  You don’t have to choose the same intervals, but these are the traditional ones.  It’s difficult for vocalists to confidently make whole step or half-step changes, so keep that in mind.  In any case, anchoring is very important, because you need to have your pitches anchored if you want to then engage in the “rhythms” practice, above.

I don’t really do runs that much when I sing originals, but when I sing karaoke, I have a variety of run patterns that I’ll go through.  Descending I, VI, V, III, II, I.  Alternating I V VI III V II III I.  If you can change speed in the middle of a run, you can even through some scales.  “You’re Not Here” has a run at the end: I, VI, V, VI, V, III, II, III, II, I, VI, V.  You can mix and match, and improvise once you get the hang of it.  You can make up your own runs.  It’s fun!

Two techniques.  Rhythms. Anchoring.  (If you’re just an instrumentalist – Rhythms).