Warming up the voice before singing a song is similar to warming up before an athletic workout. Sure, you can work out without warming up, but the effectiveness of the workout is diminished, and there is a better chance of straining a muscle. Since singing is a physical exercise, it should be approached no differently. There are different schools of thought when approaching the length of time a singer should warm up. No less than 5 minutes is advised, but too much more may not be productive. The warm up should also fit what the singer plans on practicing. If the song has a difficult run, then singing a warm up similar to the run will ready the voice for that passage. Remember, the goal is to eliminate any extra tension in the voice, and this gives the singer muscle memory of what is to be practiced.
There are several components to a healthy warm up:
1. Physical stretching;
2. Breathing exercise;
3. Single note sustained on a vowel;
4. Simple narrow range exercise;
5. Articulator exercise;
6. Range extension; and
7. Longer, wider, faster.
Physical stretching allows for the release of any tension in the body, and warms up the muscles needed for singing. One area to focus on relaxing is the neck, where a lot of tension is naturally held and problematic for singing. When stretching the neck, do not tilt your head backwards, or roll backwards, as that can counteract the release of tension. During stretching, be aware of your posture. Remember, the least number of muscle groups engaged equals less tension on the body and voice.
For the breathing exercise, a suggestion is to simply breathe in fully and out, focusing on a deep, low breath. Imagine you are a bellows from a blacksmith shop, with the spout your throat, and your ribs and diaphragm the expanding part of the bellows. A slow count of 4 seconds in and out is a good rule. This also provides muscle memory for the type of breathing necessary to sing. Begin then to breathe in on 4, and hiss the air out in multiples of 4 (8 seconds, then 12, etc.). Go through at least 4 sequences of these breath exercises. While hissing, place one hand on the “pant muscle” and the other around the bottom of your rib cage on the side. Your hand on the “pant muscle” should feel it fully engaged throughout the hiss, and the hand on your side can act as a guide to expand your breath. Besides a hiss, other types of sounds will work, such as “sh” or “f.”
Next, sing a single note in the middle of your range (a G is good if you are familiar with music notation) on a vowel. The “oo” vowel is a good one to start with as it is easier to keep round, tall, and free of tension. Try and hold the note also for counts in multiples of 4, changing the note higher or lower for a few steps as you increase the time.
A small range of notes is a common type of warm up. There are many types out there to try, so I will give a couple here. Usually, it is a five note scale going down (5,4,3,2,1 or G,F,E,D,C or sol fa mi re do, depending on your thought process). The exercise should be done with one consonant and one vowel, for example Na Na Na Na Na). You then move up a step and continue the same exercise, starting from the middle of your range up to a medium high part of your range. Then do a different vowel and constant starting from the middle of your range going down to a medium low part of your range. What vowel and consonant to pick varies on what you are working on in your song practice that day.
The next exercise works your articulators: your tongue, teeth, and lips. One of the great advantages singers have over instrumental musicians is the ability to communicate through words. Unfortunately, this can backfire if the audience cannot understand the words. Being aware of how to use your articulators differently in singing versus talking is imperative if the singer wants to be an effective communicator. One example of an exercise is a five-note scale going up and down using “ming” (holding the ng at the end of each one). Other examples are “flah,” “zing,” “blah,” “ping,” and “bah lah.” Again, which ones to use should be reflected by the music that will follow the warm up.
Range extension exercises can be tricky for the inexperienced singer, so when beginning these, be careful not to go too high too fast. One of the greatest difficulties singers encounter with tone is tension in the high parts of the voice. If you have not experienced your voice cracking on a high note, or sounding like someone squeezed your throat shut yet, chances are it will be happening to you very soon. We will talk more about how to avoid this in later lessons, but for now, remember to always do three things when singing high: 1. Open the throat in a yawn 2. Keep the diaphragm engaged (check that “pant muscle”) and 3. Approach with thinking “top-down” and not “up.” An example of a range extension exercise is an arpeggio up and down (C-E-G-C-G-E-C or 1-3-5-8-5-3-1 or do-mi-sol-do-sol-mi-do) on a vowel-consonant combination such as “nah.” You can also use different vowel-consonant combinations, or words (“I sigh to sing” or “O row the boat.”) Sing the arpeggio going up by step to the top and then bottom of your comfortable range. A rule to follow is to sing this exercise a couple notes higher or lower than your highest/lowest note in the song about to be practiced.
Longer, wider, faster refers to the idea of singing exercises that combine all the previous ones into an exercise that imitates phrases in actual music. When we sing music, typically there is a musical idea, or phrase, which should be sung in one breath. This exercise prepares the singer for that final transfer to singing a song. One example uses a vowel “ah” jumping from a low to high octave (C-C, 1-8, do-high do), singing a turn and then a scale passage down (C-C, BCDBAGFEDC, 1-8, 78287654321, do-do, ti do re do ti la sol fa me re do). You would then go up a step and add a turn (C-C, BCDC BCDCBAGFEDC, etc). Each turn would lengthen the phrase. There are several variations on this exercise, but start there.
In essence, the warm up should not be skipped to simply start practicing the song because it is “boring.” You should change the type of syllables each warm up to reflect the song, again reinforcing good muscle memory habits for the practice to follow. Think of it as a way to reset your voice back to true voice before beginning to sing the song. Without this step, the bad habits formed before this course will continue to occur.
Assignment on Videos
After watching the demonstration video, enter the secret number at the top of your assignment.
Write in complete sentences answers to the following questions.
1. In your own words, what was the content of the video?
2. What are two things you found most interesting about the content of the video?
3. Think of a singer you have seen and heard. Who are they, and what do they demonstrate in terms of this concept?
4. Name 3 positive things you do while singing that relate to this concept.
5. What 2 things can you improve on relating to this concept?