I’ve been in enough choirs to know that no choir director jumps right into the business at hand without some type of vocal warm-up for the members of his/her flock. I’ve seen and heard wonderful warm-ups… and not-such-wonderful ones, and I’d like to throw my hat into the ring with, if you will, a killer pre-warm-up that is guaranteed to put some bounce back into even the most tired, overused voices.
These five exercises can be used prior to singing any actual tones or words. In the business we call them semi-occluded vocal tract exercises, or SOVT, brought to us by the great Dr. Ingo Titze, a leading professor of speech science and voice. These exercises are also fabulous as a cool-down after a show or concert, or even after (and during) a long day of talking at work. And, they feel absolutely wonderful if you do them while taking a hot shower, by the way…
#1 – The Lip Trill
There’s a good reason that so many singers use lip trills: because they help warm us up, and help us learn to effectively pass through our different registers. If you’re having trouble with lip trills, there’s probably some tightness in the neck, jaw or shoulder area, and not enough breath support, so be mindful of that. Also, they must be done correctly in order to get the full benefit. Start by placing your index fingers just above the corners of your mouth; there are lots of YouTube tutorials on this, so take a look if you’re unsure. Once you’re able to produce tone, trill and air flow, allow the tone to be the predominant component of the trill. Most importantly, relaaaax. And don’t smile; smiling thwarts the lip trill in a big way.
#2 – Tongue Roll, or Roll Those Rrrrrs!
This is a stellar exercise for those singing in Italian, or Spanish, but not always the easiest sound to make. (Think of saying, “Grrreat” with a Scottish accent and you’re on your way.) One needs to be able to relax the jaw and tongue, yet engage the entire tongue, keeping the tip relaxed and touching the alveolar ridge (the area jutting out behind your upper front teeth—don’t touch the teeth!), the sides of the tongue curled to the back teeth and the back of the tongue a bit high…like where your tongue is when hissing like a cat. Once you get the hang of it, add pitch!
#3 – Humming
Good old-fashioned humming is by far the best way to get your voice going in the morning, and get your respiratory muscles prepped for action. It’s a gentle warm-up, especially if your voice is tired, and helps dislodge any schmutz (aka mucus) on your vocal folds. However, you have to make sure you’re doing it properly. If you try to force the hum, you may wind up using too much pressure from your throat, defeating the purpose of the warm-up. Start by having your lips together and teeth apart (super-important); then, make an ‘mmmm’ sound, like when something tastes yummy. Be sure to keep the sound on your lips, not in your nose or throat!
#4 – Voiced Fricatives
Voiced fricatives…sounds complicated, but they’re way easier than the tongue rolls, I promise. Fricatives are consonants that limit the flow of air to various parts of your vocal tract/apparatus, causing a type of friction. They’re a hidden-secret type of warm-up exercise, and feel so good. There are many consonants we can use, but the three I like are z (as in zoo), j (as in the French name Jacques) and v (as in vase). Start with any of the three, and make a long, extended sound (zzzzzzzzzzzzzz); see how long you can comfortably hold it. Then, try a siren with the consonant, from low to high. Finally, try imitating a car revving its gas pedal, going back and forth, gradually increasing and decreasing the pitch of the consonant. You’ll notice that each consonant will feel different in your mouth and throat, as the air is being constricted in a different place. Some may be harder to manage than others, but after a while you’ll see how helpful they are, and your voice will thank you.
#5 – Humming Through A Straw
This is my personal favorite to do, and to watch; trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard an entire choir humming “The Star Spangled Banner” through all the straws. It’s quite simple: get thin straws, like the red ones you can steal find at coffee shops (thicker ones are okay in a pinch, too). Put one up to your mouth and hum. Follow the order of the voiced fricatives exercises: first, a long tone. Then, try sirens, from the basement of your voice to the attic and back down. After that, imitate a car motor revving, increasing and decreasing the pitch of your hum back and forth. Finally, hum a not-too-long song of your choice. The whole straw exercise should take two to five minutes.
And there you have it. I’ll bet you’re going to feel a whole lot more refreshed. Now, onward to your “me-may-mah-mow-moo’” jams, but don’t forget these five gems!