If you are going to ask your body to do difficult things, you prepare by training. Before you run a marathon, you have built your body’s endurance by running frequently and with increasing distance. The same is true for singing. Singing uses your vocal cords in a different way than speaking. In order to build your vocal range and stamina, you should warm up. It’s like lifting weights for your voice: asking it to do more than what is in a usual day’s work.
One of the most important points to emphasize is this: you may use your voice constantly throughout the day, but not in the same way as your singing voice. Our speaking range is pretty limited. Most of us don’t speak with the inflection and intonation that would equal a vocal warm up exercise. So practicing vocal warmups gets you outside (above and below) the vocal range that you use for speaking.
They’re also essential for maintaining vocal health, breath control, and for helping you to improve your singing overall.
What Are Vocal Cords?
Some in-person and online singing lesson teachers prefer the term vocal folds because there is nothing that resembles a “cord” in your vocal anatomy. Try holding your two palms facing you with a little space between. Cupped and relaxed, your hands can represent your vocal folds when singing a low sound. Extended and straightened can represent your vocal cords singing a high note. The space between your two hands can represent the glottis where air passes in and out and vibrates the folds.
The vocal cords are small muscles that (like all muscles) extend and contract. Vocal warm ups help prepare them for the musical work of singing scales, intervals, and sustaining sound for a long duration. It is a specialized job that requires specialized training.
Let’s make another metaphor, and not an athletic one this time. If you have practiced embroidery, knitting or crochet, you have memorized small hand motions that achieve the desired result. After a while, you no longer need to look at the needles or hook and can achieve the same result by feel. If I handed you a crochet hook or needle and thread and you’d never practiced those motions before, it would be difficult (impossible?) to achieve the same finished result as an expert.
Singing is much the same. You can get good at copying sounds or mimicking voices by singing along to your favorite artist, but what if I asked you to sing a song in a totally different style? Would you be lost? Warm-ups give you tools to work with so you can tackle any genre or style of music (even outside your comfort zone).
Scales, Arpeggios, and Patterns, Oh My
Singing warm ups usually involve either scales (stepping up and down), arpeggios (skipping notes on a scale), or scale patterns (some combination of scale notes). The major and minor scales have been the foundation for Western music for hundreds of years, and all modern popular music and choral music use these scales as a foundation. In Western music, nearly every warm up will be based on some combination of these eight-note scales. See the example below:
The reason why these scales, arpeggios and patterns are useful is that they build muscle memory. Singing scales and patterns builds your muscle memory so you are used to these steps and skips and you don’t have to think about them, you can do them by feel, almost automatically. You are preparing yourself for the micro motions that your vocal folds make when singing higher and lower pitches. Going back to our metaphor, when you no longer need to look at your knitting, you can do it by feel and muscle memory of the motion. The same applies to your singing. By repeating all those steps and skips, you have built muscle memory and now know how they “feel” in your voice (after all, you are using an instrument you cannot see!).
Why the Tongue-Twisters?
If you are studying with a good vocal coach or choir director, their methods to warm up your singing probably have purposes you may not even be aware of. If you are singing with a choir, vocal warm ups may be focused on unifying a vowel sound, singing with good diction (i.e. clear consonants), or achieving good balance and breath support. But the director may not be explicit about these goals.
Here are some examples of warm ups and why they may be used:
- Tongue-twisters: focus on consonant sounds and singing with clear diction
Scales and arpeggios: Build muscle memory for intervals.
- Hissing (air only): Getting used to singing “on the breath” with good air support.
- Horse lips: require more air than singing without, get you using stronger air stream.
- Mi-me-ma-mo-mu: works on vowel unification (everyone singing the same type of vowel).
What Should My Vocal Exercises Include?
Here is a sample some of the best vocal warm ups for singers you can use to strengthen your vocal muscle memory, sing on the breath, and sing with good diction.
- Vocal warm up #1: breathe in deeply for a count of four. Use the syllable “sh” or “ch” (air only), challenge yourself to sustain that hissing sound (air only, no vocal cords) for a count of 4. Then try to add 2 counts each time to the exhale. Breathe in for 4, breathe out on hiss for 6. Breathe in for 4, breathe out on a hiss for 8. See if you can make it to 12!
- Vocal warm up #2: Hum! Using an “mm” or an “ng” sound (think the end of the word swimming) hum by sliding up or down a scale. This doesn’t need to be regulated, it can be kind of free-form. Humming is a great, gentle way to start to warm up your voice.
- Scales and arpeggios: Search for a voice teacher leading you through scales and arpeggios if you are not familiar with them. Or, you can sit at a piano and give yourself a starting pitch for each vocal exercise (there are lots of digital app pianos out there). Scales can be sung using numbers (1-8), solfege (do-re-mi), or a gentle syllable like lay, loo, or nah.
- Consonants: Singing requires better diction (enunciating, saying consonants clearly) than talking across the dinner table. That is where the tongue twisters come in. Challenge yourself to sing these silly vocal warm up exercises the way an actor on stage would say them!