We would describe it as not only hugely beneficial but also an essential part of a singer’s daily ritual.
In truth most people see it as a mundane pain in the ass. Hence this essential practice is overlooked, sacrificed, under-appreciated or brushed under the carpet by so many singers. We would like to restore importance to this singing staple.
Back to school
Let’s start at the anatomical level (stay with us… we’ll try and make it fun). The vocal mechanism which includes the vocal cords (also known as vocal folds), structures of the throat and mouth, respiration and supporting body parts all coordinate and move together to ensure good vocal function; muscle itself is responsible for those movements. Many singers do not realise that the vocal cords themselves consist of muscle. Just like the antagonistic relationship between the biceps and triceps, the vocal cord muscle adjustments allow your voice to create pitch and coordinate smoothly throughout your range.
Anyone who has ever been to the gym will have heard their friendly trainer hammering home that a warm up for anything physical is a must. Otherwise you’ll be in danger of having to drag your jelly legs out of the gym after five star jumps. The reason is when muscle is ‘cold’, as a result of being unused, it has less blood flow. Good blood flow helps a muscle to be pliable, coordinated, impact resistant and reactive; all of which ultimately prevent you from getting injured. It’s the classic analogy of sleeping like a log the night through and waking up feeling about as flexible as a railway sleeper. You can totally apply this rationale to your voice. Vocal cords also need to warm up their muscle fibres before they can think about getting to work
So, why is a physical warm up essential?
We are sure you will agree that, in most circumstances, tension is bad and restrictive. It limits our body’s potential and in turn dampens our creativity. As singers, we want to create an environment where our body can maximise its strengths and allow us to be as creative as possible. Cue the warm up regimen.
You may think that a full body warm up is only necessary for those people hanging out in gyms wearing Lycra pants, but you’d be wrong. The human body is a complex little fellow/gal. Connected from head to toe with complex systems, it is impossible to isolate one part, including the voice! That’s right, a shoulder roll or side bend really will have a positive impact on the performance of the vocal muscles, not to mention what a state of relaxation will do for a singer’s mindset!
Now to vocal warm ups
The warm up is fundamental to producing a healthy, creative environment and prepare the voice ready to tackle those high C’s with power and intensity. ‘Vocalising’ or ‘using sounds’ are the most common choice of exercises for vocal warm ups.
The main goal is to use sounds that encourage comfort and steer clear of unnecessary tension (our swear word of the day). By doing this we are allowing the vocal cords and surrounding muscles to move, flex and stretch gradually. Blood flow to the area will increase which, as we now know, helps pliability. Synergistically it increases energy and nutrient supply to the muscle and cartilage, which helps to keep them in good working condition.
So let’s take it that your alarm has just gone off (for a singer that’s probably around 11am). You need to prepare for an afternoon trill. After plenty of water and a cup of green tea (believe us, these are musts) it’s time to get some flexibility in your stiff ol’ body.
Starting with physical warm ups
These are designed to increase flexibility of the upper body and areas where tension or stiffness could affect your voice.
Each exercise has a description and accompanying video for you to follow. Please read the warning below before doing the exercises:
Note: To do the following exercises it is assumed that you are fit and healthy, without back, neck or voice issues. Naturally if you feel pain or discomfort at any point then stop the exercise immediately. If the pain persists then consult a general practitioner.
Circle your shoulders clockwise and then anti-clockwise reasonably slowly till they feel a little free.
Stand steady with your feet hip distance apart. Hang over from the waist dangling your hands down to the floor with a dead weight from the waist up. This should begin to stretch your lower back and the back of your legs.
After a few seconds, slowly bring your torso back up, rolling out the spine vertebrae by vertebra from the bottom up till you are at a standing position and repeat.
Tilt your head to the left and put your left hand on your right temple. With your fingers pull your skin up and out (in the direction your head is tilted) and drop your right shoulder back and down. Hold for 30 seconds. You should feel some stretching in your right shoulder. Repeat for the other side.
Shake the Bars
You’re supposed to imagine you’re in prison for this one. We prefer to imagine we’re throttling the DJ for putting on the “Frog Song”. Hold out your hands in front of you like you’re grabbing hold of some prison bars and then proceed to shake those bars letting your relaxed jaw chatter as you do it. Making a ridiculous noise helps greatly.
Place your hands in front of your ears so your palms are on your jaw line and bite down. Did you feel the muscle stick out as you did it? This is the one you want to massage with your fingertips, great for releasing the jaw tension common in nocturnal teeth grinders.
Warming up the voice
Don’t get us wrong, physical warm ups are important, but it is the regular vocal warm ups that will prevent you from coughing up your larynx mid-croon.
NOTE: To do the exercises in these videos it is assumed that you are vocally fit and healthy. Naturally if you feel pain, discomfort or a change in your vocal tone at any point then stop the exercise immediately. If the pain persists then consult a general practitioner or voice specialist.
Yes, the lowly hum. This is an easy, low intensity start to your warm up. The aim is to get the vocal cords coming together and the muscle fibres warmed up. It is best to start at the bottom end of the voice i.e. ‘chest voice’ (the range where you speak). You could hum a melody, or hum up and down a scale such as the ‘5-tone scale’ (i.e. the first 5 notes of the major scale).
Lip Trill / Tongue Trill Sirens
Lip trill being preferable, this is the go-to exercise for most voice coaches to begin a lesson. Best done with a slightly hooty tone underneath and imagining the vowel ‘UH’ is being said underneath the lip or tongue. Instead of the siren glide approach you could use a structured scale like a 1.5 octave.
These are the best things ever invented. Period. They are a logical step in the warm up progression as they slightly open the mouth from the hum whilst still restricting airflow through the vocal cords. Semi-occluded sounds create a raised air pressure in the vocal tract, which in turn presses back down on the vocal cords helping them to close effortlessly. Afterwards you will experience an increase in output with reduced effort. This aerodynamic process supports the function of the vocal cords giving you the best possible results, and not taking all day to do it either.
Voiced Fricative Sirens
We know it sounds like we’re having you on, but these are killer ways to create semi-occluded airflow. Siren from the bottom of your range to the top and down again for a few minutes. Experiment with ‘VV’, ‘ZZ’, ‘TH’ (as in ‘the’) and a French ‘J’ (as in ‘Joue’, ‘Je’ or the English ‘seizure’).
To test the effect of this exercise count out loud 1 to 10 before and after, you will be amazed at how much better it feels and sounds.
Take a thin cocktail straw (not a drinking one… it’s too wide) and vocalise through it at a normal singing volume. Start off by sirening from the bottom to the top of your range and then back down. Move on to ‘hills’, or accents, taking higher each time. Finish by singing a melody through the straw and then you’re done!
The great thing about the straw is that it’s very quiet and you can get away with doing it on the bus or walking down the street without a threat of a clip round the ear or dirty look!
Good sounds for this are EE (as in ‘been’) and OOH (as in ‘you’). These will assist the singer in gliding smoothly into the upper voice (‘head voice’ for the geeks). But everyone responds differently so you may have to experiment to see what works best for you. Perfect opportunity to ask your voice teacher’s advice!
So we’re at the point where the vocal cords are hopefully fairly well supplied with the red stuff (oxygenated blood), and now we need to delve deeper into open and resonant vowel sounds to fully engage the voice and continue to improve coordination between the vocal registers.
Creating a 10-15 minute length combination of these kind of exercises should suffice as a warm up, but listen to your intuition if it tells you otherwise. Ideally you will work all areas of your range, from bottom through the middle and to the top. Though there may be times when it is enough to aim for 1.5 or 2 tones above the highest note of your repertoire for that night’s performance.