Monday, September 26, 2022

Are warm ups necessary for singers?

In a recent blog post, Robert Sussuma urges singers to “stop warming up, doing exercises, and practising.”

see source, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

He is being a little provocative, but it has prompted me to reflect on whether singers need to warm up or not before singing.

Robert Sussuma wrote a blog post recently entitled: SINGERS, STOP IT!: 5 Alternatives to Compulsive Warming-up, Endless Exercises to “Fix” Problems that Don’t Exist, and Repetitive Mindless Practicing!

I’d like to look in a bit more detail about what “warming up” might mean, and if it’s necessary for singers. I’ll also discuss some of the points that Sussuma makes in his post.

singers need to prepare

I am a great believer in singers preparing before they sing. In fact, I’ve written a series of four posts: Preparing to sing.

But preparing to sing (or “warming up” as some people call it – even when it’s very hot!) is not just a series of vocalises to get your voice going or a set of physical exercises.

I think one of the problems is the terms we use.

“Warming up” is reminiscent of stretching before we go running, or jogging on the spot before a football game, or gently shaking out before a gym or dance class.

Singing is not a physical sport though. Which is why I don’t like using the term “warming up”.

However, we do need to prepare ourselves before we sing, especially when we are singing with others.

We need to be in a very different state – both physically and mentally – from that of our everyday life.

In our daily lives we are often a little bit stressed, in a hurry, our focus is all over the place, we’re trying to do lots of things at once, breathing shallowly, we’re tense, busy, and lacking self-awareness. The list goes on – modern life is hard!

There needs to be a transition between that world, and the world of singing.

what to prepare for singing

Our preparation will involve relaxation and awareness of the tensions in our bodies (see also: You sing with your whole body – not just your vocal apparatus). We will need to slow down, get into our bodies, and be centred and grounded.

We’ll change from shallow breathing to long, slow, full breaths deep down into our bellies.

We’ll adjust our focus to the here and now and the other singers in the room. Tweaking our self-awareness so we become more conscious of ourselves and our actions.

We’ll begin to engage our imaginations, our creativity and our visual and aural senses.

We’ll listen more closely, to ourselves and the other singers. We’ll become aware of the sounds all around us.

We’ll gently being to use our voices until they are free and can express with ease.

Sussuma on warm ups

I’m not going to address every single point in Sussuma’s article (we’d be here a long time!), but here are a few that jumped out at me.

Sussuma seems to have quite a limited view of what a “warm up” is. He seems to be talking about physical and vocal exercises that are done with a specific aim to “improve” our singing voices. But most of us are not aiming to improve our voices, we just want to be in a state which allows us to sing as freely as possible and in the best way we can.

Regarding physical warm ups, Sussuma says:

“Would you stop and warm-up before needing to jump out of the way of a bus that was about to hit you? Would you stop and warm-up before kissing your beloved, before making love? Would you stop and warm-up before opening a jar from the cupboard? Do you warm-up your hands before singing your name on a document?”

Of course you don’t need to warm up to jump out of the way of a bus. But afterwards (if you survive) you may find that you’ve twisted your ankle or ricked your back. You DO warm up before making love: it’s called foreplay. Opening jars and signing documents are the kind of things we do all day. We’d probably find it harder if we tried just after we got out of bed. But later in the day, we’ll be “warmed up”.

Sussuma later goes on to suggest that you should “play”: have fun, be silly, try new things. I totally agree, but it’s hard to get into that playful state when you arrive at choir from a full day of work and a hectic commute. You need some kind of transition into that world of play and experimentation.

He suggests that instead we “just sing”. Which is fine in principle. Have you tried reaching those high notes and singing that difficult passage first thing in the morning or when you’ve just come from work? You’ll probably find that, not only is it harder, but you may even end up with a sore throat. Surely it’s better to ease your way in?

Of course, if you sing regularly, pretty much every day, the amount of “easing in” will be far less than if you sing once a week in a choir.

Towards the end of his article, Sussuma basically endorses what I’m calling “preparing to sing”. He says that singing should take place

“within the context of personal sensory awareness practice. What’s that? Interoception – the ability to sense your body, your self in space, your sensations big and small, the details of your inner goings-on.”

He says you should notice your breathing, the tensions in your body, your posture, the placement of your feet on the ground, and so on.

I completely agree. However, that’s not the sort of thing that most of us can maintain constantly in our busy lives. So let’s incorporate it into our preparation for singing.

should we warm up or not?

I definitely think we should prepare before we start to sing. But I would like to ban the phrase “warm up” in the context of singing. It doesn’t describe fully what our preparation needs to be and it has too many negative connotations with sport.

Did you read Sussuma’s article? I’d love to know what your thoughts are about that and warm ups in general.

Chris Rowbury


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