Vocal Warm-Ups or Vocal Damage


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I am privileged to work with many singers and music artists.  Usually, my first question to them has to be, “What are your warm-up exercises?”  About 80-90% of these people will have no planned disciplined warm-up technique.

Would a runner start into a full on sprint without stretching?  Do most athletes just start their sport without conditioning the body first?  No!  Most athletes integrate a warm up routine as a necessity before a game or competition.  Why?  It requires a physiological preparation to sustain, work at your maximum and minimize the possibility of a strain or injury.

I think if you have read this far, you are possibly getting the point I am trying to make.  Most singers start into a full-on performance mode without awakening, strengthening and preparing the voice.

I work locally with voice clinics and music professionals trying to remedy the abuse caused by singers who think they’re above vocal abuse.  A majority of the time when they are consulting with me, they have started on a difficult journey of recovering what they’ve lost.  Most of this started by simply not warming up the voice properly to allow disciplined healthy technique to ignite their brain, diaphragmatic muscles and placement.

Throughout my life I have been taught many counteractive warm-up techniques.  I tend to act like a David against the Philistines of bad vocal warm-up techniques.  Most vocal warm-ups have been inherited by choral conductors and music teachers, but they have no physiological reasoning or understanding for their purpose or lack thereof.  Remember, the voice is a physical instrument and every consonant and vowel sound carries a proclivity for helping or hurting the singer.  As a music professional, I’ve spent countless hours researching the physiology of vocal sound production and have become quite aware of the interactions of vowel and consonant sounds and their pros and cons for the singer.  It’s imperative that a warm-up allow the singer to slowly and deliberately stretch the voice in the right direction without causing injury or encouraging bad habits.

Let me put together a basic warm-up that can be expanded on, but will teach you some healthy principles of warming up the voice.

  1. Start with a lip buzz or “zzz” sound.  Do not place a defined pitch sequence to this exercise, a single moderately scaled tone is sufficient.  Make certain you are getting full breaths.  It’s also important that you aren’t just sustaining the sound, but you are also diaphragmatically pulsating the sound.  I call it belly pooching. It feels like you are making a noise in a circular motion.   This is like caffeine for the diaphragm.  In the age of computer and t.v. slouch, it’s imperative that we engage and awaken our muscles that are supporting our breath before we combine it with any pitch sequence.  Remember, no vowels!  Just buzz your lips like a bee or use the consonant “z”. It’s necessary to remind the brain and the muscles to engage properly.
  2. When starting to add a pitch sequence (five tone scale, etc.), this is where most choral directors, music teachers and singers go down the path of negative warm-up exercises. They combine warm-ups with back/guttural vowel sounds. These vowels like buh, boe, bah and boo naturally want to resonate in the throat and the singer needs to learn not make dark sounds which create more tension on the vocal cords/flanges.   Frontal/nasal Vowels like Bee and Bih and a neutral/central vowel like Bye are healthy  initial warm-up vowels because they assist in keeping your tone open and not create negative pressure on the voice.   When these vowels are combined with voiced plosive consonants like B, D, Guh or the nasal consonants M, and N.  It assists the singer in keeping away from tension, engaging the diaphragm and also feeling a healthy and forward placement.  Most people engage their placement too low  in their a speaking voice.  It’s imperative that placement for warm-ups utilize a brighter tone to offset the tendencies and pitfalls of the speaking voice. Remember, no back/guttural vowels for the initial pitched warm-up. Utilize the help of frontal/nasal vowels combined with plosive and nasal consonants  to gently stretch the voice.
  3. Start in a comfortable area of your range when warming up with pitched exercises. Starting at the ultimate lowest or higher part of your voice can engage bad habits by overworking or underworking placement and immobilizing proper breath support.  I prefer not to stretch the voice to an ultimate note incipiently, but slowly work down in the vocal range and back up to the higher range.  It is equivalent to a muscle stretch where you gently work to achieve your optimum range of motion.
  4. What I like to call “ballistic vocal stretching exercises” i.e. siren sounds, help to gently stretch and relax the voice. Glide the voice up and down in a wave like sound and motion, using frontal/nasal or central/neutral vowels and plosive consonants. Starting at the lowest pitch and quickly gliding to the highest pitch and back down. This helps to eliminate vocal tension. Males this is not just an exercise for females! Don’t be afraid of your head voice/upper range.
  5. When working through a pitched warm-up sequence make sure to utilize all of the vowel families. Start with the frontal/nasals vowels, then what I call frontal/maxillary vowels bay, beh and bah and lastly the back/guttural vowels.  By sequentially moving from the most forward placement to the back/darker vowels it helps the brain and muscles to better engage a healthy placement and secure tone.

*vowels have been simplified for understanding and do not follow IPA phonetic chart spelling.

Remember, warm-ups aren’t elective for a singer, but are necessary in keeping a healthy voice.   Get a warm-up plan or let a music instructor  help you maximize your vocal needs.  It might feel awkward at first, but you will get use to it and see, feel and hear a major difference in your performance.

For more information contact: Stephen Nix snix77@yahoo.com







The Power of Inconvenient Kindness

Social media has made the playing field of platitudes, bromides and cliche’s a plethora, if not an infestation of words in which sincerity can’t be discerned.  It has become too easy to state opinions or feelings without having to back them with an action or responsibility for following through with what has been written.  In many ways, it’s discounted the power of a word, even words of kindness.

The foundation of all I believe to be good has not been based off of a word, a song or sermon, but the kind actions of others.  People going out of their way to help. People seeing a need and selflessly stopping their lives to help meet the deficiency.

When my Mom died in my mid-teens, I was left to pay my way through my world with her social security check and trusting the kindness of people to understand a young boy needed a parent figure to help with basic needs at times.  Then, my Father’s death followed some years later and the the prison of grief and shock from this event sent me spiraling into a deep, exhausting depression.  Again, I was unable to tend to my basic needs, but dependent on the kind actions of others. Some of this action was a deep commitment and wasn’t limited to a one time scenario of help.

After many years,  I thought I had grown past my need for help, but over the last year I have found myself in the same dilemma from my teen years.  Raising a cousin’s child who is layered with many special needs has proven to be an exhausting physical and mental task. Then, you layer multiple close family members dying and serious illness of close relatives and you find yourself at the same place.  I know there are countless people suffering from even greater experiences than mine.

It’s the friends who came and cleaned my house when I had to leave suddenly for a funeral, who kept my faith in goodness.  It’s the ones who have taken the kid and cared for him to give me a break, who keep my belief in love.  It’s those simple gestures of just being present and distracting me from the realities I can’t change that have made all of the difference.  It’s the individuals who see the basic needs of everyday life and help.   It’s people going out of their way to be more than a blip on a computer screen, a text on a phone or even a voice giving words of condolence or opinion.

We are all links in a chain called community/family and we all have to stick together by being present in each others’ lives.  It’s not always simple or easy and sometimes it involves some inconvenience on our part.   Love, family, friendship and community are more than terms to be written about, but they are living action. It means asserting energy to help.  The strength in showing kindness doesn’t always line up with our perfect plans, but it always ends up being better than what we had on our agendas.

Mother’s Day Sadness

This weekend many people will overwhelm places of worship, restaurants, flower shops and stores in celebration of Mother’s Day. But, there will be a small group isolated to the reality they are motherless/parentless or can never be a mother or parent.

For years, I have helped others celebrate their special day with their Mother/Grandmothers even though I am motherless. It feels like the awkward kid at the school dance. What’s sad is no one seems to notice or care that I might feel uncomfortable.

Mother’s day has been and will remain the achilles heel for me of honored days because I don’t have a living Mother. I know I am not alone in this feeling. I am happy for others, but I have little in common with their celebration. Yes, time is the great bridge to wholeness and my grief is over, but during the journey of grief it felt like it would never end. And no matter what your age, you still miss your “Momma.”

I lost my Mother suddenly in my mid-teens. The loss was significant. It left me buried underneath an avalanche of emotional rocks. My world had collapsed around me! I felt alone with only memory upon memory piled on top of me. How would I survive? Where would I find the strength? Who will love me like Mom? Who will care? Who will encourage me? Where’s home? Is life worth living? These were questions that rattled my head night after night and they remained unanswered with tight packed grief.

I still remember the way my Mom smelled because smell has always been the keenest of my senses. Sadly, her voice becomes less recognizable in my mind because she has been gone longer than she’s been present in my life. I can still taste her cooking because she was the best cook in the south in my eyes. I remember vividly the sound of her walking down the hallway with soup, sprite and popsicles at times when I was sick. I knew if no one else cared, she did.  There are stacks of memories of unconditional love and sacrifice associated with my Mom in my heart and mind. I’ve never experienced anything like her love and probably never will. It’s an irreplaceable love. It’s like a permanent homesickness, but there’s no home to visit.

For those who find this weekend difficult and painful, realize you are not alone. The only comfort we may find is in a memory or a picture.  I encourage you and me to go do something our Mothers would have enjoyed. Celebrate her life by celebrating the life she gave you. Make big plans for you!

The Power of The Imperfect/Slant Rhyme

I have the pleasure of getting to interact with the best creative minds. From lecturing to writing, directing and producing, it’s an adventure to see all of the creativity that exists in people.

Speaking from a songwriter’s perspective, it’s necessary for us to hone our skills to become better song craftspeople. The most misunderstood concept with songwriters is rhyme and the use of rhyme.

The first thing that comes to mind in listening to a song is “rhyme.” Rhyme is a poetic device used in songwriting to create memory for the listener.  The great fault of many songwriters is they use rhyme to write and never develop the idea/hook to write. A developed writer will write to the idea and not to the rhyme. In other words, they will not be caged in by perfect matching rhymes that may not portray the full effect of the idea.

Rhyme is used in poetry, songwriting and rap, but most people know it in is most simplified form. Their use of it doesn’t pass the 3rd grade level in most cases.  They do not understand the different between simple/perfect rhyme and slant/imperfect rhyme.

If we only use simple/elementary masculine rhyme like “cat” and “hat” we are stuck in a writer’s well.  Our word choice pool gets very shallow and limits our creative ability.  Most people only view rhyme in it’s perfect form either simple masculine (last syllable only) i.e “cat,” “hat,” simple feminine rhyme (last 2 syllables) i.e. “mayday,” “payday” or simple compound rhyme (last 3 syllables or more,) i.e. “binocular,” “popular.”   All of these are perfectly acceptable rhymes, but they limit your choices of words as a song writer.

Imperfect/Slant Rhyme is another way of viewing assonance (the use of  the same vowel sounds.)  Imperfect/Slant/Oblique rhyme allows the writer to vary their word choices immensely.  I like to think you have the creative vantage of the top of the hill and get the best view because you can see more.  When a songwriter opens their palate of word choices, the colors and content of their lyric becomes richer.

When first starting to think about Imperfect/Slant rhyme, I tell students to start off simply by removing the consonant word closers.  For example, we can take the word “cat” and now it can become “cab,” “calf,” “cam,” “can,” “cap,”  etc.  Then, we began to go through the alphabet and change consonants at the beginning of the words, “cat” becomes “sad,” “dad,”  “fab,” “had,” etc.   Do you see how you have opened up a spectrum of words that rhyme not perfectly, but carry assonant sounds (same vowels) and create the memorable nature of rhyme.

A song that utilizes too much perfect rhyme can sometimes weaken the song lyrics.  The writer will be stuck in simple rhyme and choose a word that doesn’t carry the power of another word that may not be as perfect, but carry the same rhyming connection. I dare you try slanting the rhyme and see what you get.

Example of inner rhyme and rhyme using slant rhyme.

Live Like You Were Dyin’  written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman

An’ he said: “I went sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing,
“I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu.
“And I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter,
“And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.”
An’ he said: “Some day, I hope you get the chance,
“To live like you were dyin’.”

The Importance of Breath Planning and The Singer


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singerThis topic about breath planning sounds boring to most singers, but it’s probably the most important topic for singers.  Breath is the very basic foundation of pitch and tone.  If proper breath is not present, it leaves the singer vulnerable to “wiping out” vocally.  So, here is my attempt at very simply opening the door to looking at the reality and effectiveness of proper breath planning.

I am privileged to get to work almost daily with singers of varying degrees of experience, but I find the professional and the beginning vocalist have one thing in common, “the inability to plan where they should breathe.”  As simple as it may sound, it’s not as easy and intuitive as one would like to think.   The Rock n’ Roll or Pop artist states, “I just wants to feel it and not mess up my vibe.”  The R&B singer says, “I’ll just lock into the groove and breathe when necessary.”  The Country singer declares, “I’ll breath when I run out of air.”  I hear undisciplined talk like this on a regular basis.   I could go on including all genres of music, but I will save your reading time from prolonged agony of undisciplined singers.  All of these singers have one thing in common, they have no idea that planning where and how to breath is as important as knowing the song itself.  Any small change in their performance could set them on a pitchy runway just because of no breath mapping.

Even with education and knowledge of how to do things, it’s very easy to get sloppy and forget important techniques like breath planning.   We spend the majority of time finding the right song and learning it, but we never map out a healthy way of helping our voice to consistently sing the song.  Most singers would rather live in the landmine of not knowing what to do, than acting like a consummate professional and never letting the audience see you run out of air.  To be honest, there is no sense in a vocalist running out of air when they have time to develop a strategy and memorize that strategy for breathing.

I’m very aware there are several school of thoughts on breath support, but I will not be tackling these concepts.  I want to just address breath planning.  A choreographer would never freestyle dance on every routine, but would have some plan.  Singers?!?  Do you get it?!?!?  Devise a plan for where you take a breath.  Here are a few helpful hints:

1. Read The Lyrics First.  For some reason singers forget the fact that a lyric is a musical script.  Like regular patterns of speech we have natural pauses, held and shortened inflections.  The lyric has places where stopping is necessary.  You wouldn’t talk in a consistent run-on monotone sound would you?  Why would you sing without taking natural pauses/breathes?   This simple yet proven technique is easy.  Read the lyric and feel how you would speak it.  Your natural inflections and pauses are cues for breaths.  If the song is poorly written it will not follow the natural prosody of speech and probably shouldn’t be sung.

2. Mark The Breaths On The Music or Lyric Sheet.  A visual cue of where to breath is the first step for helping you memorize where to breath. You may find you have to edit your visual breath cue/map based on practice and taking into account some of these  listed principles.  Don’t just mark some breathing spots without observing.  Strategically think and listen. By the way, mark it in pencil for updates or changes.

3. Punctuation Can Give Hints For Breaths.  If you would put a comma, semicolon, period, exclamation point or question mark, it might be a place where a breath would naturally fit.  Don’t overlook the value of the natural inflection and pauses of inferred punctuation. These are places where a breath would naturally fit.

4. Smaller Phrases Are More Parallel To Natural Speech Than Long Held Phrases.  There is no said rule to must make every phrase a 4 measure breath phrase. To think that one general rule applies to everything is bad musicality.  Every song will dictate a different breath plan depending on lyric and tempo.  I encourage singers to think of smaller phrases even some phrases that only last one word.  Breath as often as you can.  We are not olympic athletes trying to win a medal on sustained breath.   Grooved songs and lyrically intimate songs will most benefit from breathing more often than sustained breaths.  Remember, even a sentence has breaks within it.  Smaller phrases are healthier for a singer.

5. Let Syncopation Be Your Camouflage Breath Aid.  When I see dotted rhythms I immediately think a singer might can take a quick breath cheat.   Breathing after a dotted rhythm can give the sound an illusion of a deeper groove and it can eliminate the singer from running out of air.  It’s a way of breaking a long phrase into a smaller section.  When you have a long set of songs, you want to insure you have the breath to manage it.  Don’t try to be the world’s strongest sustained breather. Make it easy for you.  Breath smart and as often as tastefully possible and try to not physically exhaust yourself when it’s unnecessary.  Look for places like syncopated rhythms to get that extra breath.

6. Held Notes Can Scream Breath Before or After.  I find singers don’t set up enough air before a held not nor do they utilize a good breath after a held note.   Be aware of those longs notes and how you set them up and how you use them as a breath opportunity after they are sung.

7. Choreography and Breathing Often Make Good Friends.  If dancing is involved or any amount of movement, give yourself a break by breathing more often.  It’s critical to build up the physical ability to manage both breath and movement.  Exercise and core work help the singer build endurance, but be your friend and break your phrases into small segments when choreography is involved.

8. When Nerves Are In Play Don’t Make Breath Spaces Too Far Apart.  I tell singers when nervousness gets the best of you, it’s very easy to forget all technique and you let it fall by the wayside.  Pre-planning shorter breathing places when practicing will help the singer from becoming too nervous about running out of air.   The more air that is moving the more calm and confident the singer will feel.  So, let yourself sing small breath phrases.  Don’t feel like you have to hold your breath for a sentenced phrase. Let the natural pause of a sentence help you find a space to make the phrase smaller.  Shorter planned breath phrases help eliminate the nervousness.

9. Words Ending In Plosive Consonants Are Singer’s Air Pockets.  I have spent a significant amount of time studying and researching the science of vowels and consonants in music and the voice. Plosive consonants voiced or unvoiced B, D, G, P, T or K at the end of a word help to fully close words and technically assist the singer in sneaking a breath without people knowing.  If you have to break up a difficult phrase, this is a great way to do it with ease and without being detected.  Look for those plosive consonants at the end of words.

Be realistic about breath planning and be very diligent about mapping and memorizing where you can breath.  When you rehearse your breaths they will become a part of the  song and will almost be an automated, proactive response versus a desperate, reactive madness.   Breathing is paramount to a singer’s ability.  Make your breath planning a focused and intentional part of learning a song.

Living With Creative Intention!



We all have to admit that losing inspiration can happen on many levels. I think that’s our sensitivity always at stake.  It almost feels like it’s dependent on some idea weather pattern.  I’m a songwriter and I experience immense blocks at times.  This seems to be universal in many art forms.

Creativity is like manipulating a perfect storm using the wind generators of your mind. It’s very hard to manipulate if depression, overwork, fatigue, negative life circumstances, stress or general malaise happens.  I personally have gone weeks and even months without as much as writing down a song hook. So, I have to strategize to get, “Above the Pit.”

Here is a list of things I find helpful in my creative shakeup:

1. Give Yourself A Break. To everything there is a time and a season.  We have creative times and we may have conscious or unconscious times of gestating a new idea or concept and it’s still not mature enough to be born.  Be aware of the moments you are living. Don’t be hard on yourself, just be aware of the present moment.  Beating yourself up mentally can be more damaging and can utilize all of  the energy that is needed for breaking the barrier of the block.

2. Perfectionism Can Kill A Creative Idea.  As a songwriter, I can’t think that my initial hook and first write has to be the best.  It’s just a start!  If we constantly judge our ideas, we are stopping other ideas from emerging.   You have to begin somewhere!  Very few ideas come in complete form, but require a process of time. Practice does make perfect.

3. Procrastination Can Kill The Idea.  Ever have a moment where the idea or hook just comes to you?   For me, it’s usually at a random place, like in the middle of a restaurant in Chelsea the other day.  I immediately put the idea in the notes on my phone.  Know when those creative waves are happening and float on them no matter where you are because they may not last.  Creativity comes in waves, so be ready to ride it.

4. Listening and Watching Without Responding Can Be Your Greatest Muse.  In this social media rage it’s easy to use all of our creativity in posting a status or reading other’s status.  Just sitting and listening without trying to prove a point or engaging others conserves your creative energy to collect ideas.   I often challenge fellow writers to just exist without interacting and they will find unique lines leaping from others lip just by passively listening.  Be present, but too much interaction can be distractive to the creative spirit.

5. Don’t Fear Your Unique Perspective.   I have always been attracted to people who never “fit the mold.”  I like individuals who aren’t afraid to be themselves. I love to hear original expressions.  Deeply creative people usually see a  different view unique to themselves, which is their mental finger print to life.   Great songwriters are original.  Never fear being yourself and going at in different perspective.  We are all unique, so celebrate it!

6. Put Yourself Around Disciplined Creative Individuals.  I know a lot of creative people, but it’s not easy to find the creative disciplined person.   People who pursue excellence and detail with their art are great motivators for other creative spirits.  I have a lot of unique friends who are creative, but I can’t say it follows them into the creative process of developing.   Know the difference between a fun person and a person with a responsible level of creative discipline. Hang out with those that feed that positive energy and maybe challenge you in your pursuits.

7. Little Moments of Creativity May Be Better Than Manic Moments.  Don’t feel you have to give an entire day to a creative pursuit.  Monet’s painting, “Water Lilies” was a process of years to the finished work.  Do what you can, with the time you have. Smaller goals are much easier to achieve than larger goals.  Dividing your time up also gives a rest for a fresh and new perspective.

8. Mind Over Matter It.  Sometimes, you just have to roll up your sleeves and try!  Even when you don’t feel creative, you might surprise yourself.   They say if you will force a smile it helps to make you feel more happy.  Creativity sometimes has to be manipulated by sheer discipline and there is no other way.

9. Give Yourself Creative Field Trips To Ignite New Thinking.  I like to follow my creative spirit and plan to go to places that make me think, see things differently and breaks the monotony of the everyday.   Knowing there is a bigger world outside of your own is a great creative awakening strategy.  This trip can be local or a couple days to another place you’ve wanted to discover.   Doing field trips is an easy way to hit the reset button and to reignite the romance of what you are doing.

10. Be Prepared For That Idea.  What if you went into a business and they weren’t prepared for customers?   It wouldn’t be in operation for very long is my guess.  As creative individuals, we need to have all the necessary tools on hand to give our undivided attention to that moment.   I now have many phone apps that assist me in my songwriting.  You know what those tools are for you so keep them near at all times.

Being a songwriter/composer, I like to see parallels in many facets of the arts.  No matter what forum of art your creativity seeks, I think these rules apply to most.     You can break through that creative block!  Remember, invest in your creative nature just like you would invest in your health.   Let the ideas flow!!!!