How to: make vocal warm-ups effective (and fun)
BY: Peter Buckby
13 July 2018
One of the fundamental elements of any singing lesson is the warm-up. While learners may be keen to get on with the ‘real singing’, any experienced teacher understands the importance of warming up the voice properly. Not only do these exercises enable singers to perform at their best, but they ensure the throat is physically protected from harm, too.
Getting students into these good habits early on is vital; whether they’re practising with you or in their own time, they need to know that any singing activity should start with a warm-up.
Here, I’ll explore some of the most varied vocal activities for teachers to try with their students. We’ve collated recommendations from a range of singing teachers across the UK – here are new ways of learning together, as well as injecting more fun into your warm-ups.
Warm-up tip 1: Physical to closed-mouth exercises
The whole body is a tool for singing. It can be challenging getting students to understand how factors such as their shoulders, hips and feet can affect the sound they make from their mouth, but try to get them into the habit of checking their posture early on and it’s a skill they’ll use from Initial to Grade 8 and beyond.
Singing teacher, Brian Smith Walters, says ‘The chest, thorax, neck, back and pelvis must all be ready’ while Grainne McLaughlin notes that ‘All tension is felt in the voice, so I am quite strict about starting each lesson with toe-to-head tension-release exercises, followed by mindful breathing exercises before a sound is uttered.’
Make it fun by:
- Shaking out the tension in arms and legs to reduce stiffness in the joints.
- Dropping the head forwards, before rolling it in a circular motion to relax the neck muscles. Closing the eyes helps to release tension, too.
- Moving the arms and shoulders around like a windmill and turning the hips in a circle.
- Jumping from one leg to the other, balancing on one and shaking the other or going up and down on tip-toes.
- Moving all the face muscles to get a flow of blood to the area, including the tongue (using a mirror will make this an entertaining task).
- Finally, ask learners to plant their feet hip-width apart, with hips in a middle position and their knees soft.
Leading on from these body-focused exercises, start some closed-mouth activities. In our survey of singing teachers, these were some of the most popular exercises. This isn’t surprising, since they disconnect the ear and balance the voice; there’s no pressure for the student to make a pretty sound at this point, they’re merely allowing the body and breath to react to the exercise.
Make it fun by:
- Starting with closed-mouth humming on a single note, before progressing to open-mouthed humming, or a nasal buzzing sound.
- Changing the vowel sound to ‘iii’ and ‘eee’.
- Adding an arpeggio or five-note scale with these vowel sounds.
- Beginning to raise these scales by a semitone, every few turns, to extend the range.
- Changing the vowel sounds as you raise the semitone, too.
- Switching to fricative sounds, such as ‘vvv’ and ‘zzz’, (particularly useful if the learner is going to be singing in another language).
- Finishing by getting more challenging: tonic triads, arpeggios and octave jumps.
Warm-up tip 2: Semi-occluded, vocal-tract exercises
The aim of these exercises is to keep the mouth partially closed to vibrate the vocal folds and minimise muscular effort.
Lydia Jane Pugh of Guernsey’s School of Popular Music has made a video to show how these exercises work in practice, explaining that the ‘bubble’ or ‘lip-trill’ is particularly effective, ‘This one sees students able to safely expand their ranges in a quicker time frame than they would expect. It's very adaptable, and I find I can do many variations on this exercise to best suit each learner’s needs.’
Make it fun by:
- Including the use of a kazoo. Ask students to blow into the wider end and glide up and down their range. To make a sound, students must hum as well as blow, which vibrates the vocal folds.
- Using a straw in water. Start with students just blowing bubbles with no sound, focusing on keeping bubbles even across the surface of the water. Follow this with alternate ‘ooo’ sounds between the blowing, then try scales or even the tune of a song (anything with a lid works well to minimise splashing).
- Trying a straw on its own. Tell learners to hum the tune of a song down the straw, being sure to cover the straw completely with their lips, leaving no gaps. Staccato exercises work well to focus breathing.
- Puffing out cheeks. The students can now hum the whole tune of one of their songs but by keeping their lips closed.
- Trying a ‘bubble’ or ‘lip-trill’. Ask students to vibrate their lips together, breathing out; initially start at speaking pitch, before gliding up and down.
Warm-up tip 3: Quick sirening activities
Particularly for those on a tight timeframe, sirening is a brilliant solution to warming up. Your singing lessons might only be 20 minutes long, so quick, effective warm-ups are much needed. Sirening ensures the students’ entire range is used but protects the vocal folds far more than just launching straight into singing. If five minutes are spent doing sirening exercises, then the voice should be ready to use in song.
Make it fun by:
- Starting on an ‘mmm’ sound. This closed-mouth version is closely linked to the earlier exercises – ensure a steady stream of breath is released between low and high notes.
- Helen Perry of Sheffield Music Hub suggests using a ‘zzz’ sound ‘… just vocalising the sound up and down the pitch, then change to a more produced sound and use ‘ahhh’. It’s a good, quick warm-up.’
- Progressing onto vowel sounds. Try getting students to stick their tongue out as they siren up and down, then vary the start and finish note to exercise the voice in its full range, as shown by voice coach and singer, David DiMuzio.
Warm-up tip 4: Varying activities for needs and interest
Sometimes, the plethora of exercises available to teachers can seem overwhelming. You’re determined to find the right exercises for the right student, but with limited time available, dedicating yourself to finding a suitable range of exercises can be a challenge. Inevitably, you might fall back on the fail-safe options you know really well. This can lead to boredom and ineffectiveness for your students, and can prevent your own growth as a teacher, too.
Make it fun by:
- Trying to fit a range of exercises into the warm-up routine: include physical, closed-mouth, semi-occluded and sirening activities.
- Keeping a notebook of which warm-ups they do, week on week so you can see when variety is lacking.
- Allowing the student to choose the exercises they enjoy and take ownership of their learning.
- Being flexible. If you had three warm-up exercises planned and the student comes in that day and takes to none of them, try something different – it could be they need their more familiar warm-ups to feel secure within that lesson.
Warm-up tip 5: Self-educate by reading more
Some of the most useful reading material teachers in our survey highlighted was from older publications. It’s perhaps unsurprising that teachers turn to the more established guides, such as George Dodds’ 1969 work, ‘Voice Placing & Training Exercises’, time and time again. Singing teacher, Aimée Maria Harris of Broughton Hall Catholic High School, recommends Dodds’ exercises because, ‘they warm the voice, as well as tackling technical issues and vocal placement.’
Make it fun by:
- Returning to older books that you haven’t read for a while: you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how relevant and helpful they are to modern learners.
- Putting a message out on a singing teacher forum or Facebook group to ask for the latest recommendations.
- Trying a more current book. Michelle Heritage, who teaches in several schools, recommended using ‘Sing!’ by Paul Knight – ‘I love the 'Mix' exercise (exercise 11) for combining head and chest voice.’ Alternatively, the Vocal Exercises Book by Trinity College London includes some effective warm-ups.
Remember, as long as you are trying new exercises, continuing to learn and tailoring warm-ups to the individual learner, you’re doing well.
You can find loads more useful tips and advice from the experienced singing teachers that we surveyed in our new Teacher's Guide to Singing.