Ask yourself this question: “What do I enjoy most--singing or warming up? If you’re honest with yourself, you will probably answer, “Well, singing, of course!” Performing is much more satisfying than the easiest vocal warm-up exercises.
When a runner prepares to run, even a short distance, she stretches and moves the joints as a matter of course. No one would consider that odd or think the runner was being excessive or acting like a “diva.” Most people understand that the act of running, even though it uses parts of the body that we use throughout the day to stand and walk, works those body parts much more vigorously than walking does.
In the same way, singing uses the vocal mechanism, which is made up of the respiratory system and the surrounding muscles and connective tissue, in a much more athletic way than does ordinary talking. I often refer to singing as “talking plus,” as it uses the same muscles and organs that talking does, but in a much more arduous fashion. Vocal warm-ups are not just suggested; they are quite necessary for both making your voice sound better and protecting your voice from harm.
There are three items that the singer needs to focus on before working on repertoire or performing: 1) moving and stretching muscles in the torso, shoulders, neck, and face; 2) jump-starting the respiratory mechanism (breathing); 3) starting light vocalizing (a step past talking). I’ll briefly mention one exercise from the extensive list of warm-up exercises available for each area, and then I’ll mention a bonus hint for the conscientious student.
Stretching Before Other Vocal Warm-ups
All athletes stretch and move before beginning an event or game. Vocal athletes need to move and stretch the parts of the body they’ll be using to sing. Those parts include: the face, the neck, and the shoulders, although the entire body (even the legs!) can be moved and stretched also.
The stretching exercise that I use before any other vocal warm-ups is quite simple. First, roll your shoulders forward (making the shoulder point move in a circle) several times, then backward several times. You can also move the shoulders up and down. Concentrate on gentle, slow movements and relaxing the muscles you’re using, removing excess, unnecessary tension. Finish by holding the body very upright and tall. Think of yourself as a marionette puppet being held up by a string attached to the crown of your head. The shoulders will sit back and down from the head, and you’ll feel a little like a soldier standing at attention. Just don’t be stiff--stay relaxed as well as upright!
Then, move the head and neck (without moving the rest of the body) in six directions: 1) lookup, with your head back as far as is comfortable; 2) look down, with your chin on your chest; 3) look to the right, carefully twisting the neck without moving the shoulders; 4) look to the left, carefully twisting the neck without moving the shoulders; 5) gently tilt your head to the right, as though trying to touch your right ear to your right shoulder; and 6) gently tilt your head to the left, as though trying to touch your left ear to your left shoulder.
It is extremely important to move slowly and deliberately when doing this warm-up, so you don’t injure yourself. Move only as far as is comfortable; pain is never gain in vocal warm-ups.
Breathing as a Vocal Warm-up
Every singer, no matter how skilled, needs to constantly remind themselves of how to breathe correctly. It is true that as a singer continues to study, the basic motions of breathing become second nature. However, no one walks about breathing as energetically as a singer must!
One of the best vocal warm-ups for breathing involves using our inborn instincts. While standing upright, gently but firmly pull the abdominal muscles in toward your spine until you feel like you can’t “pull in your stomach” anymore. Then, gently blow out any remaining air you have left in the lungs. Your body will automatically inhale after a moment, and you’ll feel the abdominal muscles move outward very quickly as you inhale. Exhale on an AH or OH vowel, as though you were yawning and sighing at the same time, without allowing the shoulders to slump. Rest a moment, and repeat the exercise 2 or 3 more times.
Light Vocalizing to Finish Vocal Warm-ups
At this point, a lot of singers will begin to rehearse their repertoire. Not a good idea! Vocal warm-ups should take, at the least, about 5 minutes, and, at the most (if you have a long program or rehearsal ahead of you), up to 30 minutes or so. Even then, mature singers will continue to monitor their bodies to release excess tension and strive to keep their minds on what their mechanism needs to do as they rehearse or perform
A great tool for vocal warm-ups is a straw. The straw can be of any length or diameter, although I recommend using a straw about a foot long and about ¼” in diameter, about the size of a regular soda straw. Singing straws can be made of any material, but it is more ecologically and financially smart to use straws that can be washed and reused. You can purchase stainless steel or silicone straws at most grocery or big box stores for a small price.
Straws are used in Semi Occluded Vocal Tract (SOVT) exercises. When you blow through a straw, the mouth is partially closed, causing increased back pressure to be reflected to the vocal folds/chords, allowing them to vibrate with more ease and less effort. It’s also a quieter way to vocalize!
You can do any vocal warm-up exercises or vocal warm-up songs through a straw, although you can’t change the vowel sound, of course. Try starting by blowing gently through the straw with no pitch (keeping the lips around the straw with no air leaks), then slowly adding a pitch (high or low). Repeat with different pitches throughout your range.
SOVT exercises are also great when rehearsing a tricky musical passage. The straw allows you to practice the pitches without overdue exertion, saving your voice from too much wear and tear.
A Final Bonus Tip
One last tip for everyone reading this, whether you consider yourself a “singer” or not is to use these exercises to wake up and improve your speaking voice! Remember, the singing voice is simply an extension of the speaking voice, used in a much more energetic and athletic way. Before you speak in the morning, warm up! You and your voice will both feel much more energized and ready to face the day, and your voice won’t tire out as quickly.
There are probably thousands of vocal warm-ups, and these are only a few, but you can use them to set up a routine for your vocal warm-ups. This shortlist is also good for even the busiest music director to use for choir vocal warm-ups. That way you or your group will never be caught unready to sing your favorite song!