Monday, March 06, 2017

How to develop perfect warm up exercises for your choir

The choir leader’s (and singer’s) lament: “I’m bored with the warm ups and want new ideas.”

IMG_9507 June 2003

It’s very easy to create your own exciting new warm up exercises. I’ll show you how.

same old, same old

There is an argument that we should do the same warm up exercises at every rehearsal. The singers will know the exercises inside out and know what to expect each week. Over time singers will go deeper, notice more subtleties and learn more about themselves and their voices.

But many of us run community choirs where vocal development needs to be slipped in surreptitiously and be as entertaining as possible. It’s too much to expect a singer to come to rehearsal after a hard day’s work and be asked to focus in depth on tiny subtleties in warm up exercises. Singers want to have fun and be entertained.

Also, with the best will in the world, a choir leader can get bored or over-familiar with a particular warm up exercise and present it in a lacklustre way which certainly won’t inspire the singers.

Time for some new warm ups!

how to create your own warm ups

There are plenty of sources for vocal warm ups out there, but they tend to be vocalises (textless vocal exercises to be sung to one or more vowels) and rather dull ones at that.

We want something that engages the imagination, helps the transition from the everyday world, inspires team work, helps to loosen the body, involves the breath and so on (see Preparing to sing: why bother?).

The best way to find a good warm up exercise is to create it yourself. You can tailor it to your own singers and to your particular needs (e.g. focus on intervals, or emphasis on breathing – whatever your choir needs at the time).

Here are three examples where I’ve started with a very simple and well-known warm up and slowly developed into something bigger and richer. Use these to kick start your own ideas.

basic scale

This is one of the most common warm ups: simply sing a scale from bottom to top (and maybe back down again, or from top to bottom).

Even if your singers don’t know any music theory, they’ll know what a ‘major scale’ is – just remind them of the Sound of Music.

It’s a great exercise for becoming more accurate at singing intervals, but can get boring after a while.
You can sing it on a vowel: ‘la’ or ‘lu’ for example, as ‘doh reh mi’ if your singers know that, or by numbers (which can be used later in interval training).

You can begin to tighten up the accuracy of intervals by repeating each one as you go up. That is, instead of singing  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8  you sing  1 2 | 2 3 | 3 4 | 4 5 | 5 6 | 6 7 | 7 8.

You can then introduce harmonies by getting half the group to drone on 1 whilst the others sing the scale, repeating each interval. Take it slow so singers can really hear the notes against each other.

More complex harmonies can be explored by singing the scale as a round. One half begin  1 2 | 2 3  then the second group come in.

You can develop this by dividing the group into three, having one on the root drone and the other two singing the scale as a round.

Even more complex harmonies can be explored by having three groups sing the scale as a round. The slower the better.

If your group is more experienced, you can then split the choir up into trios with each of the three singers starting the round at a different time.

This creates a gorgeous sound and can be really inspiring for a group who haven’t done much harmony singing. They’re making amazing music together and it’s only the warm up!

working as one and introducing drama

There is another simple scale-based warm up which goes like this:

1 3 5 8 10 8 5 3 1

Using ‘la’ sing staccato on the way up, then smooth legato on the way back down. Get singers to spread themselves evenly throughout your rehearsal space.

First introduce the dramatic pause: after 8 the whole group take a breath as one, then all hit the 10 together and smoothly run down. Practice a few times, then leave the group to do it by themselves with no leader.

Then root the sound in the body by asking singers to strike pose with each note on the way up (I call it “Martian dancing”), then to gradually unfurl back to a normal singing position on the legato coming down.

Next, raise the stakes by going up a semitone each time the exercise is repeated. To drive that home (and to get the singers to be aware of different colleagues each time) ask singers to face a different direction just before the exercise starts again.

Start the singers off with a reasonably low starting note, then leave them to their own devices.

This exercise helps engage body with voice; focuses on breathing together; gets singers to work as a team; helps to improve focus; improves interval accuracy and understanding of semitones; makes things more fun by becoming a game.

more intervals, but focus on dynamics/ timbre/ style

I picked up this simple exercise a while back, and have slowly been developing it ever since.

The basic exercise is this:

1 2 3 4 5 | | | 5 4 3 2 1 | | | 

1 2 3 4 5 | | | 5 4 3 2 1 | | |

1 5 4 5 3 5 2 5 1 5 4 5 3 5 2 5

1 | 3 | 5 | 3 | 1 | 3 | 5 | 3 |

1 | | | 5 | | | 1

It’s good to start by singing the numbers so people won’t get lost too easily whilst they’re learning the exercise.

Begin to introduce style/ timbre by asking them to sing it very posh like Mary Poppins in a bit of a clipped accent.

Then maybe you can do it as grand opera or country and western – ham it up and over-emphasise.
Next, drop the numbers and sing it on ‘la’. Introduce different styles here too. Next try ‘ha’ – I ask singers to pretend to be aristocrats laughing.

Next, late night jazz on ‘do’ (with a bit of syncopation).

Then smoothly on ‘u’. You can begin to add dynamics here like volume, and also begin to focus on sustaining breath through phrases.

There is also scope for conducting the exercise to add dynamics on the fly and to stop in unexpected places. Try crescendos too.

the next step

I hope you’ve found these example useful. Don’t just slavishly copy them (although you’re welcome to use them), but use them as a springboard to go off and devise your own warm up exercises that will better suit your own choir. Good luck! And do let us know if you come up with some gems you’d like to share. We’re all always on the lookout for new ideas.

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Chris Rowbury



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