The singing voice is often considered to be the most sensitive and expressive instrument of music. It offers a wide dynamic range, a “fretless” flexibility of pitch, and a nearly infinite variety of tone colors. However, its sensitivity presents several challenges that must be addressed when warming up for a gig.
First, the voice is located entirely within the body, and its muscles are under far less conscious control than, say, the hands and fingers. Second, because singing seems so instinctive, even the most experienced performers might feel exempt from–or even fear–the care and discipline they routinely devote to other instruments.
As a result, warming up the voice is a different experience than the typical instrumental routine of opening the case, setting the instrument up, plugging it in, and limbering up your fingers. But it’s no less important to your performance or to your longevity as a working musician.
The warm-up sequence I recommend for singers includes four basic steps: (1) focusing the mind; (2) warming and loosening the body; (3) strengthening the breath; and (4) developing the tone and pitch range. This might sound like a lot of things to handle, but the procedure is simple and efficient once you learn how.
Find Your Focus
The first step corresponds to the moment you lift the lid of the guitar case or first unpack your keyboard. To “open” your voice, you must turn your mind inward toward your body and emotions. This is best done by finding a place where you can concentrate; a restroom, hallway, or spare office will do if you don’t have an actual dressing room. Bring some water, juice, or tea with you.
Now do a quick internal check-in. Have you had a good day or a stressful one? Try to notice, label, and then set aside any mental distractions so you can concentrate on the task at hand. This process is what actors call “returning to neutral,” and it will help you develop vocal awareness and project a strong stage presence.
Next, do a few minutes of light aerobics to increase blood circulation and energy. This can be as easy as marching in place or lifting and lowering your arms like the top half of a “jumping jack.” You can also use warm-up exercises you might have learned in sports, dance, or martial arts.
After three to five minutes, stop and do some basic stretching. Circle your head, shoulders, and hips for flexibility. Yawn deeply a few times, and shake out your arms and legs to help get rid of tension.
Catch Your Breath
Now that you’re mentally tuned in and physically warm, begin to pay attention to your breathing. After all, this is the power supply for your voice.
Keep your neck long (as if it were being pulled up by your ears), your ribcage expanded, and your shoulders low as you inhale silently into the area around your waist. Exhale slowly, with control. Repeat up to ten deep breaths, letting your midback and belly expand as the air comes in. Make the exhalation long and complete so you don’t get dizzy.
Next, fill your body with one big breath and pant like a dog–small breaths in and out–as silently as possible. Don’t try to go fast; concentrate instead on keeping a steady rhythm, working the muscles around and below your ribcage. After twenty or so quick panting breaths, exhale completely, rest a bit, and then start again. Four or five sets will bring strength and vitality to the breathing muscles. Finally, engage your voice by quietly saying “huh, huh, huh” as you pant.
Everything up to this point can be done in less than ten minutes. Make sure you sip water or tea whenever you feel dry.
Now you’re ready to work the vocal muscles themselves. If you’ve learned short scales or arpeggios from a voice coach or choir director, use them. If not, choose any simple melody that you can transpose throughout your range. One common pattern is the first five notes up and down the major scale. Use neutral syllables such as “mah” or “la.”
Start your scale or arpeggio in the middle of your range. Then change the starting pitch, one step at a time, working into your low range and gradually moving to your upper range. Always warm up to a note or two higher than you will have to sing during the gig, but stretch up there gradually and sing your way back down to your midrange at the end.
If your voice tends toward a dull, throaty, or muffled quality, singing nasal syllables like “mi” and “ni” during the warm-up can brighten the tone. On the other hand, if you tend to sound thin or shrill, boost your mouth and throat resonance by singing “lo,” “go,” or “golly.” Different vowels and consonants provide a natural EQ (see the Cazden article Vocal Acoustics at her website), so your warm-up can help strengthen the weak areas to balance your resonance.
If at any time your throat starts to hurt or feel tight, stop! Back off the loudness or high pitches, yawn a couple of times, and sip some water before continuing. (If your voice feels tight or painful most of the time, consider taking some private lessons to identify and resolve problem areas.) Ideally, though, you’re now feeling relaxed, energized, and in touch with your own expressive sound.
You should finish this part of the routine by singing a favorite song at normal pitch and moderately strong intensity. Check that your neck is long, chin slightly dropped, and breath focused in your belly.
If you sing with others, spend a little time tuning your group harmonies. Then blow out one last, deep breath, and refill your water or juice bottle, and you’re ready to rock!
This entire sequence can be done in about twenty minutes. It’s best to try the routine a few times at home before using it on the night of a gig. And remember that when you’re ill, a careful warm-up is more important than ever.
Tune up your voice regularly, and you’ll feel it get stronger, freer, and more reliable. Then, when fans tell you how “natural” you sound, just smile.