(The topic of the 3 essential elements to a complete vocal warm-up is also addressed in a video I created HERE.)
We all know that a vocal warm-up prior to singing is a good idea. We also know that NOT eating at McDonald’s is a good idea. We tend to ignore both good ideas. (Ok, maybe I’m projecting concerning the McDonald’s thing.)
It is not only crucial to do a vocal warm-up, it is imperative that it is a complete vocal warm-up. What do I mean by “complete”? I’m glad I asked!
Vocal warm-up exercises for singers must contain 3 elements to be a complete warm-up. Without ALL 3 elements, then it isn’t a completely effective vocal warm-up. A good warm-up enables singers to sing more comfortably throughout their vocal ranges, prevents strain, and allows their voices to remain free for a longer singing session.
What are these three elements, and what are their importance?
Before answering that question, I’d like to explain what warming up isn’t. It isn’t just singing an easy song or two. It isn’t singing low so you don’t sing into your upper notes too soon. It isn’t something that will wear your voice out because you weren’t saving enough for the performance. It isn’t consciously working on breathing or breathing exercises. All of these thought processes are incomplete at best, detrimental at worst.
After introducing the three essential elements of a complete vocal warm-up, I will explain why the above mentioned sub-par vocal warm-up ideas don’t fit our criteria for a good vocal warm-up.
The three essential elements of a complete vocal warm-up are:
starting out by slowly ramping up the blood flow into the muscles involved in the singing process, especially those in and immediately surrounding the vocal folds (vocal cords);
stretching the muscles of the vocal folds;
and coordinating the different range areas of the voice by singing with proper physical form.
Let’s address each of these in turn.
First, slowly ramp up the blood flow in and around the muscles of the vocal cords.
For each of the three warm-up elements, I will make analogies to warm-ups done by runners. If runners run too hard or too fast before they warm-up, they will quickly fatigue. Why?
At rest or while doing little work, muscles are “fed” oxygen and nutrients at a certain rate, and the “waste” is carried away at that same rate, creating a good balance. This rate sustains the health of the muscles. Now, when muscles are exercised, they need more oxygen and nutrients to do their job. If not, a muscle will literally start breaking itself down to feed the rest of the muscle. In a way, it begins to cannibalize itself!
If one starts working muscles faster than the blood flow can keep up, the muscles break down, and fatigue occurs. At this point, time is needed to allow the muscles to rebuild themselves or they will continue to break down. In the meantime, the muscles are weaker and they can’t handle the full workload they might otherwise handle had the blood flow been slowly increased to keep up with the demand of the oxygen and nutrient needs of the muscles.
So how does that translate practically for a singer? Start with low volume or less than medium volume level exercises, and give yourself plenty of breaks between exercises. Don’t plow through a bunch of exercises in a row without breaks. Take at least 20-30 seconds between each exercise, more if you feel even the least bit of fatigue sneaking in. In fact, if fatigue is beginning to show up you should stop for one of these mini-breaks even if in the middle of a warm-up exercise. Ease your way in. Video warm-up example exercises can be found for the male voice and female voice at the Sing With Power YouTube channel.
Second, stretch the vocal cord muscles.
With any athlete, stretching is important to achieve full muscle flexibility and range of motion. Muscles that are comfortably stretched are less likely to get pulled or strained.
So, how does one stretch the vocal cords? Sing high.
When singing high notes the vocal cords stretch in length. The stretched, more taut vocal cords produce a faster “buzz”, and therefore a higher pitch. Flexible vocal cords will vibrate more readily in the upper register, needing less air pressure to respond with a clear tone.
So how does that translate practically for a singer? Use exercises such as lip bubbles, tongue trills or “blowfish” which allow a singer to sing high into his or her upper register without strain. Any air pressure buildup that might happen in the extreme ranges is transferred to the lips or tongue, allowing the cords to freely vibrate with very little air pressure, even at the highest pitches. Again, video warm-up example exercises can be found for the male voice and female voice at the Sing With Power YouTube channel.
Third, get rid of the break!
If there is a “break” or “crack” in the voice at any point in the range, there is an imbalance of some kind. Athletes need to have good form, no matter the skill needed. Without good form, it does no good to add more weight, speed or effort. Weight, speed or effort added to an exercise or activity that is out of balance will simply bring it down faster. For a singer that might manifest itself as quicker fatigue, vocal cracking, unwanted scratchiness, or any number of other undesirable results. First perfect the form in the warm-up, THEN move on to a vocal workout. Don’t sing a lot in an unbalanced voice or you will build a “lopsided”, limited voice.
So how does that translate practically for a singer? There are a variety of exercises that are designed to help smooth out and erase vocal breaks or cracks. These are much more easily demonstrated than written about so I would again refer you to the warm-up exercises for the male voice and female voice at the Sing With Power YouTube channel. That being said, the exercise types for the task of erasing the break are focused on evening out the compression and airflow across the “bridge” or vocal break areas (those areas in the singing voice that have a propensity for airflow imbalance). Vocal frys, breathy vocals, shallow sounds or other “contrived” sounds can also be utilized to even out the air pressure across the bridge areas. “Working out” the voice to achieve strength or stamina is premature until a good balance is achieved.
So, armed with a new understanding of the three critical warm-up elements, let us dismantle the common warm-up mantras.
“You need to start out sing low so you don’t strain your voice by singing into your upper notes too soon.” Wrong. If you don’t sing high, you don’t stretch the vocal cord muscles. Low notes don’t stretch the cords. Without the stretching, the muscles will lack the flexibility needed to easily balance the voice across the bridge areas of the entire vocal range. If you sing high with bubbles, tongue trills or blowfish exercises, there will be zero strain, even in the highest range of your voice, even without any singing prior to beginning those exercises.
“The warm-up could wear out your voice for the performance, so one should be careful to not warm-up too much so you have more for the performance.” Well, almost, but no. A warm-up that fatigues the voice isn’t a warm-up! Too much work is being done too early. Either more breaks should be taken throughout the initial exercises and/or less volume should be used. It is important to not push to work out the voice too early, or it will fatigue too soon. A proper warm-up will extend the time one can comfortably sing, not shorten it.
“It is important to work on breathing exercise as part of the warm-up.” The vast majority of breathing exercises are a complete waste of time and have no bearing on how the vocal folds naturally balance airflow through the vocal range. While singing isn’t exactly like speech, it ain’t much different!! We should train from the vocal cords out, not the outer muscles in. The breath should tell the vocal cords how much air they need any more than the gas tank should tell the engine how much gas to use. Find a good airflow that the cords can comfortably control (hint: start with your speaking voice) and then go from there. The right vocal exercises will automatically coordinate the airflow to the needs of the vocal cords. There is much, much more to completely address this topic, but that is all I will say for now.
Find a small group of exercises you use consistently as your warm-up exercises. There is no need to be particularly creative here. Just as a runner will pretty much do the same thing to warm up his or her entire running life, a singer should stay fairly consistent with a warm-up so as to quickly gauge the state of his or her singing voice when starting out each day.
A good warm-up will extend the practice or performance time of the voice, and allow for greater range and stronger sounds. Don’t settle for a partial warm-up. Be sure that all three essential elements are there in your warm-up:
slowly ramping up the blood flow into the muscles involved in the singing process;
stretch the muscles of the vocal folds by singing into the upper register with the appropriate exercises;
eliminate vocal breaks by coordinating the different range areas of the voice, singing with proper physical form.