Virtually any singer will tell you that vocal warm-ups are important.
Ask them why, and - particularly less experienced singers - will tell you that the purpose of vocal
warm-ups is to "get your voice going."
While this is perhaps the most basic aim of vocal warm-ups, you will get more out of your warm-up routine if you incorporate some more specificity.
What do I mean by that? Well, let's break it down into three separate goals.
Goal #1: "Lining Up" The Voice
This initial part of a singer's warm-up routine is usually what most singers mean when they say the point of warm-ups is to "get the voice going." However, the point is not just to use your voice. As with anything singing-related, you must execute your exercises with thought, care, and attention to detail.
This portion of the warm-ups begins with body and breath work. That's right - you start warming up before you even start singing. Take a moment to assess your body (for example, the places where you might be feeling tension) and your breath (for example, what parts of your body are moving or tensing throughout the breath cycle). Take a moment to focus on your mind on what you're about to do (for example, PUT THAT PHONE DOWN). THEN, you may proceed to some stretching and breath exercises.
When you begin singing, your primary focus should usually be on breath connection to your sound, as well as release in the necessary parts of your mechanism (jaw, tongue, shoulders, belly, hips, or wherever else you've notice you tend to tighten).
Voiced consonants followed by open vowels are a great place to start - they ensure that you engage the breath and can articulate without tension. For example, start with sounds like "zah" or "maw" or "noh," making sure that your breath and resonance are in charge of the show.
Use a simple melodic pattern - three or five notes is plenty. Save that fancy nine-tone or arpeggio stuff for later in your routine.
Goal #2: Technical Specifics
Once you've established that your voice is functioning properly, start to think about technical specifics. What techniques have you been working on in your lessons lately? What issues have
you been trying to address? Choose warm-ups that will help you work on these things - perhaps the same ones you did in a recent voice lesson.
It might be helpful to record your lessons so you can remember these warm-ups more easily; or write them down during your lesson to refer to them later.
The main takeaway? Every warm-up should have a specific technical purpose!
Goal #3: Preparing for Specific Rep
What pieces will you be singing in your practice session? Lots of high notes? Make sure you stretch up there. Lots of staccato? Rock those in your warm-ups. Runs galore? Break out the nine-tones.
How Long Should I Spend on Vocal Warm-ups?
This varies depending on the student's skill level, the rep they're singing, and their vocal load for that day. All things being equal, I'd spend about 10-15 minutes of a 30-40 minute practice session on warm-ups.
Really, it's about how much you need to get your voice to be able to do the things. And that knowledge comes with time and experience. So, don't sell yourself short on warm-ups, but also don't overdo it either. I KNOW, THAT'S SO HELPFUL, RIGHT?
(This is why you should take voice lessons. ;-) Your voice teacher can give you specific guidance on how you should be warming up. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to singing.)
Other Things To Consider:
(Because this is me we're talking about, so there are always other things.)
Your warm-up routine should be consistent, yet evolve with your vocal needs. In other words, have a regimen of exercises that serve your needs and goals for right now; as your technique grows, you may find that certain exercises no longer serve a purpose or are not stretching you enough. This is completely normal. Work with your teacher to find new exercises that will suit your needs.
You should keep your day’s voice use in mind when warming up and practicing, and
monitor how your voice is feeling. You may find, for example, that your voice gets tired on days when you have school chorus. This means you should consider doing a lighter warm-up that day, so as not over-tax your voice. Or, if you know you will be singing a lot in your evening production rehearsal, you may choose to scale back your practicing session to save some voice. In these cases, the primary goal is usually to do what is necessary to get things connected and functioning properly, and then move on.
If you find that a certain exercise just isn’t working, re-assess how you’re feeling/what’s happening and try something else. It’s better to abandon something that doesn’t feel good than to keep going and work more tension and bad habits into your voice. You could just be having a bad voice day. It’s frustrating, but it happens.
You do not need to warm up to the extremes of your range every day. You should choose one exercise to stretch your stratosphere (or your basement) a couple times a week, but you shouldn’t sing up there every day, especially if you are young/new to singing. Singing in these areas of your range too much can be extremely demanding on the voice. Unless you are singing rep in which these notes are required, it’s not essential to exercise them every day.
In general, just remember: specificity is key! It's better to do a handful of exercises with boatloads of intention, than to do a whole book's worth thoughtlessly.