By Nellie Vinograd
Preheat your oven. Wax your surfboard. Stretch your muscles. Every skill requires preparation, and for singing, vocal warm ups are vital. Skipping your warm-up can result in the embarrassment of losing your voice mid-song or worse, vocal cord damage. A good singer will even warm-up before their scheduled rehearsal, humming softly on the bus or practicing scales in the car. You will sound and feel better while singing if you keep in mind these warm-up tips.
Before you even start creating sound, a breathing exercise can help you feel centered and prepare you for more intensive breath work. One example is slowly inhaling, holding your breath, and exhaling on a count of 4 or 8. Lip trills (think blowing air between your lips like you’re imitating a motorboat sound) release a lot of air so they are a good way to work on fully engaging your lungs. You can also practice exhaling slowly on a “Hiss” sound or on a pulse.
Getting your body involved can also be a helpful breathing practice. Press your palms against your stomach and aim to push your lower abdomen outward as you inhale. Actions like this create helpful imagery for deep, effective breaths. You can return to this trick throughout rehearsal, periodically placing your hands at the sides or front of your stomach to remind yourself to breathe properly.
Humming and M exercises are a great next step. Humming the scales, a melody, or going from a hum to an open vowel sound, like “Hmmm...aaah”, are ways to gently engage your vocal cords. When humming, focus on bringing that vibrating resonance to your cheeks and nose - if your face feels itchy, or you look like you just ate sour grapes, that’s a good sign!
Singing on an M sound such as “Mee” or “Mah” focuses in on creating these vibrations as well. Younger singers enjoy the popular “Mommy made me mash my M&Ms” or “Many Mumbling Mice” exercises.
Scales and basic tools
A warm-up should prepare you for the range that you will be singing during a rehearsal or performance. If you’re singing a Soprano aria, you’ll want to focus on singing higher, head voice warm-ups, and likewise, a lower part will require low, chest voice warm-ups. Singing scales in your range on a vowel sound such as “Ah” or “Ooh” are some of the most common and effective warm-ups.
Singing along the scale on the solfege vowels (do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do) can prepare you for more complex arrangements and the ever-dreaded cite singing test. Try warming up with “Do, Mi, So, Do” (ascending the scale) and then “Do, So, Mi, Do” (descending the scale) to practice Major Third intervals, for example.
Another effective tool is a siren, beginning in your highest head voice and gliding down into chest voice as if imitating an ambulance siren, usually on an “Ah” or “Wee” sound. This is a quick and simple warm-up you can do at any point to relax your vocal cords if you’re feeling strained and mentally reset, as well.
It’s important to diversify your warm-ups to prepare for all the types of singing your repertoire might require. Singing both legato (notes smoothly connected together) and staccato (short, separated sounds) is one way to do this. It’s good mental practice to alternate between the two in a single warm-up and notice the different ways you need to engage your breathing and diaphragm while changing styles. If you’re having issues tuning or maintaining a note without wavering, a slower, legato warm-up will help with this.
Another helpful tool is warming-up in both piano (quiet) and forte (loud), bringing in crescendos (gradual increase in loudness) and diminuendos (gradual decrease in loudness) as you sing a particular warm-up.
Specializing your warm-ups
Depending on how you feel and sound after an initial warm-up, specialized warm-ups might be needed to make sure a rehearsal goes as smoothly as possible. For instance, if your singing is sounding throaty or blocked, warm-ups using Z sounds like “Zah” can help singers focus on lowering their tongues and creating resonance with their hard palate. If you will need to use your “mix” (a powerful blend of chest and head voice) or intend to belt, warming up on the “Nyah” sound can be a helpful preparation tool. If you’re trying to reach coloratura or “whistle register” notes, ascending on a “Wee” sound can be highly effective. As you practice, you’ll become more familiar with what types of warm-ups you require to sound your best.
Care and focus
It’s important not to push yourself too hard during warm-ups and to notice when you need to troubleshoot. For instance, pain in the back of your throat during a high warm-up could reveal that you’re holding on to extra tension in your neck and need to relax your muscles -- or that the notes you’re attempting to reach are too high and you need to stop there. Carefully listen to not just your voice but also your body and any discomfort you sense. Like any muscle, your vocal cords are vulnerable to damage while warming up, so if something doesn’t feel right: stop, breathe, take a sip of water, give a quick stretch and try again!