Almost every musician practices some sort of ritual or routine to “warm-up” before a lesson, rehearsal or performance. One’s warm-up usually consists of exercises inherited from current or previous instructors and personal practices which target the specific needs of the musician. Just as athletes lift weights and undergo countless repetition to develop both physical muscle and muscle memory, a musician’s exercises do the same thing to a different set of muscles. Here is, essentially, the vocal warm-up I’ve developed with my voice instructor, Don St. Jean.
Stretching and Abdominal Lifts
I have gotten into the habit of stretching the second I step into my lessons and rehearsals, just like an athlete does. I roll my shoulders and stretch the back of my neck to release any tension built up around my vocal chords and larynx and is followed up by stretching my jaw muscles.
Next we perform abdominal lifts. This is done by making a series of quick “hisses” while lifting my lower abdominal muscles followed by a long hiss where my abdominal lift is controlled to sustain my breath support. The lower abdominals, obliques, and lower back muscles are highly involved in controlling a singer’s breath support and it is key that these muscles be strong but more so flexible since releasing the muscles is just as important as their contraction. My instructor talks about trying to teach bodybuilders and gymnasts who struggled with releasing these muscles because they were “stiff as a board.” To apply this exercise to singing, we perform these lifts on pitch with a “ha” sound throughout my range. Getting into the habit of incorporating the abdominal muscles into your singing can be difficult at first, but after a while it is set into your muscle memory and becomes second nature.
Next, I perform a lip trill starting on one pitch, sliding up to its octave, and back to the first pitch and make my way up by half steps. Personally, I hate this exercise. I’m not very good at lip trills (I couldn’t even do them my first two semesters ) and after about 3 of them I’m out of breath and light headed; but nonetheless I understand their importance. Lip trills not only loosen up your lips, but really work your breath support, and in time I hope to grow and learn to love lip trills.
Middle Voice and Head Tone
After I’m completely out of breath we work through middle of my range with some humming with emphasis on good breath support and looking for resonance or vibration in my cheek bones. After a while I’ll switch to a “ma” sound still emphasizing good support and crisp, bright tone. When descending down a scale, it is important to maintain support and keep your tone bright so you don’t drop off on the lower notes, resulting in a flat, heavy pitch.
To work my head tone, I will sing a series of intervals within a scale on “n” with a relaxed jaw and my tongue touching the back of my front top teeth and work my up by half steps. If done correctly, you should be able to feel the top of your head vibrate. After a few I switch from “n” to a “nu” sound and drop my jaw on the higher notes of the scale. In this exercise I look to have a somewhat hollow tone that is still resonant (coming from the roof of my mouth) and not in the back of my throat.
Now we work the passagio, also referred to as one’s “break.” The passagio (Italian for passage) are the notes in between the middle of my voice and high notes and is very significant portion of the tenor voice. For me this occurs between F5 and Ab5 on the piano. These notes need a mix of both mask resonance and head tone and the goal is to make the transition through this part of my voice as smooth as possible. We perform several exercises developing the muscle combination for the passagio from scale work and long arpeggios using combinations of five vowel sounds (E, A, ah, O, and oo). Passagio work can be quite difficult at first. I didn’t even practice these exercises until my second semester of lessons. In time, the necessary muscles will begin to develop and passagio exercises become much easier.
To practice vibrato I sing the same five vowel sounds on one pitch throughout the middle of my range. For beginners, this is a great exercise to learn the proper positioning of the tongue and jaw for vowel sounds. A natural vibrato, or pulsating change in pitch, should be the result of proper technique. Since I came from a background in pop music, I had much difficulty developing and being comfortable with my vibrato. Although everyone develops vibrato at a different pace, this is still a good exercise to maintain consistency in one’s voice.
Finally I do a little bit of work in the lower part of my range. I’ll sing a descending diatonic scale (sol, fa mi, re, do) usually on “zoi.” In the lower voice, resonance comes from the chest, but like the middle voice, it is important to keep your tone in a high place keeping your throat open. Since I’m a tenor, I don’t really work this part of my voice very much since this is the least comfortable part of my range and rarely sing low notes. Nonetheless it is important for tenors to develop these muscles as well. Baritones and basses are much more likely to work this part of their voice instead.
Like I said earlier, this is the warm-up I’ve developed with my voice instructor and targets my specific needs. While these are the essential parts of the voice all singers need to develop, there are several different exercise to achieve results, and each singer will put emphasis on certain exercises based on their needs. Most importantly, find a routine that you are comfortable with which help your voice the most and never stop singing!!