What's the Deal with Vocal Warm-ups?
We've all done them, or at least heard them before: the seemingly endless patterns, scales, and weird noises that singers use as vocal warm-ups. While, to the untrained ear, we may sound like crazy persons, any experienced singer will tell you that warm-ups are absolutely essential to a good practice session or performance.
This is true, of course. But why?
Most young or inexperienced singers will say that warm-ups are essential to “get your voice going.” While this is perhaps the most basic aim of warm-up exercises, an effective vocal exercise routine must consist of at least three phases:
Phase #1: Waking Up the Voice
This initial part of a singer’s practice routine is usually what people are referring to when they say
“get the voice going.” After stretching and breathing a bit and assessing how your body's feeling that day, it's good to start with something like humming, lip trills, or sirens. Sounds like this get our voices and breath moving, allow you to travel up and down your range quickly and easily, and afford the singer the opportunity to "check in" with various parts of the voice and body.
Remember: the point is not simply to use your voice. You must execute even these simple exercises with thought, attention to detail, and self-awareness.
Don't spend too long in this phase of your warm-ups. The goal of these sounds is to prime your voice for the heavier work to come.
Phase #2: Technical Exercises
This phase is where you do the exercises that focus on specific technical or vocal concepts: legato, staccato, trills, slides, registration, etc. Think about the things you're working on in your voice lessons - what have you been trying to improve or resolve in your singing? Do exercises that will help you meet those goals, perhaps even repeating exercises from your recent lessons.
Each repetition of each exercise should serve a purpose! If you find yourself singing mindlessly or on auto-pilot, take a break, reset, and then return to the exercise.
Phase #3: Repertoire Preparation
This phase is where you sing specific exercises that will help you with the repertoire you'll be singing that day. While this phase goes hand-in-hand with phase #2, it's actually even more specific. If your piece has a lot of staccato, for example, sing a staccato exercise. If your piece uses a lot of chest voice, exercise that area of your voice so it's ready to go.
You can even take phrases from your repertoire and make vocal exercises out of them! Sing the opening phrase of your piece, for example, and transpose it up and down a few times, covering a wide area of your range.
How Long Should I Spend on Vocal Warm-ups?
The answer to this question varies depending on the level and vocal abilities of the student, the demands of the repertoire, and other considerations. In a 30-minute practice session, I would advise spending 10-15 minutes on warm-ups, and the rest on repertoire. In a longer practice session, 15-20 minutes is fairly standard for more advanced students.
Really, the answer is: warm up and exercise your voice for exactly the amount of time it needs - not more, not less. Not warming up enough may make singing your repertoire difficult; warming up too much can lead to vocal fatigue. Some days, you might find your voice is ready to go after ten minutes, and another day, it may need a longer warm-up.
Plan some "reset" time in between exercises, especially if they're more difficult or intense.
Do some lip trilling, humming, stretching, laryngeal massage - anything to make sure you're not continuing to carry unnecessary tension and cause fatigue.
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 you. 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. If you know you're going to be doing a lot of singing in your evening production rehearsal, don't spend too long on exercises, so as not to tire your voice out before rehearsal. 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 isn't working, stop and reassess, and perhaps move on to something else. There is a time and place for working on hard things, but continuing to plow through an exercise that is causing unwanted tension or vocal fatigue will not serve your vocal goals.
You do not need to warm up to the extremes of your range every single day. Unless your repertoire demands it, touching your vocal stratosphere or basement a couple times a week is just fine. Singing too long or too intensely in your vocal extremities can cause issues if not monitored by a teacher.
Remember - specificity is key! It's better to do fewer exercises with mindfulness and intention than to do several on auto-pilot.
Want to devise a vocal warm-up routine that customized to YOUR needs? Let's work together!