Now that we know warming up for singing is a good idea (Preparing to sing: why bother?), and now that we’ve considered what kind of things we might do in a warm up (Preparing to sing: what should a warm up consist of?), I’d like to turn to some specific exercises that you might use in a physical and vocal warm up for a choir.
I’m not going to simply give a list of exercises because we’d be here all week, and I don’t want to give away my best ideas! Also, it’s hard to describe accurately some of the physical exercises (and I don’t have a video camera yet!). What I think will be more valuable is to look in detail at a few exercises that I’ve developed over time to show you how you might include all the essential elements of a good warm up (engaging the breath; adding sound; involving the body; using the imagination; working with others) into a single exercise by developing, combining and extending simple exercises. I’d love to hear from you if you have any good examples of exercises like this.
Reach for the sky!
Let’s start with a simple stretching exercise. We’ll ask people to stretch both arms up to reach for the sky. Simple, but a bit boring and people can easily be lazy and not really stretch. So ask them to imagine that they’re reaching for something: a jar high up on a shelf; a golden ball of incredible value that keeps moving just out of reach; a magic apple. You can stretch each side of the body (loosening the rib cage) by using each arm in turn.
To make the exercise more vivid you could tell people that they’re climbing hand over hand up a rope ladder. Perhaps they’re in an Indiana Jones movie trying to escape from the baddies. To make sure the stretch is full and extended, get them to hang on to the rung they’re on, look down to see if the baddies are still following, then reach up for the rung above that one. By getting them to look up at where they’re going, and down at the baddies, they are also beginning to flex their neck and release tension.
You could extend the stretch horizontally by reaching out to a partner (you’re on the polar ice cap and a crack has appeared. You begin to float away from each other and try to reach out to pull them onto your piece of ice). You could combine this with sound by sending a sustained ‘A’ vowel sound across the space to your partner. The more you reach out, the longer you can sustain your note.
Get those hips working!
Next week will be a guest post from Alexander Massey looking at why we do all these hip wiggling and knee bending exercises. Simply put, these kinds of exercise can help to ground our voices, create greater breath support and a more centred tone. Alexander will offer an explanation of how and why this works.
One of these hip wiggling exercises is to make a smooth, large circle with the hips. Many people feel a little self-conscious when they first do this because we Brits don’t really like much to do with bump and grind, especially when it involves the groin area! So I usually start with a joke around this and point out that it will make people better salsa dancers.
To help people engage with their hips, I might start with the idea that you’re in a tight huddle (jumble sale? football crowd?) and you need to bump the people either side of you because they’re getting a little too close. That deals with the side to side hip motion. Then I might get people to imagine that their pelvis is a big bowl full of spaghetti and if they tilt it forward (which will mean their bum will stick out) the spaghetti will all slip out onto the floor, whereas if they tilt it back up (so their belly button will push forward), they will keep it in. That will help people find the front and back positions of their pelvis.
Get people to slowly hit all these points that we’ve found with their hips: right side, front, left side, back and gradually make it smoother and larger. Use imagery like stirring porridge or soup. Make sure people’s knees are bent. Point out that the torso doesn’t need to move (the best salsa dancers have a completely still upper body). Ask them to imagine they are in a sweet shop at the counter. The shop keeper won’t know what they’re doing with their hips because their upper body is still. Only by the twinkle in their eye will anyone know what’s going on below!
You can take this limbering up aspect further by, for example, asking people to spin a record with their hand or stir soup in the opposite direction to their hips at the same time (a good exercise for the brain and co-ordination!). You could ask people to do something with their arms such as raising and lowering them slowly. Or to get them to roll their shoulders at the same time (creates a strange looking dance!). The possibilities are endless.
You can introduce voice by asking them to vocalise on a low ‘O’ vowel sound, as if it’s coming from the bowels of the earth. Slowly raise the pitch whilst keeping the sound rooted in the belly. Get them to imagine they’re carrying out some ancient healing sound ritual and choose someone else in the room to send this healing energy to. Pass the sound between pairs of people as a call and response. You can introduce ear-training at this stage by asking people to send the sound back to their partner a semi-tone higher each time. And so on.
Buzz those lips!
Gentle humming on a fairly low note is a common way to begin to engage the voice. Ask people to focus on trying to get their lips to buzz/ vibrate/ itch so that the sound is forward and not stuck in the throat. Extend this by gently sliding down to their lowest note until all their breath is gone (helps with breath control). Gradually cheat the topmost note upwards. Ask them to go down with their body as the notes slide down. Then reverse this: still sliding down the scale, but ask people to move from a collapsed body to an upright, more beautiful, erect position, full of confidence and charisma.
Introduce scales whilst warming up the voice. Ask people to slide from the root note up and down a third. Visit all the micro notes in between. Working as a group (by all breathing at the same time), repeat the exercise but move a semi-tone up each time without anyone leading or conducting.
Extend this by doing three slides one after the other: root to third and back down; root to fifth; a whole octave. To make things less technical and to engage the body, ask people to express the rise and fall of the note with their bodies. Use visual imagination to picture an object or animal that is expanding and contracting. Then ask them to perform the movements in relation to another person in the room (different person each time). Combine the whole exercise: three slides plus movement at the same time as everyone else in the room (nobody leading), then up a semi-tone each time and repeat.
Up scale, down scale
A simple vocalise on ‘la’. Short, staccato on the way up, smooth legato on the way down:
Gradually move the exercise up a semi-tone each time. As the top note gets higher, ask people to drop their body down for the top note (stops people from extending up to reach for high notes). Emphasise the staccato and legato. Then begin to emphasise the pause for breath at the top just before smoothly coming down.
Extend this by asking the whole room to pause at the top together for a dramatic moment (don’t conduct them). Hold their breath at this moment of suspension, then all come down at the same time. To add interest and to emphasise the staccato notes, ask people to strike a clear and separate pose for each note on the way up, and then (after the dramatic pause) to ‘dance’ the smooth descent afterwards.
Extend this by asking the whole group to work as one and to repeat the whole exercise but a semi-tone up each time. Develop this by asking people to move (quickly!) to face a different direction before each repeat of the exercise. You will then have the whole group working off each other, breathing together and tuning in to each other.
If you repeat exercises often, there is a danger that people will stop engaging fully with them due to their familiarity. It’s possible to add a different focus of attention each time. For example, in the exercise above you can ask people to sing in a very posh accent in order to make the vowel sound clearer and blend better. Or you could focus on changing volume dynamics as you go up and down the scale.
Or you can add new visualisation ideas, but you could also point out to people that they have a choice. They can either go through the motions, or get the full benefit of an exercise by approaching it as if it were the first time. This enables people (if they choose to!) to learn more about their own bodies, habits and voices over time. I’ve written about this Zen notion of beginner’s mind in a previous post (Blame it on the weather).
I hope that's given you some thoughts for how you might begin to combine and extend familiar exercises, bring to life well-trod warm ups, and to bring in all essential aspects of a warm up into each and every exercise. Do leave a comment and let me know if you have any good examples of warm up exercises that use these principles.