Whether you’re a centre stage serenader or a shower cubicle chanteuse, you need to know the importance of a thorough vocal warm up.
It’s important to warm up your voice before singing for 3 main reasons:
- To protect your voice from damage – you don’t want to hurt yourself by trying to do too much too soon
- To keep your voice in good condition – you want to be able to sing well whenever you need to
- To sound your best – you want to be able to sing as well as you possibly can
We’re going to break down the main areas you need to exercise so that every inch of your body can do its job – believe us, when it comes to your body parts, singing is a team effort!
Let’s get started:
Warm up your body
Singing can take quite a toll on your whole body, especially if you’re planning to sing for a long period of time. As well as using a variety of muscles and organs in our torsos, necks and mouths, singing also requires us to maintain a proper posture to allow maximum airflow – which can make you ache if you’re not properly prepared.
You might be surprised to learn that waving your arms around can help warm up your singing voice, but it’s true!
The basic idea behind this is that, since singing requires so many different muscles in your body to work together, the most straightforward way to make sure they’re all working as well as they can is to get rid of as much stress and tension as you can – wherever it may be.
Let’s start by standing with a proper posture: keep your feet shoulder-width apart, keep your shoulders down and back, and hold your head high.
Roll your head slowly in a circle, first one way, then the other. This will stretch your neck and shoulder muscles, meaning that you can keep them relaxed and won’t strain them when you use them for singing later.
Reach one arm out to your opposite side and sweep it up slowly over your head to your other side in a big circle, then repeat with your other arm. This will get your blood to flow to your fingertips and help stretch your chest and abdominal muscles.
Now stretch out your sides by reaching up with one arm as high as you can, and bending the opposite side of your body downwards – hold this position for 10 seconds, then repeat with your other side. This will help stretch the muscles in your chest even more, which will help you to increase your airflow.
Warm up your breathing muscles
Singing requires a different type of breathing to speaking, because instead of short, quieter bursts of sounds, we need to make longer and often much louder sounds. Air to your singing voice is like fuel to a car – if you run out, you come to a sudden stop!
The first thing to remember is that you need to practice breathing from your diaphragm, rather than your chest. The easiest way to understand this is that when you breathe from your chest, your chest pushes outwards, but when you breathe from your diaphragm, your stomach pushes outwards.
Singing teachers and vocal coaches will often recommend that you start off practising breathing from your diaphragm by lying on your back on the floor with your knees bent – and so do we! Make sure you’re comfortable – we’d suggest lying on a rug or carpeted floor, and placing a pillow under your knees and behind your head and neck.
With your body arranged in this way, it’s much easier for you to notice that you’re breathing from your diaphragm. Breathe in slowly, feeling your stomach rising, and try to keep your chest flat.
When you’re ready to breathe out, purse your lips and exhale slowly, making a gentle hissing sound. This will help you to control how you release your air, meaning you’ll have greater control over your singing voice.
Quick tip – stay hydrated
It’s generally agreed that we should all drink at least 2 litres of water per day, although this does vary from person to person, but when you’re exercising, your body will perspire more to keep you cool – and that water’s got to come from somewhere!
It’s not just sweat you need to replace in your body when you’re hard at work with your singing warm ups, however – you also need to keep your vocal cords lubricated, or you’ll make them sore. It’s best to drink room temperature water – cold water can make your throat muscles tense up, and hot water can scald the inside of your throat.
Warm up your resonators
Next we need to warm up the parts of your body called the ‘resonators’, which are the different parts of your body which vibrate when you produce a sound. There are many different parts of the body which resonate, depending on how high or low we’re pitching our voice – and the best way to get starting is by humming.
Humming is a way you can explore your vocal range without putting too much strain on your voice, which makes it a good starting point for warming up your resonators.
Vocal Siren Exercise
Start by taking a deep breath (remember – from your diaphragm!) and humming a long, low note – as low as you can without your voice breaking. You should feel a buzzing sensation deep within your chest – see if you can feel where you’re vibrating from by resting your hand on your front.
Now increase the pitch slightly and feel that buzzing rise up through your chest towards your throat, then up into your mouth, your nostrils, and finally the upper half of your head. The more you do this, the more used you’ll get to where to ‘aim’ certain notes – higher notes resonate higher up in your body, and lower notes resonate lower down.
Take another breath, and start humming at a low pitch and increasing it again, only this time a little more quickly. Hum all the way up, all the way back down, and repeat a few times using a single breath.
This exercise is known as the ‘vocal siren exercise’ – and, as you’ve probably guessed, it’s because it sounds like someone doing an impression of an emergency vehicle. We’ll revisit vocal sirens later on – but first, let’s have a little yawn.
Don’t worry, we know you’re not tired out just yet – but the yawning and sighing technique is a tried and trusted way of relaxing your jaw and opening your throat. This has the dual benefit of relieving unwanted tension in your jaw, and allowing you to push more air through your throat – meaning you can sing with more power with less effort.
When you start to yawn, your jaw naturally drops down – a good way to get your throat open. Try yawning with your mouth closed, then, mouth still closed, slowly sigh the air back out through your nose.
While keeping your jaw relaxed, take note of how your throat feels at the start of a yawn. That’s the feeling of an open throat – a throat that’s ready to let your voice soar (not a throat that is sore!).
Warm up your articulators
Your ‘articulators’ are the parts of your body which allow us to shape our voice into different words – and they mainly include the lips, the teeth and the tongue.
Let’s try a tongue trill – this is the same noise you’ll have made if you’ve ever trilled your r’s.
You can trill your tongue if you make the sound of a drill when saying the word ‘drill’, or if you make the sound of a ringing doorbell when you say the word ‘ring’. Keep the tip of your tongue against the back of your top teeth, and let your tongue vibrate against your teeth as you elongate the ‘rrr’ part of the word.
“Drrrill” goes the drill; “Rrring” goes the doorbell – you can try this with any word with a hard ‘r’ in it. This will relax your tongue, meaning it’ll be easier for you to move it around to form different shapes.
Now let’s try a lip buzz. If you’ve ever blown bubbles underwater, you’ll recognise this exercise; if not, purse your lips and say “buh” or “puh”. Try and repeat this sound quickly several times in a row – imagine you’re a car roaring into life, or, if you’re more old-fashioned, a horse.
Similarly, this exercise relaxes your lips, meaning you’ll find forming different shapes much easier. And what’s more – you can use both the tongue trill and the lip buzz with the vocal siren we looked at earlier, which will continue to warm up your vocal cords and help you control your breathing.
Now let’s make your lips and tongue work together.
We’ve all heard a few tongue twisters in our time (how much wood can a woodchuck chuck, exactly?) – but aside from providing us with some frustrating fun, did you know these can actually help you practice your articulation?
While the aim is not to actually twist your tongue, these difficult phrases will help you to change your tongue quickly from one position to the other. Don’t worry if you can’t say them straight away – over time, you’ll develop muscle memory and be able to move effortlessly between very different sounds.
Here are a few of our favourites:
- She sells seashells on the sea shore
- You know you need unique New York
- Red lorry, yellow lorry
- Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
- The lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue (we told you they’d be important!)
Now you’ve warmed up your body and breathing muscles to get rid of strain and increase your air intake, warmed up your resonators to help your voice ring out, and warmed up your articulators to make your words sound clear, it’s time to take your fully tuned-up singing voice out for a test run!
We recommend starting out with songs comfortably within your range, preferably songs you already know you can sing – and see what difference your singing warm ups have made. Once you’re confident you can sing these without any hint of straining, move onto songs you’d usually struggle with, and see how you do with those.
After a successful vocal performance, there’s one final stage to remember…
What goes up must come down – just like for any form of exercise, the cool down is just as important as the warm up. Cooling down after your performance allows the parts of your body that have been hardest at work to relax in a more gradual, controlled way.
The cool down is essentially the reverse of the warm up – starting with the last, most intense step, and working your way back to the first, least intense step. The main aim here is to get your voice back to where it usually sits when you’re using your normal speaking voice – which is normally somewhere in the middle.
- Start with a few gentler lip buzzes and tongue trills, without raising your pitch or your volume too high or too low.
- Repeat this with humming.
- Stretch your neck, arms and sides again.
- And finally, take some time out to rest.
Remember: as a singer, your voice is your most precious asset – so once you’ve cooled down, give it a break. This way, you won’t over-stretch yourself – and will be ready to go again tomorrow!