Natalie Weiss Breaks Down The Riffs

We were so excited to get to do a Q&A with Natalie Weiss, a performer, a teacher, and the creator of Breaking Down The Riffs. Here’s how BroadwayWorld bills the show: “YouTube Sensation Natalie Weiss “breaks down” her favorite riffs for singers of all skill levels. From Beyoncé to Smokie Norful, Natalie fearlessly and systematically tackles complicated riffs with her quirky sense of humor and positive attitude, making even the most impossible sounding riffs approachable, fun, and easy to learn. The show’s motto: With a little practice and determination, ANYONE CAN RIFF!”

What inspired you to start BDTR?
It is still so exciting to me that the main coined phrases and lingo I use in the Breaking Down The Riffs videos are spreading like wildfire! I simply did it as a fun video about 2 years ago, and NEVER expected it to be as big as it is! So, how it started…a friend of mine could not figure out the riff in Beyonce’s “Halo.” I told her there were only 7 notes in it, and then I had her tilt her head on the 5th note because the riff was actually almost an 8 note descending scale but skipped a note in the middle. It seemed to be really helpful.

I started collecting my favorite riffs from songs, cutting them on garage band, and making a playlist I originally was just going to film the video on my computer, using photo booth. Then a friend of mine said he had a good camera so he volunteered to film it. Little did I know that he was an AMAZING editor, and he helped to build the series with me. From then on, I learned how to edit in iMovie and I took over the editing process.

As far as coming up with the title of the series… I started jotting down ideas of what could be the “catchiest” phrase for people to potentially use, again, never thinking it would become so popular. Some ideas that were mentioned were “Breaking Down The Runs” (but that one sounded like… well, you get the idea!), “Figuring out the Riffs,” etc. “Breaking Down The Riffs” just had a nice ring to it! I am actually just now reminiscing about the fact that shortly after the series premiered on YouTube, a Twitter fan coined the abbreviation #BDTR, and that has certainly stuck!

What’s your favorite episode of BDTR and why?
My personal favorite episode is episode 4. It is not necessarily very content heavy, as far as riff difficulty/having to memorize many sections, but it is ABSOLUTELY HILARIOUS (and NOT because of me). Our little Gavroche from the Les Mis tour, Marcus, has such an adorably charming personality. I knew he would be perfect for the series. We kept the cameras rolling after he learned the riff, and we ended up with some FUNNY footage.

Watch this video on YouTube.

When you’re preparing to teach a riff, what process do you use to break it down?
When I’m preparing to teach a riff, I either listen over and over until I figure out every note, or if the riff is VERY fast, I need to use the app “Anytune” to listen to the riff at 50% speed to differentiate all of the notes. I then break them down into sections that I think make the most sense musically. Next, I attach lingo to the sections that I feel would be the easiest & catchiest to recite over and over in order to memorize and learn the riff correctly. Then I will make the guest sing the notes on “da’s” (technically this middle step can be sung on any consonant as long as the notes are distinct and not slurred together). Lastly, I teach the vowel / word to the riff.

What’s the most important thing for performers to remember when they see an intimidating riff in a piece of sheet music?
Some riffs can be intimidating if they’re ACTUALLY transcribed into the music. Other times, many singers who have originally recorded the song might have added those complex riffs on their own in process. My advice would be to ALWAYS count the notes. Once you figure out the general map of how many notes and which direction they’re going, you’ll be golden! Also, keep in mind, not EVERY singer can move their voice as fast as others, so you don’t have to execute the most complicated riff. I would much rather hear a riff with less notes in it executed properly than hear a long riff with all of the notes slurred together.

What’s your all-time favorite riff?
My favorite riff is actually a riff where I have figured all of the notes and how to sing them fast, but not exactly how to TEACH it “broken down.” There are just TOO many notes. It is the riff in Mariah’s Carey’s “Can’t Take That Away From Me (Mariah’s Theme)” that happens near the end (“that shiiiiines briiiightlyyyyyy…they can try”). I’m still working on the break down of that.

Watch this video on YouTube.

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