The inspiration for this post comes from an experience I had in my own voice lesson (yes, of course, I still study) that lead to revelation about my warm up practice.
I live north of Boston and my teacher is south, so once or twice a month I drive a little over an hour to go see her and get fixed up (and inspired). On the way always I warm up a little bit in the car just so I’m not completely cold when I get there.
When I was younger I didn’t need much warm up time. I totally abused this in my late teens and twenties. I would just do a couple sounds like “whoop” or “ah-oooooh” from my low to my high range or a couple lip trills in a similar manner and then be like “alright, let’s do this!” Ready. To. Go.
Now that I’m in my thirties my voice doesn’t quite work that way anymore. It takes me longer to get to a point where I’m actually ready to attempt just the warm ups.
When I got to my lesson my teacher mentioned right away that I was on-setting high. She meant that when I went to sing my larynx was in a slightly higher position than usual.
Now anything can cause this – a little bit of stress, long weeks of singing and/or teaching singing lessons or some tension in my neck and shoulders from old injuries or … well … just being me.
BUT, in this particular case a light bulb went off. When I was warming up in the car I was doing those wide lip trills all over my range again, albeit more gently than in my younger days. Maybe it was too much all at once? Maybe my voice doesn’t like that anymore? Maybe my voice never liked it and I just wasn’t paying attention? Whichever way, I was continuing old habits that train bad muscle memory into my technique!
Ah!! Snap the metaphorical rubber band on my wrist! I have to be more methodical in the same way I am with my students. Practice what you preach a little better.
With each student I don’t just teach the basics that they can understand, like the importance of breath and vowels, but selecting exercises that line them up. By “line them up,” I mean conditioning the muscles in the vocal mechanism to prepare them for the kind of singing they want to do.
Do they always understand what you’re doing? No. Especially if they’re kids. BUT, when a kid has to do a bunch of pushups for gym class, does he understand the body mechanics involved? Not necessarily. Does it mean that he shouldn’t do pushups if he doesn’t fully understand them?
Warm ups aren’t just singing “la la la” until you feel ready to sing. Neither are they singing your song 10 times in a row until you’re no longer cold. They should be unique to your needs and technical goals and set you up for the kind of singing you’re going to do that day. It’s not the fun part of the job, but it can make or break the longevity of your singing career (professional and amateur alike).
It’s a good idea to always start with your body. Move around a bit. Do some stretches or a little bit of yoga if you have space to do it. If you’re body is warm then your voice will be too.
Take the time to focus your attention on your self, the space you occupy and your posture. Take a few full breaths to stretch your ribs and lungs. Focus your mental energy to the task at hand. Get ready to sing. To practice your craft.
THE WARM UP
Begin in a comfortable low range right around the pitches where you speak. Work on your onset (the initial attack when your vocal cords come together to make sound) on one note and stay within a range of a third or so.
Without exceeding an octave you can work on breath doing things like lip or tongue trills. You can also work on breath by introducing different shapes of inhales ([a], [u], or [i] whatever you know works for you or your student) and start incorporating articulators (tongue and jaw) by introducing words or other sounds.
Don’t be a hero! Be gentle at first, especially if you are an aggressive singer. These first few exercises can determine the rest of your singing for the day, so be thoughtful and take your time.
LINING IT UP
Once you’re feeling comfortable in that limited range then move on to exercises that address more of your range, laryngeal flexibility, vocal cord elasticity and agility. You can change up the vowels and use wider intervals. Choose exercises that line you up for the kind of singing you are about to do: classical, music theater, R&B, Rock or whatever.
It’s a good idea to have sung your highest and lowest notes before you have to perform them, BUT don’t over-practice. You don’t want to make your voice fatigued before your gig. Also, if you’re in rehearsal for 3 hours, you want to make it to the end with some voice left.
A good and experienced teacher/coach will help you figure out what warm-ups are best for you. Practice them daily or as often as you need and you’ll be in good shape! After sometime you’ll start to notice a difference.