Here are four steps to learn a riff, run or embellishment:
1. First learn the notes. Most riffs are short, two, three or four note patterns. Longer riffs are usually several short riffs strung together. Listen to the melody carefully and don’t worry about the vowels or words initially. Focus on learning the melody first.
2. Sing it slowly one section at a time. If it is a longer embellishment, learn the first section and then add on the next few notes and so on until you know the entire riff melody. Start off slowly and sing each section without the musical accompaniment. Frequently check what you are singing against the music to ensure they are the correct notes. Once you are singing it correctly slowly, speed up gradually until you can sing every note of the entire embellishment at the song tempo.
3. Next learn the vowels used. Often, switching vowel sounds (Ah to EE for example) at a particular point in the riff helps enhance the sound of the phrase and makes it easier to sing. Some riffs use the vowel of the lyric. In this case you can think of it as an extension of the word with an embellished melody. Other riffs employ vowel sounds only (no words) and are used for emotional emphasis.
4. Now learn the rhythm. It can sometimes be difficult to sing a precise rhythm if you haven’t learned the notes and words or vowels to sing with it. That is why I have listed this one last in your sequence of learning a riff. Listen to the pulse or rhythm of the music and how the riff fits in with the beat. Notice if there are any notes which are given emphasis.
Several years ago I created a unique vocal workout CD entitled Riffs, Runs and Embellishments. The musical accompaniment is a band playing grooves in the various styles of the riff exercises. The groove loops so that you practice the embellishment four times in each key before it modulates (moves to the next key). I suggest riffs to sing or you can improvise your own.
Riffs, Runs and Embellishments covers several musical styles and the skills you develop can be applied to many more genres. Some of the riffs use words while some use just sounds that are appropriate for that particular musical style. This is an exciting tool for achieving outstanding vocal skill while having a lot of fun.