by Spencer Welch
You’ve been dreaming of getting back into shape. After years without an exercise routine, you finally made a resolution: you are going to run every morning. You wake up early, throw on that Adidas track suit (now you look serious!), gulp back your supplements, and head outside. The sidewalk stretches out before you, and you tackle it with gusto, racing off into the distance until your leg seizes up!
You wouldn’t go on a long run without warming up and stretching first. Believe me, I am 45 years old now, the age when Nature begins refusing to protect you from yourself. I can no longer count on my youth to mitigate my ignorance. I have to run in place first. I have to stretch.
So why do singers constantly skip warming up before a show or a vocal workout? Singing is also an athletic activity, just with tiny muscles. Why wouldn’t a singer need a thorough warm up before a concert the same way an athlete must stretch and warm up before a competition?
I think some vocalists probably are “singing on their youth,” counting on their young bodies to cushion the blow. Others just don’t know how to warm up, or even if they should.
A vocal warm-up primes the body for the demands of a song. Singing requires fine motor skills, activating large and small muscle groups to work in concert together. When your voice is “cold,” these muscles may be lax with minimal circulation due to inactivity. This is why your voice often sounds deep and groggy when you wake up in the morning. A gentle warm-up activates these muscles, increasing tonicity and circulation.
The nerve pathways between your brain and voice are also primed by this process so that the whole mind-body connection is energized and heightened. Learning to sing is learning to multitask and multi-focus. The right choice of exercises can awaken your vocal awareness, reminding you how to negotiate and balance pitch, volume, resonance, etc. at the same time during the act of singing.
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that warming up is important. But now, how do we do it effectively?
Merrily We Trill Along
If you have studied with me or another Certified IVA instructor, you probably started the lesson on a lip trill, the bubbling exercise that looks like a child impersonating a motorboat. It looks ridiculous! And it really works.
Voice scientists and speech language pathologists (SLPs) classify the lip trill as one of the Semi-Occlusive Vocal Tract (SOVT) exercises. These exercises partially close (occlude) your mouth and/or throat (vocal tract), creating internal pressures that assist your voice. They actually make singing easier than regular singing!
With semi-occluded exercises, the vocal folds can come together and vibrate efficiently without strain. Vocalizing from low to high ranges becomes easier under these conditions and is encouraged. The vocal folds shorten and thicken for low notes, stretch and thin for high ones. This prepares the singer for the rigours and requirements of a song. Exercising through your whole range like this is the vocal athlete’s way of “stretching and jogging in place” before tackling heavier tasks.
There are various semi-occluded exercises other than the lip trill like the tongue trill (the rolled “R”) or a sustained “V” sound. Many SLPs prefer to use straw phonation, where the person vocalizes through a straw. I’ll let Dr. Ingo Titze, the voice scientist who popularized this technique, explain more:
Start Small & Build Up
When I walk into a gym, I prefer not to exit on a stretcher…so I start with light weights and build up to heavier ones. Singing is not the same as weightlifting (mantras like “no pain, no gain” do not apply), but the principle of working up slowly to more demanding tasks does.
A majority of singers find that intense, sustained high notes can be incredibly taxing on their voice if done incorrectly. If they have not warmed up properly and sufficiently, they might be tempted to “cheat” and yell in order to just “hit the note,” exposing them to a higher chance of injury. I believe in starting with softer, lighter, shorter notes and working up to stronger, more sustained notes.
After a few minutes of vocalizing on semi-occluded exercises, I sometimes put students on gentle one-syllable vocalises (vocal exercises) like WEE or GOO. We often do these with a “dumb” character voice that sounds like Scooby Doo or an owl hooting.
The object is to work through the student’s whole range with a light quality and low impact on the voice. The muscles inside and surrounding the vocal folds are contracted, stretched, and worked through their whole range of motion without duress. There are also acoustic factors at work in these vowel and sound choices that make it easier to transition through a singer’s “break” more smoothly.
Not every student responds to the same exercises or “unfinished sounds.” However, a skilled voice teacher can react appropriately to any roadblock during the warm-up and find a different route to help the singer reach their goal. Voice training is not a “one-size-fits-all” process, which explains why it is so difficult to teach yourself how to sing with online videos and self-study courses. What helps one singer, hinders the next. Find a teacher with a developed ear, thorough training in vocal pedagogy, and a willingness to tailor the lesson plan to your needs and limitations.
As the singer’s nervous system and vocal function accepts these coordinations, we can move from the warm-up to the workout phase of the voice lesson. Little by little, we build to fuller sounds, longer sustains, and finally songs! The length of the warm-up depends on the individual’s vascularity and health, the time of day, familiarity with their own voice, and the activity for which they are warming up.
In a future post, I will discuss the difference between a vocal warm-up and a workout. For now, I hope this clarifies, first, that you need to warm up, and second, how you can do it more effectively.