5 Essential Vocal Warm-ups

Updated: Oct 8, 2019



Warming up...and cooling down are essential for a good workout. These activities prepare your body for intense exercise and minimize stress on your heart. They also decrease the possible muscle pain and stiffness associated with exercise. Additionally, stretching allows for an increased range of motion and eases stress on the joints and tendons. As a runner warms up before a race, we must warm up before singing.


As a runner warms up before a race, we must warm up before singing.

Warming up before any workout or sport is critical for preventing injury and prepping your body.” –Johnny Lee, M.D (1)

In singing, the body is our instrument. Just as guitarists must tune their strings, or cellists need to adjust their bows before performing, singers need to prepare their instrument, their body, to sound their best and maintain longevity. Singing is a strenuous activity. In fact, according to Livestrong.com, a 150 lb. person burns about 100 calories per hour by singing. If that person is standing it goes up to 140 calories per hour! And, that goes up even more if you are moving or dancing on stage while singing! In 1986, The American Journal of Nursing reported that opera singers had stronger chest wall muscles, better pumping hearts, and were able to maintain their lung capacity until later in life than non-singers (2).


How to Warm Up


These are some suggestions of ways you can prepare your voice and body before singing. This should take you about eight to 15 minutes, depending on how long of a practice session you've planned on. Make an effort to do a little of each types of exercise. Your teacher will give you some "go-to's" that are great tools to have in your musical toolbox.


1. Physical exercise – Get moving! A few minutes of light calisthenics and stretches are a great way to start a warm up.


Exercise is important to keep the heart pumping and the lungs taking in fresh air. In general, walking, swimming, and cycling are great options for physical wellness for singers. Mindfulness practice, including yoga and tai chi, are also beneficial (3). Avoid any exercise that encourages shallow breathing. While daily exercise is encouraged, take at least an hour break between strenuous exercise and singing, and take the day off from high-intensity activity on a day of a performance. If you have not exercised earlier in the day before singing, it is helpful to spend a few minutes doing light stretches and/or calisthenics before singing. Examples include: bending over like a rag doll and stretching your hands to the floor, massaging your jaw with your hands, or rolling your shoulders back to release tension.


2. Breathing exercises – Take a Deep Breath!


Diaphragmatic breathing; The green represents the diaphragm.

We sing with our breath. It carries the tune from our imagination to the world; it supports us. This is why it is called "breath support." Keeping the shoulder lowered from the ears and filling the lungs with air are crucial to getting the best breath support possible. The word "inspiration" comes from the Latin word, spiritus, meaning breathing or spirit. To have an "inspired" performance, starts with solid breath support.


When you breath for singing, you want to breath with your diaphragm. Diaphragmatic breathing is done by contracting the diaphragm muscle located between the thoracic cavity and abdominal cavity. In this type of breathing, the chest does not rise and stomach and back expand allowing air to fill the body. Placing one hand on your upper stomach and another on your lower back is a great way to check your breathing. If you are having a difficult time deep breathing, laying on the floor and placing your hands on your stomach is a great method. In fact, tenor Andrea Bocelli recorded an entire song while lying on his back to get the breath support he needed. Spend a couple minutes practicing breathing in and out evenly and deeply.


3. Vocalizing: Lip trills and/or tongue trills


Lip trills and/or tongue trills are the workhorses of vocal exercises. Many students (including myself) have discovered their high notes while using these exercises. Some people have difficulty with one or the other, but they both give the same result; tone that is fully supported by the breath. They also help smooth our the bridges/transitions between the chest, mixed, and head voices.


To perform a lip trill: Before adding tone. Loosen your lips and blow air through, allowing the lips to vibrate. This will make a bbbbbbb-sound like an exasperated horse. Some teachers refer to it as lip "bubbles." Try this a few times. It might make your nose itch, but that's totally normal. Then perform the same breath action but add tone. Explore your range, sliding up and down and seeing how free your voice feels. Lastly, do the same action but make a three or five note scale or an arpeggio. Work this exercise throughout your range. You may be surprised with how much wider your range is and freer your voice feels after practicing this exercise for several days. If you have difficulty at first, don't fret.


If you have spoken Spanish or another language with rolled r's (alveolar r's) then you have practiced the sound needed for a tongue trill. (Some students, including myself who studied French or other language with a throaty r, may have difficulty at first with the rolled r sound. But it can be learned with practice!)


To perform a tongue trill: Before adding tone, relax your tongue and blow air between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. This is make a rrrrrrrrr-sound like a purring cat or a motor. Perform the action several times. Then add tone and explore your range, sliding up and down and seeing how your voice feels. Lastly, do the same action but make a three or five note scale or an arpeggio. Work this exercise throughout your range. You may be surprised with how much wider your range is and freer your voice feels after practicing this exercise for several days.


While many singers will have one or the other of these exercises feel more natural to them, I encourage you to practice both. Don't worry if you have difficulty at first. Some people take longer than others to become used to the sensation, and others simply prefer lip trills while others prefer tongue trills.


4. Vocalizing: Vowels


To sing clearly, a singer needs to master the vowels. In fact, most of what we consider to be talking or singing with an accent is due to the fact that people from different parts of the country or who speak different languages have unique ways that they pronounce vowels. Think of how an American person might pronounce the word "boy" as "bo-eeee" while an Australian might pronounce it so it sounds like "buy" to an American. Practicing clear vowels is important. Your teacher will guide you through all of the vowels, long and short as well as diphthongs and how to sing them in different parts of your vocal range. For our example, we are going to focus on "ah."


When singing "Ah" think of the word "father" and sing it a few times; make sure that your lower jaw drops on the "ah" sound. If it does not, it will sound like "further" instead of "father." Now, extend the first syllable into "faaah." Sing this sound a few times on any pitch that feels comfortable. Next, we will practice this vowel on three note ascending and descending scales.


When warming up with vowels, you do not need to sing every vowel every time in every part of your voice. Vowel exercises are especially important isolating parts of your range or certain phrases in songs that you feel need extra practice without having to think about lyrics. With regular vowel practice, singing will become effortless.


5. Vocalizing: Consonants


We talked about how important vowels are for singing clearly. But singing "eh-oh" does not sound like "hello." What makes words? The consonants. Just like how we pronounce vowels is related to our accent, there are differences in how people from different regions pronounce consonants. For example, as we discussed earlier, the "r" is rolled in many Romance languages, such as Spanish. While in French, the "r" is a throaty consonant. Different songs and different styles require different types of consonants. Sometimes you sing more like you speak and sometimes that is not appropriate for the particular piece. Your teacher will discuss the style of consonants that best fit the music you are singing.


During the warm-up we start from the first element of the voice, the body, then move to the breath, then the vowels, and finish with consonants. With each exercise, we are getting closer to telling stories and singing actual songs (which is why we are singing in the first place!) A good consonant exercise to start with is "buh, buh, buh, buh, buh" on descending five-note scales. This exercise helps you find the explosive power in your chest voice and project in your lower range. Another great exercise is "koo, koo, koo, koo, koo, koo, koo" in your middle high voice to open up your head voice. Your teacher will explain exercises like these further and offer suggestions.


Conclusions

These warm-ups are only a few examples of the types of activities and exercises that you may work into your daily practice. Your voice teacher will offer you direction, a careful ear, a watch eye, and encouragement that will guide you along the way. With regular practice and an expert teacher coaching you, you will see positive results. Warming up well is the first part of a successful practice session. Some of our most important work happens in the warm up. But, rehearsing songs and cooling down are also crucial for success. See my next post for cool down tips.


Feel free to email me at perennialmusicandarts@gmail.com with your questions.




Further Reading


1. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/warm-up-cool-down

2. https://www.livestrong.com/article/325132-how-many-calories-are-burned-from-singing/

3. https://www.perennialmusicandarts.com/blog/mindfulness-for-musicians





Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound healer and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She created the Perennial Music and Arts concept with her colleague, Jacqueline Bata in 2016 .She is passionate about tea and creating our own daily rituals. Visit www.PerennialMusicAndArts.com for more about music lessons and www.JanaeJean.com for more about a variety of wellness related topics including tea, sound healing, and recipes. Contact her via janaejean@me.com for questions about tea, ceremony, music composition, sound healing, writing, photography, or other relevant topics.


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