A career in singing is much like a career in any other field: You start out by taking small steps and gradually climb your way to the top. One important step that many inexperienced singers tend to skip is the vocal warm ups, but just as an exercise routine is necessary to keep the body in shape, vocal warm ups are important to keep the voice in shape and functioning properly. What follows are some helpful vocal warm ups that you should get in the habit of using on a daily basis.
Before you start your warm ups, you should understand why they are important:
Singing may not seem very athletic, but it is as much a physical activity as running, swimming, or skating. Just as athletes demand a lot of the muscles in their arms, legs, and core, vocalists demand a lot of the muscles that they use to sing, particularly the vocal cords, but also the muscles of the face, neck, and abdomen. Athletes are at greater risk for injury if they don't warm up and prepare their muscles before a competition; similarly, singers are at greater risk of vocal strain or acute injury if they do not warm up before a performance.
To become a runner, a swimmer, or a figure skater, you need to practice and train to build up your strength and ability over time, and it's the same with singing. You wouldn't try to run a marathon your first day out the door, would you? Of course not! Likewise, with singing, a regular warm-up routine will build your vocal strength and stamina gradually.
A healthy warm ups routine also helps you to prevent damage to your voice over time. To use another analogy, think of your voice like a car engine that needs regular maintenance, such as oil changes, to keep running at peak efficiency. If an engine doesn't get regular oil changes, the moving parts rub up against each other, causing wear and tear, and will eventually give out. Your vocal cords are similar to the moving parts of your car: To produce sound, the vocal cords need to come in contact with one another. Vocal cords that are improperly maintained rub up against each other and cause wear and tear the same way that the moving parts of your car engine do.
Phonation (making sounds with your voice) requires intense vibration of the vocal cords, which are lined with a delicate tissue. If you don't maintain your voice with exercise and hydration, the constant stress on the lining of your vocal cords can cause vocal nodules, calluses on your vocal cords that can prevent them from operating efficiently. Vocal nodules are a common medical complaint among singers, and the condition's effect on a singing career can be devastating. Nodules can sometimes be treated with surgery, but the postsurgical recovery can take a long time, and many singers who have undergone it feel their voices are not the same afterward. Some singers report a loss of vocal range due to treatment for vocal nodules, while others have had to stop singing altogether. It's best to prevent vocal nodules from forming in the first place, and vocal warm-ups are an important preventative measure.
The benefits of vocal warm-ups aren't just physical, however; they're mental too. Like other exercises, vocal warm-ups stimulate the production of endorphins, natural chemicals in your body that improve mood. Warming up before a performance can help you focus your mind and cope effectively with any anxiety or "jitters" that you might feel before performing.
Now that you know why you should do vocal warm ups for your voice, you should next learn how. Your vocal cords are your "instrument," but as you probably already know, there are other muscles involved in singing. Ideally, you should do vocal warm ups before a practice session or performance. The following exercises warm up the muscles of face all the way down to the abdomen.
If you're a beginning singer, the term "solfege" may be unfamiliar to you. "Solfege" is another word for the "Do, Re, Mi" scale demonstrated in the song featured in The Sound of Music. This is a basic exercise that helps train your ear to recognize the proper pitch.
With your jaw relaxed, close your lips loosely together. Think of blowing bubbles underwater to create a buzzing sound. Start on a high-register note that you can sing comfortably. While buzzing your lips together, perform a vocal fall, or "glissando," down one entire octave, then hold the bottom note for a few seconds. Take a deep breath and start again, this time one half-tone lower than you did before, and perform the same octave-long glissando. Continue in this way by half-tones until the low notes become difficult or uncomfortable for you to reach. If you are able to trill your tongue, as is done when pronouncing a double "R" in Spanish, that's a variation that you can try to improve your vocal flexibility.
In this exercise, you imitate the sound of a siren. Start with a low note that's comfortable for you to reach and sing the syllable "oo," making your lips into a very small "O" shape. Next, you have your choice of singing up the scale in an ascending arpeggio or doing a glissando up as far as you can comfortably go. Regardless of which you sing, as your pitch becomes higher, open your mouth wider, and as you come back down to the original note, close your mouth back down to an "oo." Repeat the exercise, beginning one half-tone higher, and continue until the high notes become uncomfortable.
Open your mouth very wide and sing the syllable "haw" on an arpeggio. "Haw" may sound like a laughing syllable, and that's a good concept to keep in mind as you cut off each note with your abdominal muscles. Keeping each note staccato, sing the arpeggio three times and then sustain the last note. Start again a half-tone up, and keep going as high as is comfortable. When you've gone as high as you can go, go back to where you started and begin the exercise again, this time going lower by half-tones until you can't go any lower.
This exercise or vocal warm ups the diaphragm, which is crucially important because that's where your breath should be coming from. If your vocal cords are your engine, oxygen is the fuel, and if you strengthen your diaphragm, you'll never "run out of gas" in the middle of a song.
Vowel placement and shape are crucially important for proper singing, and this exercise helps you cultivate both, as well as breath control. In this exercise, you sing arpeggios again, but this time you go all the way up to the top of the scale and come back down again. For example, if you start at middle C, sing arpeggios up to the next C and then come back down to middle C. Start with the vowel sound "ah," and go through your entire range by half-tones, then switch the vowel sound to "eh" and repeat the exercise. Do this for all the vowel sounds.
As a variation, you can do a different vowel sound for each note and even add a consonant sound at the beginning, for example, "Mah, Meh, Mee, Moh, Moo."
This exercise is similar to the vowel runs discussed above, but instead of singing on different vowel sounds, you hum. As you hum, create as much space inside your mouth as possible while keeping your lips loosely closed. Your lips should be relaxed during this exercise; don't try to clamp them shut. As you hum, you should feel your lips vibrating.
Singing tongue twisters warms up the tip of the tongue and the teeth and the lips — which, by the way, is a tongue twister that you can use as a vocal warm ups. Tongue twisters can help with enunciation and dictation, which are important if you want people to understand the lyrics you're singing. Any kind of tongue twister can work for this, but short phrases like "Red leather, yellow leather" or "Aluminum linoleum" may be best to start out with. Tongue twisters often work best with scales; pick whatever tongue twister you like and sing it on the first note of the scale, then repeat on the next note, ascending up and then descending down the entire scale. Go as slowly as you need to in order to pronounce the phrase correctly, making each syllable distinct. Gradually try to increase speed without sacrificing accuracy.
Just as exercise is necessary for a healthy body, warm-ups are necessary for a healthy voice. To prevent vocal damage, be sure to do your vocal warm ups every time you practice or perform.