The Craft of Singing Preparation: Expanding the Warm-Up Repertoire

Singing warm-ups are an integral aspect of a singer's routine, pivotal for maintaining vocal health and warding off injury. These exercises are not merely about "heating up" the muscles but also about refining and aligning the singer with optimal vocal technique.

It's important to demystify a common misconception about vocal warm-ups. The term itself can be misleading. The principal muscles involved in phonation, such as the thyroarytenoid, cricothyroid, lateral and inner arytenoid muscles, are always active, as they play a role in protecting the lungs by facilitating the opening and closing of the vocal folds with each breath we take.

Hence, the vocal folds are perpetually warm, yet this doesn't mean they are performance-ready. Just because the physiological warmth is there doesn't imply that one is ready to belt out a Beyoncé hit or dive into the powerful arias of Wagner. The voice is an instrument affected by myriad factors: sleep, diet, exercise, mood, hormones, and even the weather. These elements can alter the voice's responsiveness, making some vocal ranges more accessible than others on any given day. This is precisely where a series of well-structured, light exercises can be invaluable. They provide the singer with the means to fine-tune their technique, whether it requires minor adjustments or significant shifts.

There is no inherent danger in engaging in a comprehensive warm-up routine of 15-20 minutes before tackling complex repertoire. In fact, some studies suggest that such a regimen can lead to beneficial acoustical changes in the voice.

The Intention Behind the Warm-Up

The primary obstacle in warm-ups is often the singer's intention. If the aim is merely to "get warm," one might not engage fully with the exercises, missing out on the rich opportunity for skill development. However, if the focus shifts to executing pitches and rhythms with precision, the approach to warming up becomes an integral part of skills acquisition within the practice session.

Time: The Precious Commodity

Time constraints are another hurdle. Singers are frequently pressed for time, and the idea of endless scales and arpeggios can seem daunting and perhaps unnecessary. The temptation is to rush to the "fun part"—the songs. Yet, it's essential to recognize that the quality of warm-up exercises significantly impacts the quality of the subsequent singing.

Before delving into the ideal warm-up sequence, let's establish the non-negotiables for a successful routine:

Perfection: Strive for the utmost quality during each exercise. Anything less than 100% is a disservice to your potential.

Intentionality: Know the purpose of each exercise and focus on achieving that. Plan your goals beforehand, because as the saying goes, "A failure to plan is a plan to fail."

Time Efficiency: A short period of concentrated, precise effort is far more productive than an extended session of lackluster activity.

The Ultimate Guide to Vocal Warm-Ups

With these principles in mind, let's explore the exercises that should be part of your vocal warm-up routine:

Vocal Sirens: Begin with low to high sirens in a Mode 2, cricothyroid dominant production to gauge your voice's condition. Assess for signs of difficulty, you may be perfect, tired, dehydrated, or ill. This preliminary check, inspired by Dr. Kimberly Steinhauer of Estill Voice, sets the tone for your practice and is the most important exercise on this list.

Interval Practice: Dedicate at least five minutes to practicing ascending and descending intervals, tailoring them to your vocal needs and the demands of your repertoire. This targeted practice will enhance the rest of your singing. Vary the difficulty and explore different vocal qualities and starting pitches. To supercharge your interval training try our ear training exercises.

Scales and Patterns: The practice of scales, arpeggios, and musical patterns is fundamental. Prioritize accuracy over speed, and explore various scales, such as major, natural minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor, twelve-tone, pentatonic, whole tone, and modes. Remember to practice descending scales as well as ascending ones.

Stylistic Exercises: Spend time on exercises that cater to the specific style you'll be performing. Whether it's belting or another technique, aim for flawless execution, establishing a foundation that translates into your performance.

Anatomical Proficiency: Few singers invest time in isolating and controlling individual components of their vocal anatomy. Exercises that focus on specific structures, like the velum, can enhance your ability to modify sound with precision. To practice the velum try singing with nasality and then without. You can easily check if air is flowing through your nose.

Addressing Challenging Passages: Identify difficult melodic or rhythmic sections in your upcoming repertoire and practice them in isolation, aiming for perfection at a slow and controlled pace.

Honorable Mention: Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract Exercises (SOVTEs)

For those of you not familiar with SOVTe’s, they are any exercise that partly closes the end of the vocal tract, your mouth or your nose. This obstruction causes an increase in supra-glottal air pressure, air pressure above the vocal fold, which is thought to be beneficial to phonation. Some common examples of these exercises are lip-trills, tongue-trills, humming, and singing straws. 

The problem is that research on the benefits of these exercises is honestly very inconclusive and likely short lived. Without going too far down the rabbit hole, over the past two decades researchers have been unable to come to an agreement of what the benefits are, frequently citing conflicting benefits. The only agreement so far is that they will lower the larynx and widen the vocal tract which can be helpful if you are singing certain styles but will make it harder to sing others.

If you're keeping track, you'll realize that this comprehensive routine extends beyond a quick 10-15 minute session. While starting with sirens is recommended, the direction you take afterward should align with your unique vocal needs. A word of caution: avoid multitasking during exercises. Focusing on one exercise at a time ensures that each is performed at the highest level, which is crucial for long-term development.

In conclusion, the vocal warm-up routine proposed here transcends the traditional notion of 'warming up' and ventures into the realm of holistic vocal conditioning. It's designed not just for immediate vocal readiness but also for the progressive development of vocal mastery, blending science, physiology, and artistry in a regime that benefits both the novice and the seasoned singer alike.

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Please do remember that every voice is unique and will require different methods and amounts of care, use your best judgement and if in doubt consult with a medical professional. This article is written from the prespective of a voice researcher, teacher, and singer but may not be correct for you or your instrument.

Josh Manuel

Josh Manuel, a voice instructor and founder of VoiceScience, is dedicated to empowering singers by providing evidence-based techniques and knowledge for enhanced performance and vocal health. His expertise and passion in the field of vocal science have made him a trusted resource for singers seeking to improve their skills and achieve their full potential.

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