Sunday, February 01, 2009

Preparing to sing: why bother?

I’m often asked for ideas for vocal and physical warm ups for choirs. I’m also always on the lookout for new ideas for my own choir and singing workshops. I can get bored quite quickly doing the same old exercises, and so can the singers I’m working with.

This is the first 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

why bother?

I usually do around 10 – 15 minutes of warm up stuff with my choir. This includes vocal development work since we meet each week and I can slowly build on work from one session to the next. If I’m tailoring a warm up to a specific song, or difficulty that the choir is having, then the warm up might be longer. In a one-off workshop I may do a little longer, depending on the circumstances.

No matter how long the warm up is, I can be sure of the following:
  • some people will think the warm up is too long, while others will think it’s not long enough;
  • some people will think it’s a waste of time, while some will think it’s an invaluable and important part of being in the choir;
  • some people will love one particular exercise, while others will simply hate it.
So you can’t win whatever you do!

Next week I’ll be looking at what a warm up should (in my opinion) consist of, but this week I want to stand back and consider why we do a warm up at all. In some cultures and contexts, there is no physical or vocal warm up at all!

I was lucky enough in 1994 to work in Cardiff for a whole week with two amazing Georgian singers and ethnomusicologists: Edisher Garakanidze and Joseph Jordania. I remember on perhaps the second day of singing, one of our group asked Edisher if we could do some kind of stretching and vocal warm up before we started. He was rather bemused but let us go ahead. Someone led us through a typical physical and vocal limber up session lasting 5 or 10 minutes whilst Edisher watched with increasing amusement. He indulged us and then we just carried on with the singing.

It made me realise that in a culture where people sing all the time, every day, or in a profession or context where you sing regularly, then your voice is pretty much ‘warmed up’ all the time, and if you have sufficient body awareness, you will be loose, relaxed and limbered up in any case. But working with ‘civilians’ who maybe sing in a choir just once a week, or who come to a singing workshop every few months, then a warm up is important and necessary.

As a singer, perhaps this post will give you an insight into why we, as choir leaders, make you do all this stuff at the beginning of a session. As a choir leader, you might want to remind your singers every now and then that there are good reasons behind the various physical contortions and strange warbling noises you make them to do!

These are elements that I believe need to be considered when preparing to sing and designing a warm up. I’m sure there are plenty that I’ve missed and would love it if you would add a comment and let me know what you think.
  1. transition from the everyday
    Many choirs are run on weekday evenings and their members have usually come from a hard day’s work, fixing a quick supper, dropping the kids off to their ballet class, driving in the cold rain, forgetting to bring their song lyrics, etc. etc. The atmosphere we are trying to create is one of relaxed informality, of focus and concentration, of silliness and imagination, of creativity and beauty, of timelessness and joy. Most of these elements are missing from our everyday lives, so we have to allow a period of transition for people to settle into a different world: a world of music-making and collaboration.
  2. relax and release tension
    Having sat all day at a PC, driven for half an hour, and rushed to get to choir on time, it’s no wonder people are rather tense and a little stressed. Their shoulders are up by their ears, their pelvises are locked, their jaws are clenched, their brows furrowed. We need to coax and persuade people to relax, release, stretch, let go and be free in their bodies (and minds!).
  3. connect body, breath, voice
    It’s so easy for us to compartmentalise in our everyday life: now we’re at the gym, now we’re sitting at our desk, now we’re giving a presentation to our colleagues, now we’re shouting at our kids, now we’re swimming in our lunch hour. When I use to teach at drama school (and you’d think performing arts students would know better!), the students would either be doing a dance class or a singing class. You could see their demeanour change as they walked from class to class. They didn’t need their body in the singing class, and they didn’t need their voice in the dance class.
    We need to re-connect these three vital components of singing and point out how they are inextricably linked. Gone are the days of the clenched buttocks, feet in second position and formally held hands of the posh recital. We need to get back to the cotton fields, the chain gangs and the weaving looms and sing with our bodies, breathe with our imagination, and dance with our mouths.
  4. engage imagination and creativity
    If we just go through the motions of familiar technical exercises it soon gets boring and also we don’t really put ourselves fully into the work. However, if we can engage our imaginations, pretend we’re in a magic world, have reasons for doing things, be playful and creative, then the work comes alive and we have fun. We become totally engaged in the exercises and get the maximum benefit from them. Rather than asking someone to simply stretch upwards, ask them to reach for the stars. Rather than asking for short, sharp breaths from the belly, ask them to pretend to be a steam train.
  5. hone listening skills
    We have become a visual society. We are constantly bombarded with visual imagery through advertising, TV, cinema, the internet, etc. There is such a cacophony of noise in our everyday lives that we start to filter it out in order to cope. One way of doing this it to stuff buds into our ears and listen to music. But then we tend to zone out and not notice things happening around us. In order to sing together, especially in harmony, we need to re-connect with the world of sound, re-engage with our ears, hone our listening skills. We need to hear our own voices to realise if we are singing at the right pitch. We need to hear the other harmonies so we know if our part is fitting in correctly. We need to hear the whole song in order to make sure we have the rhythm right. And we need to become aware if we’re chatting too much or not listening to the choir leader!
  6. develop self-awareness
    This is a tricky, but vital one! I really don’t know how to do this when working in large groups. To help people develop a strong sense of self-awareness (“is my chin jutting out?”, “am I on the right note?”, “am I stepping in the same rhythm as everyone else?”) you really need to give people individual feedback (“you’re jutting your chin out again John!”, “no, you’re slightly flat there”, “did you realise that you’re starting off with your left foot and not your right?”). That’s not possible in a room of 60 people that you’re trying to shape into a choir! I trust that by coming every week and doing the warm up, people’s self-awareness will improve naturally – but maybe I’m deluding myself!
  7. increase confidence, lose inhibitions
    It can be a very scary thing, especially for new choir members, to be in a large group and to think you’re the only one having difficulties. It’s no good if everyone thinks they can’t ‘sing’ very well because then they’ll all sing quietly and we won’t ever know if the song is coming out right! People need to be encouraged to let go and to sing out, even if they think it’s ‘wrong’. I try to persuade people to go for it, and if they make a mistake whilst learning, then make a BIG mistake. In this way you can hear where you’ve gone wrong and correct it. Many people don’t like being in that vague, eggy state where you’re not in control and the song is not yet on its feet. Everyone is struggling, it doesn’t sound very good, and you’re having trouble getting those notes right. This is a necessary part of the process of learning a song. It will feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but we need people to soldier on regardless and trust the process. We need confident singers (who are behaving as if they know what they’re doing – that’s all that’s needed!) who have no inhibitions or worries about looking silly (we’re all in the same boat) or getting things ‘wrong’ (it may just be a ‘different’ harmony!).
  8. improve pitching and vocal range using a centred, healthy voice
    Once people have left behind their everyday life and confidently entered a relaxed, creative space, then we can get down to the business of singing! Every session we need to work on developing people’s ability to sing accurately on pitch and to help them develop and extend their own personal vocal range (even if it’s only a few notes), whilst all the time ensuring that their voice comes from the right place.
  9. develop sense of timing and rhythm
    In British culture, this is perhaps one of the hardest challenges! Especially if we are learning songs from the ‘world music’ repertoire, e.g. from Africa or the Balkans. Ours is predominantly a culture where music is melodic rather than rhythmic. Our songs, if danceable at all, tend to be in strict 4/4 or 3/4 time. In our warm up sessions we can practice off beats, all coming in at the same time, strange dances to 7/8 beats, clapping in time, stepping in time, and so on. This will all feed back into those songs that have a rhythmic basis, it will also help the choir engage their bodies with their voices.
  10. awareness of working with others
    We can always stay at home and sing ballads on our own, but these people have chosen to come out to sing with others. Even when singing in unison, we need to be conscious of everyone else in the choir in order to sing at the same time, to get be singing the same melody and to articulate the vowels similarly to enable vocal blending. In harmony singing this is even more important. There is a tendency when running warm ups to simply give out a series of individual exercises, but there should be a way of gradually helping people become aware of the rest of the choir and to introduce exercises that help people work with and off others.
and all this to be done with laughter in a fun, non-judgmental way!
Next week I will be looking at the individual components of what constitutes a warm up, and the week after that I will cover a few specific physical and vocal warm up exercises.

I’d love to hear from you and your own experiences. What kind of warm ups do you do? Do you find warm ups helpful? What are the best kinds of warm ups? Do leave a comment!

Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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