I know what you must be thinking: “No warm up? That’s ridiculous! And dangerous! Isn’t it important to get your muscles warm before you practice or perform?” My answer is a resounding, “Yes!” What I want you to consider is the connotation of the term and its most common application for singers.
For many vocalists, “warming up” is the part of practice that you do as fast as possible to get to the fun part: the music. Therefore, I propose a name change for this initial portion of practice to: “Coordinating Up.” Admittedly, this phrase does not roll off the tongue as easily, but it has a clearer connotation: it shines light on the issues of coordination instead of whether the voice is ready to sing music. The question changes from, “am I in good voice today?” to “what do I need to do today to get my voice and body working together?” Are the body and mind ready to go? Changing your mindset to “coordinating up” will also create a more positive physical and mental atmosphere for better practice and performance.
What are some exercises that singers normally use to warm up the voice? Singing as high or low as possible? Doing sirens over and over to see if their voice is sitting high or low that day? Shoving the voice in the nose to find “resonance”? These are just a few examples of “is my voice working well today” centric warming up. Singing as many notes in your range as possible may get your vocalis muscle “warm,” technically, as the muscles of larynx are being used, but it does not address the muscles over which you have more direct control. You can run a mile and get the muscles used in running “warm,” but it does not mean that your body feels coordinated or “good” doing that action. You have not addressed what the body needs to run a mile at its best.
Coordinating the muscles with the breath, the articulators, the resonators, and the brain will get the voice more “warm.” Your body is your instrument, and as such, our instrument is different daily. Some days the breath comes easily, other days getting the breathing musculature to work takes enormous effort; some days resonance flows freely, other days the jaw is tense; some days the abdominals will not stop contracting (perhaps from that core class you took the day before), and other days you do not get enough sleep or water. Changing the focus from warming up” to “coordinating up” is a more efficient and psychologically kind way to get the voice “warm” and have a successful day of singing.
Stretching & Breathing
At the beginning of Coordinating Up you should stretch the body to wake up or soothe the muscles involved with singing. Stretch any muscles of the body that are tense. Fitness and dance experts advise that you should get the muscles of the body a bit warm before you stretch them, so try moving the body before you start singing by climbing some stairs, doing yoga, or going on a walk before your practice. Then you can better assess the body, thoughtfully stretch, and wake it up. I advise paying particular attention to the breathing musculature. Work to become physiologically aware of the muscles that impact posture and thus, the rib cage position; work out what you need to maintain the feeling of suspension, or the “gesture of inhalation” as Richard Miller calls it, or appoggio, as the Italian teachers named it, throughout practice.
Good pelvic floor function is extremely important to many aspects of a healthy body, but it is an especially important muscle of the respiratory system, and one we can actually feel moving (unlike the diaphragm). When the old Italian masters said, “Breathe low,” they did not know it, but they meant “breathe to the pelvic floor.” Taking a moment to mentally map your pelvic floor by noticing its gentle downward motion during inhalation will help you take low breaths and maintain the low center of gravity that is necessary for a stable and flexible laryngeal position. A low center of gravity also aids in producing a grounded and confident body posture. If you have issues with jaw, tongue, neck, or abdominal tension, etc., spend a few minutes mapping those muscles in your mind while you stretch or massage them. The book What Every Singer Needs to Know About the Body by Malde, Allen, and Zeller (Plural Publishing) is an excellent source for body mapping. You will find it easier to ask these muscles to soften or move in a particular fashion if you spend a few minutes tending to them before you start to sing.
Once you have assessed the body, you can create a plan of action or your first vocal exercise. If you are having a challenging time breathing low that day, start with a breathing exercise or a vocalise that your teacher has given you that helps you access a low breath. If your body and voice are feeling heavy and sluggish, start with an exercise that lightens up your body and your voice. If you are not sure what you need, try a couple of exercises, and see which feels like the most effortless way to coordinate up. Give yourself permission to experiment. You do not have to pick the perfect exercise or sound great right away! Would you expect to grand jeté across the floor at the beginning of a ballet class or hit a home run before you have moved your body?
After addressing the big coordination issue for the day, choose an enjoyable exercise that sits in an easy vocal range. This breaks up the serious concentrated work with something that gets you flowing and does not require serious technical thought and physiological awareness. The goal is to get your voice moving or stretch it out throughout your range.
Next, continue your assessment by asking yourself what else needs coordinating. Are you having trouble sustaining long phrases or moving your voice with agility? What are you working toward with your teacher? Do you have a lot of tongue or jaw issues? Work through a coordination exercise that addresses these ongoing challenges. Be mindful to vary exercises from day to day. The helpfulness of a certain exercise can be fun one day and challenging the next. Be mindful of the goal of the exercise making sure that you know why you are singing it.
Sample Practice Session
- Lift your arms over your head and stretch slowly right to left, becoming aware of how the floating ribcage expands upon inhalation. Do not be afraid to over-inhale. Wake up the muscles and your awareness.
- Hang upside down with soft, slightly bent knees. Over-inhale again, this time bringing your awareness to the release of your belly (the pooch of your abdominal viscera) and to the gentle downward motion of the pelvic floor. Repeat as necessary to find the awareness, to breath with intention and to let go of thoughts that are not helpful.
- Addressing jaw tension: Massage the masseter muscles (the big ones next to your ears.) Let the jaw go slack and the tongue soften in the bottom of your mouth. Next, massage the whole side of your head above your ears.
- Start singing in an easy, comfortable range. Your goal in this exercise is to coordinate up the breath with the release of the jaw (insert your major tension here). Try a sliding pattern (Major scale pitches 54321, or Sol Fa Mi Re Do) on a voiced consonant of your choosing. This is a sneaky little semi-occluded vocal track exercise to get you on your breath, and the slide should keep you from worrying if you sound good or not, and help you focus on breath consistency or activation.
- Next try two different exercises for the jaw, one where you leave the jaw in a slack position like on the at-rest vowel “uh,” and then an exercise that moves the jaw like “yah.” Which is more helpful today?
- One of your favorite exercises that gets your voice moving goes here.
- Pick a spot in a song or aria that is particularly troubling and turn it into a vocal exercise. Say you are singing “Over the Rainbow” by Harold Arlen or one of the many octave leaps in the aria “I Want Magic” by André Previn, and the leap is not going well. Do an octave leap exercise that you have done with your teacher and then add the words of the troublesome phrase. Is the leap accessible when there are no consonants? If so, practice saying “Somewhere” in the Arlen and “it ought” in the Previn using a sing-songy voice, approximating the pitches in speech. Without pitches you will often find that the obstacle reveals itself. Did you grip your jaw when you transitioned from “some” to “where” or “ought” to “to”? Do you stop your air or stiffen your neck, etc.? “What am I doing that makes my breath move so well? Why is my jaw so free? When I sing, what do I change?” Go back and forth from speech to singing until you can train the freer way into you motor neurons. You have been studying voice; what tools do you have in your vocal toolbox to address this issue? Remember, you do not have to be right the first time. You can always try something else.
If you have taken the time to become physiologically and mentally aware for the day, and choose exercises accordingly, then you are well on your way to a more efficient and enjoyable practice session. You will start to eradicate the “I’m just not in good voice” excuses that can plague a singer’s thoughts. You will begin to understand that your voice is a muscle that must be coordinated with your whole self, and you will progress on a journey toward NOT taking what your voice does or does not do so personally. It is not personal: your voice is not who you are. Your voice is a part of your whole body, and your whole body deserves your care and consideration. Take the pressure off and start Coordinating Up!