Like most vocal coaches, I get a lot of questions. And, understandably, when someone is considering booking vocal lessons with me they often ask questions about things they want to achieve as singers. But there’s one particular question that my answer to tends to lose me potential clients. Granted, I don’t get the question very often. But when I do the singer doesn’t tend to like my answer.
The question is “can you help me with my runs”, or “can you teach me how to do riffs?” While my answer to that question is seldom just a flat out “NO”, it’s definitely not usually a yes either. What gets me into trouble is when I start asking the person why they want to learn them and work on them. Why are they so important to you? Tough questions to answer when it’s put to you that way.
Now don’t get me wrong, I like runs and riffs, when they’re done well. But when I see a student of mine really giving a lot of time, energy and importance to learning and improving riffs and runs I challenge their motivations for that. You see as a Christian/Gospel singer you must always be mindful of what really motivates pretty-much everything you do in front of that microphone. Riffs can be a thing that really enhances one’s ministry, or it can be something that is used strictly to bring glory and praise to yourself.
As I see it, the difference often lies in the person’s natural ability. Some people were simply born with a natural affinity towards runs. It’s a part of their vocal style. It’s not something they do on purpose. Not something they spend time working on. So a singer who does it naturally can be totally sincere and transparent in their ministry because it’s just what God gave them. Artists like Smokey come to mind. I personally would like to see Smokey do less riffing. But you can’t deny his sincerity or his anointing.
When a singer who wasn’t born with that ability as a natural part of their gift comes to me asking to learn it or perfect it, I always try to help them see that there are far better things to spend their time working on. I want them to see that riffing is only a style element, not actual singing and NOT what they should spend the majority of their time focusing on. But I also want them to understand that it’s easy to become obsessed with riffs and runs and doing them well. To the point that you spend more time perfecting that than perfecting your praise.
At the end of the day- for Christian/Gospel singers anyway- there must be one central motivation for everything you do. To glorify God through the ministry of music. If you are seeking to add riffing and running to your reportorial bag of tricks, then chances are your desire to do so is for selfish reasons that have more to do with glory and acclaim for yourself than it does perfecting the gift God gave you to be used for another level of service.
That’s a hard pill to swallow, I know. And it requires a level of introspection very few people are willing to embark upon. But if your real goal is just a deeper, more effective ministry so that God is really glorified the more, then you must be willing to ask yourself tough questions about your own motivations for wanting certain things. Do you want better breath control so you can finish phrases without feeling like you’re always gasping for air? Or do you want it because you saw someone hold a note a really long time and you want to be able to do it too. Do you want to increase your vocal range so you can hit super-high notes that will get reactions from the audience? Or do you simply want to break through hindrances and limitations so your gift can be a more effective witness?
When you’re thinking about it like that, it’s hard to fit “learning how to do riffs” into that equation. My belief is that God gave it to everyone He wanted to have it. He didn’t give it to you because He has other people assigned to you that don’t like a lot of riffing (and there are many).
So guard your heart always. Question your true motivations for wanting certain things. Embrace the singer God made you to be. Take that natural gift and train it to be the best it can be so that all people see is God shining through you.
Ron Cross is a trained vocal coach since 2006. He has over 30 years of experience in music ministry. To book lessons with Ron go to The Music Ministry Coach.com click on the Book Lessons/Log in button up top.