A lot of people say that vocal warm-ups are for "warming up the voice" - stretching the vocal muscles, removing excess phlegm, reducing risk of injury, etc., etc. And while that is generally true, I think that warm-ups for choir have a more important role: they provide a chance for us to hone in on teaching vocal technique to our singers.
Every rehearsal, I spend about 15-20 minutes on choral warm-ups (yes, I really do!) addressing various issues in vocal technique that I see and hear from my singers. This helps them build a solid vocal foundation for singing that can then be applied to their music.
In my opinion, a good choral warm-up should include at least one exercise from each of the following categories.
Physical & Posture
Singing is a physical process so warming up the body is important. Start the rehearsal off with light stretching/massaging, getting grounded, and aligning the posture for singing.
Examples of physical exercises:
- Massaging face, underneath the tongue, or around the jaw
- Stretching various parts of the body - gently tilting head side to side, stretching arms high and to the sides, shoulder rolls, etc.
- Grounding the body - standing with feet shoulder-width apart, bending legs into a high squatting position and lightly bouncing
- The body shake - shaking out legs and arms
- Aligning posture - bending over with arms and head dangling towards floor, slowly coming up stacking each vertebrae on top of each other, tucking hips to release tension in lower back, and aligning head by placing finger at its center
Once the body is warm and stretched out, breath is the next thing to work. Breath is critical for singing as it is the "generator" for our instrument so we should strive to always include at least one breathing exercise in our warm-ups.
Examples of breathing exercises:
- Drop breaths - exhale fully, open throat, simultaneously release lower stomach/gut area and let the air fill the lungs on its own
- Breathe in and out on "s" for various counts - 8, 4, 2, 1, 1/2 beats
- Sit in chairs and bend over placing elbows between knees, breathe in and focus on back expansion
- Non-pitched bubbling/lip trills, working to maintain a consistent and even pressure and airflow
In layman's terms, I describe phonation as the point which the vocal folds touch and begin to oscillate/vibrate. The challenge with phonation is finding the right amount of pressure. I primarily work with singers to avoid adding too much pressure (which is often the issue). So, I focus on exercises that have a light amount of pressure, just enough for the folds to oscillate.
Examples of phonation exercises:
- Light humming
- Pitched bubbling - trying to maintain consistent airflow/pressure
- Buzzed and light "v" sound as if humming
- Singing through a straw
Resonance is essentially the way we use the space or cavities in our body to mold the sound we produce. You can control the resonance by placing the sound more in your chest, mouth, nasal area, or head, for example. Helping singers explore their various resonance chambers will allow them more control over the sounds they produce, help them with placement across their registers, and give you more options for expression and musicality in your repertoire.
Examples of resonance exercises:
- Humming in low register on an "m" can help find chest resonance
- Singing on an "n" or "ng" or an "e" will introduce singers to the nasal cavity
- "New" with a j glide like "nju" can help find a good balance between nasal/mouth cavities
- Buzzing on a "z" can also help find a good balance between nasal/mouth cavities
- Soft palate stretching through a yawn or inhaled "k" sound can reduce the "nasal" sound while still working within the nasal cavity
- Sighing on a yawn will help them find the head resonant space
Our vocal articulators include our tongue, teeth, lips, jaw, and soft palate. As singers, we need to work our articulators so that we can not only sing our lyrics but also to help us with correct placement of consonants and vowels. Many exercises listed above will also help with articulation such as lip bubbling/trills or humming.
Examples of articulation exercises:
- Tongue twisters - e.g. mommy made me mash my M&Ms
- Kinesthetic vowel exercises - adding a physical movement for each vowel to unify vowels as a section or group
- Vocal kazoos - buzzing up and down the scale
- Singing a scale on numbers
- Buzzing through voiced consonants such as "v," "z," "n," "m," "ng," rolled "r"s or "l"
I don't consider register in its own category since you can work it within several of the categories above. But I always like to include some register exercises so that singers can play within different areas of their voice and try to maintain a consistent sound across their registers.
Examples of register exercises:
- Sighs or sirens
- Arpeggios up and down the scale
- Runs/melismas up to the 9th or 11th scale degree and back down
- Kazoo or vowel octave slides focused on keeping pressure and vowel consistent as they go up and down while still allowing flexibility in space, soft palate, and jaw
- Chromatic scales up and down
How are your choral warm-ups structured and what are your favorite vocal exercises? Let us know in the comments!
Tori Cook is the former Director of Sales & Marketing at Chorus Connection, an active board member of the Greater Boston Choral Consortium, and a soprano with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. In a past life, she was the Music Director of the Harborlight Show Chorus and President of Chorus pro-Musica. When not making music, she daydreams about adopting a golden retriever puppy and scuba diving to exotic locations around the world.