Every voice is different, and some days are better than others, but all singers benefit from healthy vocalization to warm up before lessons and performances. When teaching undergraduate students how to practice, there is an assumption that they will warm up the voice first. I have found that most students do not understand how to warm up their own voice. Maybe students sing a few scales or choir warm-ups, but many college-aged singers think practicing is just about learning their music. This column will discuss the what, where, when, why, and how to warm up your voice for more effective practice and performance.
Warm-ups should include stepwise movement, larger intervals, and patterns that move through different vocal registrations such as arpeggios and octave leaps. Other excellent vocal exercises are patterns with melismas that require some flexibility, trill practice, and combining stepwise scales and larger intervals such as an ascending arpeggio and descending scale. Singing small passages ascending and descending through the passaggio with narrow vowels such as [u] and [i] combined with voiced consonants including [n], [m], and [ng] is an effective way to help novices navigate an even transition through the passaggio.
Method books by Nicola Vaccai, Giuseppe Concone, Mathilde Marchesi, and Manuel García provide examples of these vocalises. Vaccai’s Practical Method of Italian Singing, for example, focuses on interval training. García’s vocalises are a great source for messa di voce work, which can improve both dynamics and breath control.
My male students respond well to daily falsetto passages to encourage balance in a high register. This trains male voices to avoid straining for high notes. Similarly, I work with women on whistle tone in their extreme high registration to improve vocal agility without extra air pressure. The research is solid that exercises in whistle tone increases a female singers’ range by up to a major third and provides clarity throughout the entire range.
Choral warm-ups are designed by choir conductors for a choral blend in a large group of singers. Some of these vocal exercises might be helpful for solo work, but it is important to know your own voice and what gets it moving and resonating. There are probably several patterns that go higher or lower than your range. You are either an S, A, T, or B, but you are not all four voices, so it is OK to stop singing if your group warm-up feels uncomfortable.
Ideally, you have a quiet, private space for warming up. If your university has a sign-up policy for practice rooms, get your name on a door every single day! But, if the practice rooms are taken, if you have sensitive roommates/neighbors, or you find yourself feeling cold right before you sing, a straw can be your best friend. Phonating thru a straw allows you to use your body and air with technique needed to produce a healthy sound with minimal noise. Lip trilling is my personal go-to exercise for a quick sound check that isn’t obnoxiously loud.
You should be warming up every day and before your lessons, choir and opera rehearsals, church gigs, auditions or competitions, and any other solo performances.
As you work your way into the performing world, you will find what works best for you. Some singers warm up a few hours before the performance and then just hum for two minutes backstage. Others prefer to sing for 30 minutes right before their entrance. Find what works for your voice and use it daily!
Warming up your voice strengthens your focal folds by stretching them gently before you use them at full capacity on your repertoire. It also facilitates breath flow and prepares you to work out like a vocal athlete.
When you begin training your voice classically, you will learn to sing without amplification above the piano. The singer’s formant makes it possible for one human voice to be heard over a 90-piece orchestra. This takes years to develop, and vocalizing every day builds resilience, strength, and the technique required to be heard in a large performance hall.
Vocalizing with specific patterns and techniques will improve your intonation as well as your flexibility/agility and is an important way to improve your vowel consistency from the bottom to the top of your range. Finally, mindful and healthy vocalizing on a regular basis will increase your range and decrease vocal fatigue.
I attended a masterclass with Dame Joan Sutherland, and she stated, “Singing is simple; just breathe, support, and sing.” I’m sure I was not the only one is the room that was thinking, “Simple for you, my queen—but for me, not so much!” So, until it does become simple for us, there are basics we should consider for our vocal warm-ups. Posture and breathing ensure better support. Vowel shape and resonance help create a beautiful tone.
In So You Want to Sing Music Theater: A Guide for Professionals, Karen Hall addresses posture in a straight-forward, easy-to-follow guide:
Feet—Keep your weight evenly distributed on both feet and place them a few inches apart.
Knees—Relaxed, not locked.
Arms—Resting at your sides.
Torso—Keep your shoulders relaxed back, but not rigid or forced too far back. Be certain that your shoulders don’t curve inward either.
Head—Your head needs to be balanced on top of your torso and neck.
An important thing to remember about posture is to not lock or stiffen any part of your body in life and in singing. When you tense up, you block air or tighten your vocal mechanism. There are methods for removing tension from the body such as the Alexander Technique, and your voice teacher probably has many ways to guide your development with healthy singing postures that will help you balance and use diaphragmatic support. Practicing yoga, Pilates, and tai chi are also beneficial for strength, balance, and alignment.
Breath control is a coordinated effort that yields a connection between the diaphragm and how much air you exert. Lis Lewis (Rihanna’s voice coach) writes on thesingersworkshop.com/breath-control:
“Breathing is the single most important element in singing. In order to control your voice, you have to put out exactly the amount of breath you need for the sound you want. That breath needs to be as focused as a laser beam. How you exhale controls the quality of the sound, the volume, and partially controls the pitch and the tone. How you inhale governs how you exhale.”
Whether you want to sing like Rihanna on karaoke night or like Pavarotti at your Met audition, breathing for singing is different than breathing for living. Take time in the practice room to mindfully breathe for different types of onsets. Breathe for piano, breathe for forte, breathe in the shape of vowels. Your breath sets up your phrase.
Warming up the voice should include vocalises on the five primary vowels [a], [e], [i], [o], and [u]. Singing pure vowel shapes will eliminate excess tension in your primary resonators and create a pure and sonorous sound.
Singing a pure [a] has given singers more grief than all the other vowels combined. Richard Miller was widely regarded as a brilliant vocal pedagogue, and his book The Structure of Singing masterfully pairs the science and artistry needed for classical singing technique. His explanation in this book regarding the formation of the [a] vowel should be a foundation for all classical singers.
“When singing [a], the lips part, the mandible lowers, and the tongue lies flat on the floor of the mouth cavity. With regard to the extent of the buccal aperture, the vowel [a] is farthest removed from the central posture of the neutral vowel [^]. The vowel [a] is sometimes classified as the first of the back vowels because of its particular combination of frequencies and the shape of the resonator tube during its production. However, the attraction of the vowel [a] for many singers lies in its avoidance of tongue constriction of the vocal tract. Vocalization based solely on [a] does not deal with the more exacting principles of vowel differentiation encountered in singing both front and back vowels. In any technique of singing, if other vowels are less comfortable in execution than the vowel [a], articulatory flexibility is lacking.”
Resonance can also be identified as energy. Classical singing is not a relaxing activity, although most teachers work to help students create a relaxed tone. What we really want is a pure, supported, and resonant tone. When it comes to engaging the resonance, I find that singers are receptive to terms such as energize the tone, spin the air, and continue forming the vowel shape until the release.
The resonant quality of your sound will ground you as a singing artist and it cannot be faked. Young children that pretend to sing opera or the class clown that imitates an opera voice are creating a false wobble. Natural vibrato is the result of a well supported and focused tone. I prefer talking with students about resonance more than vibrato because I do not want them to attempt anything false.
As you warm up your voice, you will want to think about posture, breath control, and vowel shape. These three directions will prepare you to energize your tone and resonate evenly up and down the scale. I advise more descending than ascending exercises to remind developing voices to bring the head voice down—not push the chest voice up.
It is my hope that these thoughts, tips, and historically sound methods engage your curiosity about your own voice so that you find what works best for you.