New York Vocal Coaching Podcast Ep. 32: How to Warm-Up
Posted Friday, May 15th 2020 by Greg Kefalas
Join Andy as he gives his top advice for warming-up the voice. From demonstrations and exercises to skills you should be focused on, your voice will be ready to go for any task at hand!
Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the New York Vocal Coaching Podcast. My name is Andy King and I'm a senior vocal associate at New York Vocal Coaching, as well as the cohost of this podcast. As I'm sure everyone knows by now, the world is going through a bit of a pandemic so Matt and I are podcasting solo in our respective homes. For today, you've got me and you've got me alone.
For today's episode, I wanted to answer a question I often get. Here it is. How do I warm up my voice? It's a good question and there's a simple answer and a more complicated answer. Today I'm going to hopefully split the difference and give you a general outline that gets you the information you need. The caveat with all the info I'm about to give you is this, vocal exercises are not one size fits all. There isn't a single prescription that solves every person's vocal issues. As a voice teacher, I'm listening to every unique voice that comes in and I come up with exercises in the moment that fit that moment in time.
To complicate the matter even further, these exercises sometimes need to be adjusted as we're doing them and from lesson to lesson with the same person. With all that said, there are general guidelines we can follow that will be good for most singers. During this episode, I'm going to create an outline for a warmup that you can follow on a daily basis that will do you good, all the while keeping in mind that you are an individual, your instrument is unique, and a vocal exercise may not be perfect for you.
Without further ado, let's get started. No vocal warmup is complete without a bit of a full body warmup. Why? Everything in your body is connected, from your head to your feet. Muscles lead to other muscles, which lead to tissue and bone and so on and so forth. I can promise you that if you've got a lot of tightness in your legs, your voice is going to be affected. The idea here is not that we need to spend 20 minutes warming up your body before we sing. The idea is that we want to get our bodies a little warm and a little loose.
If you haven't moved your body too much before your warmup, I'd suggest getting your blood pumping with jumping jacks or jogging in place for a bit. These two things will get your blood flowing, your heart rate up a bit, and get your breath moving. From here, I like to do dynamic stretches. What does dynamic mean? Lots of movement. Where a body is consistently moving. For instance, arm circles, shoulder rolls, head rolls, forward bends where you touch your toes and then slowly roll your way back up vertebra by vertebra. You can also do some side bends, torso twists, and combination back and chest stretches. All of this is to get your full instrument, AKA your body, let me say that again. Your full instrument, your body, ready to sing.
Next, let's do some posture alignment. Remember alignment is dynamic, not static. We are not rigid beings. We want to be able to move freely and efficiently. We are not going for stiffness and rigidity here. A few questions that I want you to ask yourself in regards to your posture, is your head neutral or is it tilting to the left or right? Are your shoulders level with each other? Are your shoulders rounded forward? Are they pressed back? Are my hips even with each other or is one popped out? Do your knees align with your hips and ankles or are they rotating one way or the other? Are your feet parallel? Finally, are your ears, shoulders, hips, and ankles lined up with each other? If you need to pause the podcast and kind of do that for yourself, ask yourself all those questions. We're trying to get our body aligned. Asking yourself all of these questions should give you a decent start to an aligned and open body ready for singing.
As a side note, sometimes we're able to adjust these postural things quickly and other times we'll have to dig deeper to find the underlying root. Today's episode isn't necessarily for that, but I just wanted to make a note of that. Sometimes we've got some more serious issues where we need to go to a massage therapist, a chiropractor, maybe do more bodywork like Feldenkrais or Alexander Technique. Today's episode obviously is not going to be correcting all of those things for you. These are just kind of general rules of thumb for yourself.
Let's move on to our breath. We need to make sure we're breathing efficiently and easily. Take a moment to easily breathe in and out. Do it right now. No need to worry about breathing deeply. Just get your breath to a neutral spot. Naturally, your ribs and abs should be gently expanding on the inhale and gently going back in on the exhale. You can do this as many times as you like. You can do it for 30 seconds, you can do it for five minutes. It shouldn't be a lot of strain, just easy, efficient breathing. When your breath finally feels even and easy, add an sh to the exhale. For instance, sh. We want to start adding a little resistance to the breath. You can pulse the sound like this, sh, sh, sh, sh. Or you can hold it out like you'd be sustaining a note. Shhhhhh. Either way is fine. You can do both. The idea is that we are getting our breath moving, making sure our throat is open, making sure our ribs and our abs are not squeezed or flexing.
Awesome. Your body and your breath are now ready to begin making sounds. As a voice teacher and singer, my general outline and rule of thumb is to hit all the spots of my voice during my warmup and technique work. It doesn't always shake out that way, but it's a good place to start. For instance, I want to start off with something that gets my breath and vocal fold coordination, or my resonance started. From there, I will systematically go through my registers to make sure I hit all of the spots, so to speak. After that, it's kind of a fork in the road and we'll get to that a little bit later.
So to begin my first exercise, I can go one of two ways. I can do a lip buzz exercise or some sort of neutral and simple exercise on a may or mum with a five, four, three, two, one pattern. For example, may, may, may, may, may. Mum, mum, mum, mum, mum. Something simple, something neutral with a lip buzz obviously. Any sort of pattern is fine. The lip buzz is going to really get your air and vocal fold oscillation coordinated and moving, whereas a may or mum will start you off with some nice resonance. I use both of these so I can check to see how my voice is feeling on that particular day. And it doesn't have to be one or the other, you can do both of them. It doesn't really matter. They're just easy ways to kind of get your voice moving.
Next, you're going to want to give your voice a nice stretch with some head voice, falsetto, flageolet or cricothyroid-dominant exercise. Our voice is warm from our first exercise so we dive right into giving our voice a good stretch. Remember, our vocal folds are lengthening and thinning when we were in head voice and flageolet. So I'm going to start with a more closed vowel like oo or e. This invites more nasal resonance, which invites more flexibility. You can do a scalar pattern like a five, four, three, two, one; a five, three, one; eight, five, one, it doesn't really matter, or you can sing with a slide. So for instance, something simple like that and go up and down. You can do a slide. All of these things get your voice moving, get some stretching going, gets lengthening happening. Really nice, easy start. You can do one or the other. You can do a head voice, you can do a flageolet, you can do a flageolet and then a bigger head voice exercise. It doesn't really matter, just as long as you're spending some time up there to really get that stretch happening.
After that, we're going to jump right into some strength work. We want to give our chest voice, also known as modal voice, also known as thyroarytenoid-dominant production going. We want to get our voices to build strength. So in this part of the warm up, we're going to focus on creating big and strong sounds. I like doing bigger vowels like ah or oh which invite more mouthiness, which invite more strength. These vowels allow us to get connected to our resonance and also allows us to make some big sounds.
Again, the idea here is to build some strength. The pattern doesn't necessarily matter as long as you're consistently and freely creating strong sounds. As a reminder, we don't want to take these strongest chest voice sounds up too terribly high for guys. I try to take it up to like an E4, F4 above middle C, not too much higher than that. And then for female voices, we'll do an A, a B flat, a B, kind of right by the passaggio is where I like to go.
The idea of the strength building exercise is not that we're trying to transition or make a smooth transition into our passaggio or more flexible mixed voice, the point is to build strength. So that's why we don't want to go up too terribly high and we also don't want to wear our voices out. This can be something like a go or a ga or a bah or a buub, something that really gets your full vocal folds coming together.
The next thing we want to do is try to add the flexibility with the strength. What does that mean? Mixed voice. I like to start with usually a chest dominant or 50/50 mix. At the end of the day it doesn't really matter, as long as we're getting some strength and we're getting some flexibility. Some options might be a bib or a mem or a bwib or a goog or something that really gets your voice strong but also flexible. And so the way we as voice teachers kind of think about the syllable, sometimes we have a syllable or a consonant that gives you the strength. So let's just say bib, for instance. B is that nice, strong sound that gets your vocal folds going, that gets them really coming together in a strong way. So there's the strength portion.
And then the "i" is a more closed vowel. It's a brighter vowel. It's going to give you more nasal resonance, which is going to give you more flexibility. And that is the head portion of the mixed voice. And so there we've got some strength and we've got some flexibility and length in our sounds.
From this point, after you've done that mixed voice, you've got a few options. This is where that fork in the road comes up. First, you don't have to keep going. Maybe you're ready to move on to song work, which is perfectly fine. Maybe you say, "I only wanted to spend 15 minutes on warming my voice up today," perfectly fine. I want to spend more of my time doing song work, great. Maybe you want to spend 45 minutes doing technique, great too. Maybe you... whatever the case may be. It doesn't matter.
But in this case, we're going to talk about more technique substance, that's kind of what the point of the episode is today. So a few options for you include working a different mixed voice, you can work on sustains, you can work on messa di voce, you can work on vocal skills like riffing or breathiness or adding vocal fry into your sounds. There's a lot of different options. And sometimes we say, "Well, how the heck do I choose what I'm supposed to do?" Honest to God, it really depends on what you want. It depends on the day. It depends on the singer. It depends on the style of music you're singing. If we're working on a more legit sound, if we're working on even classical music, we're not going to spend 20 more minutes working our chest voice. Doesn't really make sense if we're a female. We're going to go back into that head voice and really spend some more time sinking into that. If we're working on a style that doesn't require riffing, don't really spend a lot of time riffing, maybe spend some other time doing something that really fits that style.
If you do feel like you want more and more technique work, I always suggest for people to do some more mix work. So let's say in our first mixed voice exercise with that bib for instance, we had some really strong sounds. I would go to more of a head dominant mixed voice, or a cricothyroid-dominant mixed voice. You can do something on a noon, something that gives you lots and lots of flexibility, but also asks your voice to not just automatically go into head voice.
Another option might be to work on some sustaining. So obviously we sustain notes all the time in songs. And so it's a good idea to work on sustaining notes in vocal exercises. I know it sounds kind of silly, but sometimes we work on scalar patterns or kind of punchy notes or things like that and then we get into a song and the very last note we have to hold it out for 10 seconds, and then we say, "Huh, I'm not sure I know how to do that." So why not add that to your technique work?
You can also do something like a messa di voce and remember what a messa di voce is, it's just crescendoing, decrescendoing, or getting a little louder and then getting a little quieter. The other great part about messa di voce, if we're working on more classical music is that it's used in music all the, all the, all the time. It's used less often in popular styles of music, but what you are doing is actually working on dynamics, musicality, and you're working different mixes of your voice. So just as a very simple example of a messa di voce, it's something like ooh. Just a straight tone one or you can go ah. Those are very kind of quick and dirty examples, but just to give you an idea there.
Riffing. Obviously this is a big one. Spend some time riffing. I always try to encourage everybody to work on riffing. Even if it's not in the style or genre of music you do, it's a great way to work on your vocal flexibility. If you're a beginner, if you're an advanced person, you can always create exercises for yourself. So what I always suggest people start with, if you're new to riffing, start with a pentatonic scale, may, may, may, may, may, may and just kind of do something like that over and over and over. Get that pattern. It's a blues scale. Then you can kind of switch up the pattern of it, you can go to a whoa, you can go to a yeah. You can do whatever you want. You can even listen to music or find sheet music where they have a riffing pattern in it and copy it, slow it down, copy it, make that into a vocal exercise for yourself.
You can kill two birds with one stone here. You can say I'm going to work on my head-dominant mixed voice on a riff pattern. There you go. Working on riffing, working on your mixed voice. I'm going to put a sustain at the beginning of my riffing pattern and then I'm going to end with a riff. Two birds with one stone. There you go.
Another thing you can do is work on your yodeling. Not necessarily the style, although if that is your style like in country music, that's totally fine. But when we have voice cracks or yodeling, one, you're finding tons of flexibility in your voice, and it's used in pop music all the time. It's used in pop music, again, all the time. It feels very silly. It feels like we're making some hilarious, terrible sounds, but I'm telling you listen to pop songs, men and women crack their voices all the time on purpose. It's a really cool effect and you may as well get used to doing something like that.
Something else you might want to work on is breathiness. In popular styles of music, again, people use breathiness all the time. You can make up your own pattern. Find consistency. You can work on a specific pattern or melody that you want to work on in a song, anything like that. You can also work on adding some vocal fry over, over to add into a song. If your song calls for it, then you may as well take some time to work on that as a skill.
So as you can see, there's tons and tons and tons of different options. The other thing that I always tell people and that all my voice students know is that while we're working on a song, they know darn well that while we're singing that song, I'm absolutely 100% going to break in with a different vocal exercise. So remember that, it's not about when you get to the song just singing it over and over and over again. Stop at a spot, make up a vocal exercise in the moment that works that trouble spot. Again, it's not one size fits all. What I do is I listen to the pattern that they're struggling with, whether it's a musical pattern, whether it's a note, maybe it's in their passaggio, maybe it's a vowel, and I will in the moment create a vocal exercise using that vowel, using that pattern that works that specific thing. Always be flexible to that. If there's something that you're struggling with within a song, create an exercise for yourself that works on that specific thing.
All right folks, that's all I've got. And I've said it once, and I'll say it again, warming up and technique work is not one size fits all. It should be specific and individual to the singer and to the work you're trying to accomplish. With that said, I hope today's episode has given you a more clear understanding as to how to warm up your voice and why it's important.
Finally, I know this continues to be a challenging time for many folks, but I encourage all of you to do something good for someone. Thank a healthcare worker or a grocery store worker, or maybe offer to pick up groceries for an elderly person, or perhaps call someone you haven't chatted with in a while. Doing good is what makes us feel good and is what makes this amazing world turn. Thank you so much for being here with me today. Stay healthy and be well. Until next time, I'm Andy. Thanks for listening.
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