As a singer, voice pathologist, and vocal coach to elite vocal performers, my life is all about the voice. If you’re like me then you’re serious about singing, but you don’t always have the time to fit a thorough vocal warm-up into your busy schedule. This can be a problem because a singer on-the-go who hasn’t had at least a quick vocal warm-up, is at an increased risk of experiencing one or more of the following issues:
- Vocal fatigue
- Diminished voice quality
- Increased effort to sing
- Vocal injury
I’m sharing this with you to enlighten you to some vocal truth. And then to equip you with a handful of vocal warm-ups that are very low-tech but HIGHLY effective.
No warm-up props.
Just you and your desire to put your voice box through a quick vocal pitstop. This isn’t intended to replace a comprehensive vocal warm-up, but it’s much better than singing with cold vocal cords. Warm those babies up!
YOU. ARE. A. VOCAL. ATHLETE.
Similar to how sports athletes need to train and stretch before they subject their bodies to the rigorous physical demands of their event, singers need to get their vocal muscles warmed up before they start showing off their signature “golden” sound, their rock “growl”, their vocal acrobatics, or their show-stopping high notes! Don’t be fooled by great singers who make singing look easy. The voice geeks out there will tell you that singing is a highly complex activity that requires engagement and coordination of the muscles of respiration, laryngeal musculature, and ballistic articulatory movements of your tongue, mandible, soft palate, pharynx, and vocal folds! That was a mouthful… pun intended.
Disclaimer: No information contained within or derived from Vocodojo™ is to be used in the diagnosis or treatment of health disorders of any kind. Please see your physician before commencing with any form of warm-ups or voice exercises. Anyone who implements these vocal tips does so on their own accord and therefore assumes complete responsibility for their vocal health.
Let me break down the main components of a comprehensive vocal warm-up.
The body is the house to the human vocal tract and should be given some tender loving care before you sing. Sleep is obviously very important important, but once you’ve woken up, treating your vocal instrument to a little massage can help speed up the effectiveness of your vocal warm-up. When done thoroughly and regularly, self-massage can be a great way to increase blood circulation, which can have some refreshing and relaxing benefits. Not only do the muscles become more flexible, but they’re also less likely to work “overtime” and therefore less likely to get in the way of the muscles that need their space while you sing.
When it comes to stretches and massage before singing, there are TONS of exercises! I go over a lot more vocal warm-ups for the singer’s body in the Earth element exercises available at www.vocodojo.com .
For now, we’ll focus on relaxing the jaw.
VOCAL WARM-UP #1
- Place the palm of your hand (where your thumb meets your wrist) on your cheeks.
- Bite down gently to feel your chewing muscles engage and then release your bite.
- Relax your jaw with your lips separated, mouth slightly open, tongue relaxed, and throat relaxed.
- Massage the chewing muscles on the sides of your face with your hand in slow circular motions (forward and backward) for about 30 seconds.
- Touch the tips of your pointer fingers together.
- Rest them on top of your chin (their job is to brace against your chin so your thumbs have leverage in the next few steps).
- Place your thumbs into the squishy space behind your chin.
- With the tips of your thumbs facing up, alternate between the right thumb and left thumb pushing gently but firmly into the squishy space within the confines of your mandible (your lower jaw).
- Repeat this motion while tracing the entirety of the mandible for about 30 seconds (imagine your jaw is like a boomerang on its side—trace the inside aspect of your “boomerang” during the entirety of the massage).
- It should feel like you’re kneading the dough.
- The jaw and the muscles under your tongue should feel nice and relaxed after this quick warm-up.
Breath support is a fundamental aspect of singing. Every singer should dedicate a few minutes (or at least a few seconds) here and there throughout the day to keep their breathing muscles primed for optimal singing function. But sometimes the pressures of being a productive member of society can detract a singer from the POWER SOURCE of their voice. The breath!
The Air element exercises at www.vocodojo.com focus on engaging all the muscles of breathing and coordinating them to support the demands of the vocal instrument. My goal for you is to get to the point when all you need to do is focus on the message of your song while letting the breathing muscles function as if on autopilot. Your chances of reaching that level of performance increase the more regularly you do the appropriate vocal warm-ups.
VOCAL WARM-UP #2
Steam Engine Pulses
- Start in a standing posture with good cervical, thoracic, and lumbar alignment
- Feet shoulder width apart
- Knees slightly bent
- Pelvis tucked forward
- Chest slightly elevated
- Shoulders down and back
- Chin parallel with the floor
- Produce 4 “ch!” pulses (the last sound in the word “pitch”) with your abdomen engaging on every “ch” and releasing immediately after each “ch” pulse (this helps you to take in a quick catch breath between every “ch” pulse rather than producing all the “ch” pulses on one breath).
- Immediately after the 4th “ch” pulse produce a loud and sustained “shhh” sound for as long as you can until you run out of breath.
- Take a quick released abdominal catch-breath through the mouth with the tongue and throat relaxed—it should feel like quick “surprised” breath as if you’re watching a glass about to fall off a table (should be a virtually inaudible inhalation).
- Repeat this same pattern about 3-5 times in a row.
- Do this quick breathing warm-up every now and then throughout the day and especially before singing.
One of the most important concepts about singing is vibration. Not just in the “good vibes” sense, even though I’m a HUGE proponent of the naturally uplifting effects of singing, but rather in the physical sense. I often compare the speed of human vocal fold vibration to the speed of hummingbird wings. FYI: hummingbird wings can flap as fast as 80 beats per second! As impressive as that is, the slowest that human vocal folds vibrate is just under 75 cycles-per-second (resulting is a very low pitch) and the fastest that human vocal folds can vibrate is over 2,000 cycles-per-second (resulting in very high pitches). Your voice is a byproduct of a masterfully engineered instrument!
The Vocodojo Fire element exercises contain highly effective vocal warm-ups that are intended to optimize the way your vocal folds vibrate before you sing. This is achieved by training your body to cultivate a gentle yet energized vibration with adequate breath flow to reduce muscular effort exerted as your sing throughout all parts of your vocal range. The exercise described below is a very simple, quick, and effective way to get your vocal folds vibrating freely!
VOCAL WARM-UP #3
- Breathe in through your nose while feeling your belly expand as you “drink” in the air through your nostrils (be sure to keep your shoulders relaxed while you breathe in).
- Produce a sustained lip bubble, tongue trill (Spanish /r/), or /v/ buzz (say “love” and hold out the “v” sound) in the medium-low part of your vocal range while making 3 small “loopty-loops” with the pitch of your voice (similar to how a skilled pilot performs aerobatic loop maneuvers in the air).
- Repeat the previous step in the middle part of your vocal range (slightly higher than your speaking pitch), then in the medium-high part of your voice range (your loft register/falsetto register), and again in the upper part of your range (if it sounds like an ambulance siren then you’re probably doing it correctly).
- This can be done in 30 seconds or less AND can be done any time throughout the day to give your vocal folds a gentle stretch, an energizing burst of breath flow, and an invigorating vibration. These are important things to do to prepare your body for the demands of singing!
Most people expect to see track stars out on the grass stretching before they run. It’s pretty much common knowledge. Runners, like most athletes, gotta stretch! I think this widespread understanding is because most people have gone through some type of physical education. But millions of people have never done any vocal warm-ups and therefore it’s difficult for them to appreciate the importance of a good vocal cord stretch. Those who CAN appreciate a good vocal warm-up might not understand exactly what they’re doing that is helping to make their singing feel so much easier. When it comes down to it, stretching your vocal folds as part of your warmup is essential in optimizing their flexibility, blood circulation, and ease of vocal cord vibration for singing.
To further explain why you should do a maximum stretch of your FANTASTICALLY designed vocal cords, I’ll compare the significance of voice range/vocal fold flexibility to why the typical car can drive much faster than the speed limits on the freeway. The primary reason is essentially the correlation between effort and wear and tear. If an engine is designed to max out at 75 MPH, then it will likely be under a lot of mechanical stress at 70 MPH. But since most vehicles can travel 30-50 MPH faster than the maximum speed limits, there is significantly less stress on the engine when they’re moving at the enforced speeds. So, if the average voice range of a stretchy pair of vocal folds is about 30 half steps on the piano (about 2 ½ octaves) then we should vocalize across the entirety of that range before we sing a song that might cover 1½ to 2 octaves. Here’s a simple vocal warm-up to stretch your vocal folds.
VOCAL WARM-UP #4
Puffed Cheeks Buzz
- Start with your mouth closed, jaw relaxed, with a slight separation between your upper and lower molars.
- Take in a deep breath through your nose while feeling your abdomen expand.
- Let your cheeks puff out as you exhale slightly.
- Start buzzing your voice while keeping your cheeks puffed and your lips barely separated (if it sounds like a kazoo then you’re doing it correctly).
- Make two small loopty-loop sounds with your voice and then sky-rocket to the highest pitch in your vocal range while keeping your cheeks puffed then quickly let the pitch of your voice descend all the way back down into your low speaking range.
- This can be repeated several times until you feel like your voice is skyrocketing to your upper register with ease.
- You can also use the palm of your hand to monitor the strength and steadiness of your breath flow during the pitch glides.
Have you ever heard a person speak and felt so relaxed around them simply because of the quality of their voice? That effect is often a byproduct of that person’s vocal resonance. As social beings, we’re hardwired to derive information about a person’s physical and emotional state solely from the way they share their voice. If they’re relaxed and comfortable, you’ll likely come to that conclusion just by listening to their voice. It’s such a cool phenomenon and most people are pretty good at this! Think of a time when someone answered the phone and just by the way they said “hello”, you could tell if they were tired, happy, sad, or frustrated. A person’s vocal resonance is one of the biggest windows into how they feel.
When it comes to singing, the resonance of your voice can augment the emotion in the lyrics that you sing, or it can detract from them. For example, if you sang the word “free” on a high note and your throat was relaxed, open, and you had enough breath support, the note will probably be freely produced and therefore match the meaning of the word that you just sang. Whereas if your throat was tight and you didn’t support the high note with your breath, then the note would not be freely produced. This would be a little ironic considering the meaning of the lyric.
From a physics perspective resonance is simply how sound reverberates within a space. Here’s a short and sweet exercise to help you feel your voice resonating in your face… or more accurately, your sinus passages and your oral cavity.
VOCAL WARM-UP #5
Wolf Snout Resonance
- Place the fingertips of one of your hands on your face (pinky and thumb on the side corners of your lips, ring finger and pointer finger just to the sides of your nostrils, and middle finger resting gently on the bridge of your nose).
- Breathe in through your nose, feeling your breath move towards your belly.
- Separate your upper and lower molars (as if you have a marshmallow resting on the center of your tongue) while keeping your lips gently pressed together.
- Exhale with a medium-soft “hmmm” while maintaining that “marshmallow mouth” position.
- Produce 3 loopty-loop pitch glides (lower register, middle register, and upper register) while keeping your throat and jaw relaxed.
- Repeat the previous step with your eyes closed, lips pursed forward and while imagining that you have an elongated snout like a wolf.
- You should feel subtle vibrations against the tips of your fingers (this is the sound energy from your voice box resonating in your face).
- Repeat this warm-up intermittently throughout the day to improve the ease of access to your singing voice, but especially before you sing.
When it comes down to it, there are so many vocal warm-ups to get your singing voice ready! At the end of the day, what matters most is how you feel when you’re doing the warm-ups and how your singing voice feels after the warm-ups. It should always feel good to warm-up your voice and you should feel the benefits from the warm-up almost immediately. That being said, singers with less experience might not be able to appreciate the benefits of the warm-up as intensely as professional singers. As a singer evolves their instrument, their sensitivity to their voice quality and their vocal effort increases immensely.
I hope that you enjoyed these simple vocal warm-ups and that they helped to start your vocal engine in a quick and effective way. Let me know if you have any comments or questions about the vocal warm-ups. I’d love to hear your thoughts.