World Voice Day: Vocal Warm Ups for Better Sound

In honor of World Voice Day, choral conductor Mary Louise Burke shares some of her favorite tips for efficient and effective vocal warm ups. Whether you sing in a choral group or lead or conduct a choir or chorus, we hope you’ll find this information useful for improving your sound.

Q: Why are warm ups so important?

One of my primary objectives in warm ups is to help singers “get out of their brains and get into their bodies.” Through a series of physical and vocal exercises, I strive to bring their attention to their bodies/vocal instruments.

A warm up does not need to be long but it does need to be efficient. It should always cover your full range and involve the various muscle groups needed for singing repertoire, i.e. a variety of tempos and articulations, from legato-sustained to faster exercises.

I don’t, as a rule, do “diction” exercises in the warm up; I concentrate on vowels and not on consonants.

Q: What does a good warm up include?

1. Alignment

If you’re not well aligned, you’re not ready to make optimal sound. So alignment (posture) comes first. I start with a few stretches, specifically focusing on spinal extension; rib cage expansion; proper head position; shoulder release; and even checking the position of the tongue (forward) and soft palate (raised uvula.)

I want singers to be aware and responsible for their own alignment 24/7. Constant awareness of spinal extension (no slouching!), proper head and shoulder position, etc. are integral parts of fine singing. And it takes constant practice.

2. Breathing

After stretches, I have singers do some breathing exercises, emphasizing the need for rib and lower body expansion along with reminders about efficient inhalation and exhalation.

3. Sound

I then introduce sirens in a variety of shapes and using a variety of vowels. I like sirens because they are non-pitched (so singers won’t worry about intonation or correctness). Sirens can emphasize several basic elements of technique: proper airflow; crescendo into the upper range; open mouth more for high range; mouth less open for lower range.

Once the sirens are energized, efficient, and natural-sounding, I will do some pitched exercises. I often use two vowels and one (simple) consonant.

Ex.: A descending  five-note exercise on “vee-vo.”

I might do about 3 or 4 vocalises in a warm up and then finish by using a phrase from the existing repertoire that might involve one of the elements that I emphasized in the warm up: octave leaps, sustained notes, controlled crescendo-decrescendo, etc.

Q: How long should a warm up last?

I usually warm up for 5-10 minutes, but during the course of the rehearsal, if needed, I will return to simple stretches, sirens, or a basic vocalise (singing a musical passage on a single vowel to develop flexibility and to control pitch and tone).

You can see and hear when singers are getting tired or tense, and need to just let loose with a good “singer sound” like a big, brave siren—to get the air flowing again and to get out of their heads and back into their bodies. Choral singers, in particular, have a lot of brain noise, especially during the initial rehearsals when they are sight reading and learning new repertoire.

Before a concert, I will do a longer warm up, perhaps 30-45 minutes. In addition to warm up vocalises, we will also review parts of the repertoire –– not to “fix” the repertoire but to remind singers of the variety of styles and articulations needed.

Mary Louise Burke, DMA, Vocal Performance and Pedagogy, University of Colorado Boulder College of Music, is associate director of the Colorado Children’s Chorale, associate director of the Colorado Symphony Chorus, and associate music director of Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver.

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