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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org