Sunday, February 08, 2009

Preparing to sing: what should a warm up consist of?

OK, we’ve looked at why we should bother to take the time to prepare to sing (Preparing to sing: why bother?), but what will that preparation consist of?

This is the second in a series of four posts looking at warm ups and how you prepare to sing.

preparing to sing

  1. why bother?
  2. what should a warm up consist of?
  3. physical and vocal warm up ideas for choirs
  4. hip wiggling and knee bending
This week I’m going to break down the warm up into areas that I think should always be covered. I will look at some specific exercises, next week, but for now I’ll just consider the kinds of thing we might want to cover.

Dividing the warm up into different areas like this is very artificial and I’m doing it simply as a way of looking at the elements in more detail. The ideal warm up exercise will include all the different elements that I mention!

always keep in mind

Whilst we design our warm up, invent new exercises, or get ideas from others, we must always keep in mind, at every point of the warm up, the following:
  • engage the breath
    Even if you’re doing a simple stretching exercise, it is important to engage the breath. It begins to help people connect body and breath, it helps to extend and deepen any stretches, it encourages people to breathe correctly, it helps an awareness of your breathing (many people hold their breath whilst stretching!),
  • add sound
    Resist the temptation to separate the physical exercises from the vocal exercises by bringing sound in at every opportunity. It’s really easy to add simply humming to many physical stretching exercises. Not only does this begin to warm the voice up, but it engages the breath automatically (see above), and connects voice with body.
  • involve the body
    This is the converse to the point above. Just because we are doing vocal exercises doesn’t mean that our bodies cease to exist. Find ways of involving the body by moving in space, by focusing on different parts of the body (e.g. “imagine the sound coming from your belly”), mirroring breathing with body movements, reminding people of correct posture, etc.
  • use imagination
    Yes, it is possible to do a complete warm up in a very dry, technical way, but by engaging the imagination it allows exercises to become more vivid, vibrant and fun. It helps people engage and focus rather than just going through the motions. It helps extend exercises and allows people to go into them more fully. It can also act as a distraction (i.e. different focus of attention) to allow the body and breath to just do what it does naturally rather than forcing it to happen.
  • work with others
    In a choir you are always working with and off other people. It’s OK to have points in the warm up where people are inward looking or focusing on themselves, but don’t fall into the trap of having a room full of individual exercisers. It’s really easy to bring people’s focus onto the other people in the room whilst doing a simple exercise. This is important because they will need to be aware of other singers when singing together, but also they need to be aware of the audience when performing. In the warm up you can develop the ability to be focusing on several different things at once.
  • develop/ combine
    It’s rather boring and limited simply to do a series of separate exercises. To make things richer and more fun, always be thinking of ways you can develop a particular exercise (“how can I make it better/ deeper/ more interesting/ more useful?”) or ways of combining several exercises together. This will help keep the warm ups fun and challenging and also help people to be able to do several things at once.

an artificial division

For the purposes of this post only, I want to divide the elements of a typical warm up into three areas: body, voice, mind. They are not, of course, separate, and as I stated at the beginning, the ideal exercise should involve all of these.

As I mentioned last week (3. connect body, breath, voice), all too often we compartmentalise and separate parts of ourselves which should actually be working together all the time. Every single thing we do – whether preparing to sing, or singing itself – should engage mind, body, and voice.

Within each division, here are the different areas that I believe should be covered in any and every warm up.

body (physical/ relaxation/ flexibility exercises)

To wake up, loosen muscles, release tension, improve posture, get rid of bad habits, extend flexibility, reduce fatigue, develop self-awareness.

  • stretch/ reach
    Stretch up, sideways, cat stretch (arch the back), arms apart
  • twist/ bend
    Twist the torso, bend over and roll up, lean sideways from the waist
  • shake/ bounce
    Act like a dog, shake off water, bounce on heels, shake the whole body
  • dance/ walk
    Moving in space, engaging the whole body, walking action with swinging arms
  • rhythm/ timing
    Moving in fixed beats, stepping, clapping, unusual time signatures
  • head/ neck/ shoulders
    Tilting, dropping, leaning, lifting, shrugging, rolling
  • face/ mouth/ tongue
    Opening, scrunching, chewing, massaging, drawing shapes with tongue
  • pelvis/ diaphragm
    Hip wriggling, drawing circles, tilting, figure of eight
  • manipulation (with partner/ s)
    Shoulder massage, arm pulling, shaking shoulders
  • relaxation/ fluidity/ calmness
    Correct singing posture, being seaweed, slow motion

voice (vocal/ breathing exercises)

To engage the vocal folds, release tension, improve muscle co-ordination, develop listening skills, avoid vocal damage, gain control.

  • engaging the voice
    humming, sirens, croaking, soft vowel sounds
  • breath control/ support
    blowing candles, “sh” and “ha”sounds, laughing, pulling spaghetti from mouth
  • range
    vocal slides, simple melodies up and down the scale, rising in semitones
  • melody/ intervals/ scales
    call and response, scales, simple tunes, interval training
  • pitching/ tuning
    call and response, pitch matching, drones
  • harmony/ singing with others
    simple triads, drones, rounds
  • articulation/ vowels
    body centres, pronunciation, blend, tongue twisters

mind (awareness of self and others)

To be present, develop awareness of your own body and voice, work effectively with others, attend to the conductor, perform better.
  • focus/ concentration
    being in the moment, focus on self, awareness of others, focus of attention, relaxation
  • working as a team
    group exercises, stopping and starting, working without a conductor, selling the song

Next week I will look at some physical and vocal warm up ideas for choirs by considering a few specific examples of how you might develop and extend a particular warm up exercise. Do please leave a comment if you think I’ve missed out something important!

Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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