|Adventures in Singing
Vocal Warm-up Routine
This systematic warm-up routine follows the natural progression of the vocal process, from setting up appropriate foundations to breathing, phonation, resonation, articulation, and communication. I use a similar routine when teaching the first group voice class of a fifteen-week term, and variations of the routine for subsequent classes. Though most exercises are located in the text, additional exercises and illustrations are also included.
In performing these demonstrations, an experienced teacher’s guidance will assure that all exercises are executed correctly. Also, a high-quality audio and/or video recorder to document practice sessions and lessons will provide accurate feedback for self-critiquing.
Please read the information and instructions associated with each exercise, then click on the appropriate link (title of exercise) to experience the audio-visual demonstration.
Ready, let’s go!
Muscle Tension-Release Exercises
We begin with exercises that concentrate on releasing muscle tensions that occur in specific body parts, especially shoulder and neck muscles. Next, we focus on exercises that help release overall muscle tensions in the body.
1. Shoulder Rotation. Rotate forward, then backward. Lift up shoulders, tighten, and release.
2. Neck Stretches. With a dumb-like jaw, lower head toward left shoulder, then to right. Next, rotate head slowly in both directions.
3. Tongue and Jaw Flexibility. Affect a dumb-like jaw and tongue position. With an index finger holding the jaw in a slightly dropped position, speak “la” while moving the tongue up and down. Next, stick the tongue in and out while speaking “yah”, as demonstrated.
4. Tense and Release. Reach arms straight out, tighten entire body, and release.
5. Jar/Bounce and Shake Out. Jar your entire body like a rag doll, while voicing “ah” and notice the resulting increase in loudness that accompanies each jarring action. While emitting an “uh” vowel on a comfortable pitch, shake out all over, including the head (side to side).
Two Basic Vocal Exercises
Because the voiced lip buzz and siren exercises are used in vocal/physical warm-up exercises that follow, we introduce them at this time. For both exercises, it helps to use random, sliding pitches up and down one’s range, in conjunction with a corresponding physical movement.
1. Voiced Lip Buzz. This exercise is often performed incorrectly, as I demonstrate, using three undesirable approaches. To sing it correctly, it helps to imitate a powerful Harley Davidson motorcycle engine revving up, using scales and arpeggios, such as pitches 1-3-5-8-5-3-1.
2. Siren. Using the nasal consonant “ng”, the siren exercise helps achieve a balanced tone. The “ng” is best produced with the middle of the tongue blade touching more forward on the hard palate, rather than farther back on the soft palate, a position that can create a tense hung-up tone. Hint: With your mouth open about a pencil’s width, say “sing” and hold onto the “ng”; also, a nasty, forward-sounding “ae” can be used to produce an effective siren tone.
These physical/vocal exercises are designed to relax and energize the entire body, using vocal sounds in conjunction with a corresponding physical movement.
1. Random Voice/Motion. Sing sliding vocal tones using the lip buzz and siren exercises, in conjunction with physical movements that match the vocal sounds in intensity and energy.
2. Circle-Arm Breath/Tone. Sing sliding pitches using the lip-buzz exercise in synchrony with large circular arm swings, first to the left voicing from high to low pitches, next to the right voicing low to high pitches.
3. Rag Doll. Stretch arms straight overhead, and while falling over, emit a voiced lip buzz. After dangling head and arms in this loose, bent-over position for a few seconds, shake out and hum (using an “ng”), and notice the resultant head vibrations. Rise up slowly, counting 15-20, until you’re reaching for the sky. When completely stretched upward, let arms slowly fall, all the while maintaining the upward-stretched sensation.
4. Upward-Stretch Body Alignment. At the end of the “Rag Doll”, you should have an up-stretched body alignment. Allow the crown of the head to lift upward (like an upside-down bowl on a stick), with the feeling of stretching in all directions. At this point the shoulders should be relaxed and squared, the chest comfortably lifted, the ribcage naturally expanded, the knees unlocked, and the feet spaced 6-12” apart. You should now have an athletic body alignment that is appropriate for singing.
Breath Management Exercises
In the process of breathing, air pressure in the lungs is constantly seeking equilibrium with the air pressure in the atmosphere. When we exhale, a vacuum is formed, creating a need for air, so we inhale. As the lungs fill, the diaphragm descends, pushing out the abdominal viscera (guts). Thus, the action for breathing is: air in—expansion of abdominal area; air out—contraction of abdominal area. Ideally, the optimal conditions for singing require a dynamic balance between the forces involved in inspiration and expiration.
The exercises in this section will help you experience breathing action and how breath connects with tone.
1. Lying Down. Lie on the floor on your back, with hands on your upper/lower abdominal area. Breathe normally and notice the rise-and-fall action. A heavy object placed over the navel area will demonstrate the up-and-down movement of the abdominal area (up-inhalation; down-exhalation). Though not demonstrated, you can take a breath and release a moaning tone, allowing the breath to carry the tone. You can also turn over on your stomach to sense and observe your breath action.
2. High-Arched Breath Concept. The concept of breathing within a sphere using a high-arched inspiration and expiration gesture requires (1) an up-stretched body alignment, (2) loose articulators, and (3) breathing through the nose with a sniff-like gesture, as though smelling a pleasant aroma. This exercise helps create the appropriate vocal tract conditions for singing: a relaxed open throat, a lowered larynx, and a lifted soft palate (without muscular manipulation). Before experiencing the demonstration, it will help to view an illustration of the high-arched breath concept:
3. Surprise Breath. Assume an upward-stretched posture and the high-arched breath position, place both hands on your abdominal area (above and below your navel), exhale, and take a pleasant surprise breath. Notice the in-out action of the abdominal muscles and the sensations experienced in the vocal tract (lowered larynx, relaxed throat, and lifted soft palate).
4. Hissing Breath Release. Place your hands either on the sides of your waist (under the rib cage) or on your abdominal area (around the navel). Take a surprise breath and exhale on “s-s-s-s-s” for several slow counts. Observe the action of the expiratory muscles and the resistance caused by hissing.
5. Breathe/Sing. Use the same breathing pattern, but this time voice a repeated “ah” following each breath, like this: sing “ah”, rest/breathe; sing “ah”, rest/breathe; etc.
Vocal tone is the result of air flowing through the vocal folds (glottis) where a fundamental buzz-tone vibration is produced. This phenomenon is demonstrated by the voiced lip-buzz and the trumpet-mimicking exercise (demonstrated in the resonation section).
1. Three Types of Phonation. The three principal types of vocal production are breathy, pressed, and balanced, as demonstrated.
2. Moaning and Whining. To achieve balanced phonation, use a relaxed, yet energized moaning or whining approach while singing a sliding interval of a fifth on “oh” and “ah”.
3. Lip Buzz and Siren. Both exercises, which were introduced at the beginning, are helpful in developing coordinated phonation.
A resonator is any cavity through which sound is filtered, and the principal voice cavities are the throat, mouth, and head (nasal). When a fundamental vibration is attached to a resonator, the tone is greatly enhanced in quality and quantity, as the trumpet-mimicking exercise demonstrates.
1. Trumpet-Mimicking Tone. A trumpet tone produced by lip compression (similar to the lip buzz) is demonstrated; first, without a mouthpiece resonator, and, next, with a small mouthpiece resonator (cupped hand) added. A larger resonator, of course, would enhance the sound to a greater degree, just as a trumpet’s bell (resonator) accomplishes.
2. Stereotypical Uncoordinated Voice Productions. It helps to experience how the resonators can be used to achieve various tone qualities and vocal productions. I like to think of three principal stereotypical vocal productions, each using both breathy (hypo-functional or under-energized) and pressed (hyper-functional or over-energized) phonation.
Vocal Cavity Hypofunctional Hyperfunctional
Throat breathy-throaty pressed-throaty
Mouth breathy-mouthy pressed-mouthy
Head breathy-nasal pressed-nasal
3. Balanced Resonation. Returning to the high-arched inhaling/exhaling gesture, use the movement of your arms and hands to guide you in executing the exercise. Assume an up-stretched posture, with relaxed jaw and articulators. Take a sniff-like breath in the high-arched position, and release the breath/tone on a sliding/descending “ah” on an octave interval, using a slightly whiney tone. Next, use the same approach in singing a 1-3-5-8-5-3-1 arpeggio on an “ah” vowel.
The importance of relaxed, flexible articulators, especially the tongue and jaw, cannot be overestimated in achieving good vocal diction. For this reason, any undue muscle tensions in the strap muscles that connect to the larynx will have a negative impact on the tonal product. Most voice experts agree that good singing is based on good speech, and that both should be very similar in approach. Our immediate objective will be to experience clear diction, free of “jawing” (excessive effort) and artificiality.
1. Speech Phoneme “Nyam”. The consonant/vowel “nyam” works very well in achieving a natural sound that induces a loose jaw, minimal jaw drop, efficient vocal-fold vibration, and high head-tone sensations. We’ll use a descending 5-4-3-2-1 scale three ways, each progressively requiring more sustained use of the “ah” vowel.
2. Speak and Sing. To experience a natural speech-pattern approach to singing, speak “five, four, three, two, one”, using an elevated, moderately loud speaking voice. Next, repeat the phrase in a slower, more dramatic, loud manner. Finally, sing it on a 5-4-3-2-1 scale—fast, medium, and slow, as demonstrated.
A well-coordinated voice demonstrates such positive characteristics as agility, sustaining power, a wide range of dynamics (soft to loud), an consistent vibrato (6-7 pulses per second), and an even scale throughout the entire range. A voice based on dependable technical skills is also capable of being more expressive. Hence, communication is a composite of one’s vocal technique, personality and degree of individual expression, levels of psycho-emotional and physical energy, vocal music skills, linguistic skills, and dramatic ability. Though one cannot possibly achieve all of these positive attributes in the course of a few lessons, it should be possible to achieve a microcosm of efficient, expressive singing, albeit briefly. Only long-term correct practice and application of all techniques will yield permanent, effective results.
For the next three demonstrations, I use “We Are Singing”, a group song (round) located in the AIS Song Anthology (p.xxx).
1. Technical Performance. The objective of this technical performance exercise is to unify all the techniques we’ve used thus far, as related to posture, breathing, phonation, resonation, and diction. Remember to assume the high-arched breath/tone position throughout the entire song.
2. Expressive Performance. It helps when singing to have a specific point of view or message to communicate, an objective that requires considerable thought and practice. However, we can experiment briefly with achieving general expressive means by using exercises that involve the use of body language and attitudes.
• Expressive Performance One. With a partner, take turns performing the round, using a variety of spontaneous motions that are mimicked (mirrored) by the other partner. The important thing is to make the singing compatible with the motions; for example, precision movements for staccato (short, detached), and accented movements for marcato (stressed, punched), smooth movements for legato.
• Expressive Performance Two. Sing the round using at least three attitudes (moods or emotions). In the demonstration I perform angrily, happily, and triumphantly. Whenever possible, incorporate the three musical styles: staccato, marcato, and legato.
3. The Happy Singer. As a final demonstration of a song performance, yours truly performs one stanza of “The Happy Singer” (AIS, p.xxx).
Author’s Closing Comment
I hope these demonstrations have been helpful in explaining how to perform the selected exercises used in this vocal warm-up routine. Now it’s up to you to experiment with all exercises, practicing them until they are securely learned. Always bear in mind the three P’s of success: PRACTICE, PERSISTENCE, and PATIENCE. May your vocal journey continue to be an exciting, inspiring, and rewarding challenge, as you continue to explore, discover, and realize your innate vocal potential.