Master Class: Vocal Warmups (or, What To Do in the Car and Before Rehearsal)

Musicians tune their instruments and warm up their fingers, dancers stretch their bodies. How do vocalists warm up? The sad truth is that many don’t. They should, of course, because vocal cords and mouth muscles are like any instrument in that they need warming up. Also, unlike musicians, vocalists play an instrument that is not only physically attached to their bodies, it is also extremely useful and probably necessary for their regular daily tasks and employment. While most people don’t literally sing for their suppers, they do need to talk, and therefore, it’s important that they don’t stress their vocal cords while singing.

Here are some simple things you can do to warm up and protect your vocal cords.

1) Hydrate!

Keeping your throat hydrated is perhaps the single most important way to protect your voice. Dry throats not only sound bad, they can cause damage to the vocal cords when you try to sing without the proper lubrication. The best way to manage this is to keep a bottle of water handy at all times. Drink from it regularly throughout the day, not just when you are planning to do some singing. Stay away from milk and sugary carbonated drinks because they will cause more problems than you would have with a dry throat. Milk and sugar syrup coat the throat and keep the air column from vibrating properly.

2) Silly phrases and tongue twisters

Nothing limbers up one’s voice like practicing something difficult. Not so difficult that you strain your vocal cords, obviously, but it’s good to run through some words and phrases that make you think about how you articulate sounds. When you start off, go slowly and really over-enunciate (it’s okay to sound like a bad actor) so that you can get your throat and facial muscles working. Think of it as a workout from the neck up. Try to speak every syllable clearly; if you trip over one, go over it again and again until it flows easily. As you progress, increase your speed until you can no longer enunciate correctly. Here are some phrases you can use for practice:

Red letter, yellow letter
Good blood, bad blood
Eleven benevolent elephants
She sells seashells by the seashore
Teaching ghosts to sing
The big, black-backed bumblebee
A critical cricket critic
Really rural
The tip of the tongue, the lips, the teeth
Unique New York
Hemorrhoidal removal

And for a really good workout, try this long tongue-twister:

What a to-do to die today at a minute or two to two,
a thing distinctly hard to say but harder still to do.
for they'll beat a tattoo at a quarter to two:
a rat-ta tat-tat ta tat-tat ta to-to.
and the dragon will come when he hears the drum
at a minute or two to two today, at a minute or two to two

3) Massage

Yeah, sure, some nice shiatsu would probably do everyone a world of good. But we’re not talking about the full-body type of massage here. We mean simply massaging the cheeks, jaw and sides of the neck to help relax those muscles. Tension is the killer of many things, and singing is one of them. If your cheek muscles are so tight that you can’t open wide enough to articulate certain sounds, or if your neck is too stiff to move the way you would like, it’s going to throw off your ability to sing well.

First, relax your jaw as much as you can, and gently rub your cheeks with both hands. Use a circular motion to cover the full cheek area. If you would like, you can make some vowel sounds as you do this massage to see how the different positioning of your jaw and cheeks changes the sound.

Work your way up your jawline to the point in front of your ear canals. This is where a lot of tension headaches begin, right at the joint where the jaw attaches to the skull. After a minute or so, work your way down your jawline to the area under your chin. These are some of the muscles that close your jaw. Hold your head back a little and massage the frontal area of your neck, from your chin down to your thyroid cartilage (“Adam’s apple” for guys).

Next, place your hands at the sides of your neck, directly below your ears. These muscles don’t really affect the jaw or throat, but they do help to relax your neck and remove more tension. Be sure not to apply too much pressure anywhere; this is not the deep-tissue type of massage.

4) Diaphragm, not shoulders

Breath control is one of the most difficult but important skills for the singer to master. Most of us tend to breathe shallowly, using only a portion of our lungs to move air in and out. This is fine for everyday breathing, but it greatly reduces the volume and quality of sound when we try to sing.

Here’s how to check for proper breathing. Look at yourself in a mirror, stand up straight and watch as you take some deep breaths. Do your shoulders move up and down? If so, you are drawing air into the upper portion of your lungs but neglecting the lower part. Does your abdomen move in and out when you breathe deeply? That indicates just the opposite: you’re using the lower part of your lungs more than the upper part. The ideal situation is for your chest area to rise and fall as you breathe, right in the middle of these two extremes. To do this you must use the diaphragm muscle that lies directly under your lungs. It enables you to maximize airflow through your lungs, and therefore through your vocal cords. You can experiment with using different sets of muscles until you come up with the ideal way of breathing. Simply watch the way your body moves as you try these different methods of breath control. When you have good chest movement with minimal shoulder and abdominal movement, you’ve arrived.

5) Head position

This is another severely neglected point of control when singing. Have you ever seen one of those First Aid videos where they show someone tilting back an unconscious person’s head to open the airway? Why is it, then, that we see so many people trying to sing into a microphone with their chin practically touching their chest? Holding your head straight forward, or even tilted upward, as you sing will increase the size of your airway and permit more air to flow through without overexerting your vocal cords.

Some singers, most notably Lemmy Kilmister (seen below) of the British metal band Motorhead, have their mikes elevated high enough that they have to tilt their heads back to sing. Lemmy began doing this specifically to compensate for some vocal deficiencies, but it can be a good practice for many singers. Try to experiment with the position of your head and microphone as you sing to see what gives you the best airflow.

Look here for our prior Master Classes:

Photographing Water

Writing Good Poetry, July 2009

The Five C's of Songwriting, June 2009

Experimenting with Abstract Landscapes, May 2009

Preparing for Excellence, April 2009

It Builds Character, March 2009

Labanotation, February 2009

Singability, January 2009

Avoiding Cliches, December 2008

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