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Breaking Down the Riffs

Breaking Down the Riffs
Hundreds of thousands of singers are learning to riff with Natalie Weiss’s YouTube series, Breaking Down the Riffs (BDTR).

“It was just a fun thing, and now people are actually using it,” says Weiss, who never anticipated how popular her series would become.

Weiss’s BDTR videos help singers to learn fast, complicated-sounding vocal riffs by breaking them down into smaller sections.

Practically all singers learn through imitation at some point, so it is no surprise that so many are keen to learn the riffs of their favorite artists. See it in action here.

How To Learn Riffs

Schooled in musical theater at Penn State, Weiss willingly acknowledges that her approach is not exactly textbook pedagogy.

Weiss assigns a number, letter or random syllable to each pitch in a riff to make it easier to sing. These don’t adhere to any particular set of rules.

Weiss assigns a number, letter or random syllable to each pitch in a riff to make it easier to sing

“My training is from college, but my pop sensibility is just me listening to music and me having an opinion.”

Weiss teaches that no matter how fancy and complicated a riff may sound on a recording, it is just notes – if you think about what the individual notes are, it is never as complicated as it seems.

Weiss says something that confuses her at her workshops is when good singers prepare songs with messy riffs in them.

She says most of the time the singer knows the riff didn’t come off right, but just needs help to clarify the notes.

“Unless you are by chance a freak-of-nature gospel star who can whip them out on the spot, you should definitely plan out your riffs,” says Weiss, who admits she once became lost in the middle of a spontaneous riff and struggled to find the tonic.

The Videos

Weiss proves that instructional videos are much more fun when you put a friend on screen with you. In each video, Weiss teaches a volunteer to sing the riff.


Weiss conducting a riffing class

Her riffing guinea pigs are usually other singers she knows from the music scene in New York City, and they have no prior knowledge of what the riff will be.

Putting them on the spot like that is part of the charm of the videos, but Weiss assures them that she would never let anyone look bad — she can always edit out any screw-ups.

The occasional flub might just appear in the good-natured outtakes reel, along with other hilarious shenanigans from Weiss and her co-stars.

How BDTR Started

Weiss says she began collecting and cataloging riffs into a master list. She also cut recordings of them on GarageBand.

The idea for BDTR started when someone taught a Mariah Carey riff to Weiss years ago.

“There were no slow down apps back then — this kid just figured it out and taught it to me in sections,” Weiss says.

Later, Weiss taught a friend the well-loved “niiiiiiight” riff from Beyonce’s “Halo” by counting the notes and realizing there were only seven.

This is also where she came up with her quirky “head tilt” maneuver, which helped her to pinpoint the awkward fifth note in the run.

BDTR has been picked up by BroadwayWorld.com, one of the most successful Broadway websites boasting 4 to 5 million visitors a month.

Before moving to BroadwayWorld.com Natalie’s videos on YouTube garnered half a million views collectively, with individual episodes regularly pushing 80,000 views.

She now boasts a collective 3 million views across all her videos.

I want to do deadpan comedy, similar to the shows ‘Parks and Recreation’ and ‘Girls’

Looking Ahead

Weiss says she is in the process of trademarking the BDTR brand and plans to sell merchandise.

“My brain moves really fast,” says Weiss, “I always have to be multi-tasking, and I always write down an idea the second I think of it.”

“If I could, I would absolutely want to get into T.V. and film,” says Weiss, who has performed on Broadway and in touring shows, Les Miz and Wicked.

I want to do deadpan comedy, similar to the shows ‘Parks and Recreation’ and ‘Girls’.

I just need an in …”

Natalie Weiss head shot

Natalie Weiss just completed a run as Candy in the U.S. premiere of the new version of Saturday Night Fever. Last fall, she went on a European solo concert & teaching tour. In August 2013, she completed a 2 1/2 year run with the national tour of Les Misérables. Back In 2010, she made her Broadway debut in Everyday Rapture. She also performed in the national tour of Wicked. Natalie was an American Idol season 4 semi-finalist and performed the National Anthem at Cowboys & Shea Stadium. She has gained an international following from her web series, “Breaking Down The Riffs”.