I’m a bit of a warmup enthusiast. I take warming up vocally very seriously. I always feel like I get back 10 times the vocal energy I put in, and it’s so worth it. I’ve talked at some length before on this blog about how important warming up is and why everyone should do it, but I’ve never provided much actual insight into how to do it.
Part of the problem there is that warming up is a very personal process. I can’t tell you what will work best for you. In this article, I’m sharing what works best for me personally. My goal is to present many ideas that you can use and modify as you see fit.
This guide is divided into five sections: Why Warm Up, Pre-Vocalization, Beginning Phonation, Singing, and FAQs.
1: Why Warm Up?
In case you’re wondering what the big deal is, warming up…
- Helps prevent vocal injury
- Keeps your voice sounding best
- Keeps your voice feeling best
- Can help you ease, manage, and treat pain of vocal injuries/illnesses
- Will teach you more about your own voice
- Massively expands vocal capabilities over time
Putting in just 10 minutes a day will be absolutely worth your time.
Even before you begin making noise, there are a few steps you can take just to get the muscles ready:
- Stretch your neck, shoulders, and upper body, including your arms. Get your arms up above your head. This will open up the chest (and give the lungs room to expand) while releasing tension.
- Breathe deeply. Take a few deep singers’ breaths (filling the lungs from the bottom to the top), and then begin inhaling/exhaling over a few counts.
- Move the jaw. If you have trouble opening your mouth wide enough when you sing, this might help. Make a chewing motion, open your jaw wide, flex your jaw side-to-side- maybe even massage the cheeks/temples if that feels worthwhile.
- Massage the throat and neck gently. This is especially beneficial if you’ve been feeling tension or fatigue in the neck. This can help you gently loosen these muscles and get them ready to move. This is also a good way to warm down after a strenuous performance.
Let’s say you’re under a lot of vocal stress, or just feeling a little crappy– these little tricks can perk you up and help relieve tension.
This only needs to take 3-5 minutes. I usually do this while doing makeup. Drink water while doing this so the throat is hydrated and ready for later steps! This is especially important if you’ve been sick or dry.
3: Beginning Phonation
Now you’re ready to start actually making sound! I always, always begin by humming.
Humming is a great way to begin working the vocal cords. Singing or talking right off the bat can stress out your throat, but humming is gentle and masks some of the “gunk” you feel when you haven’t sung yet that day. You never really sound your best pre-warm up, so humming will help you avoid judging your first noises of the day!
- Long tones. Pick a pitch in the mid-low part of your range (as comfortable) and hum it over a relatively long period of time- a couple of seconds. Switch notes when you inhale. You can combine this step and the previous step and “chew” the note to warm the jaw.
- Move stepwise from note to note, staying in the mid-low part of your range. Start with small half-steps if desired and then go to triads. Try them legato and staccato!
- Lip trills are fantastic for waking up the vocal cords. If you have some “gunk” in your throat this is a good way to shake that off! Start doing it without vocalizing (just exhale air through the lips) and then start doing some glides. Here you can start sliding up into the higher part of your range.
During these steps, I might also work on various mechanical things I need to practice- such as good breath support/control, posture, or keeping the sound forward in the mouth. It’s good to do this now instead of once I start getting into humming songs or even full-on singing, because then I have specific notes and words to worry about– here, there’s less to distract me!
- Humming songs is always my next step. The car is a great place for this. I usually like to play something mid-low in my range first (often men’s songs- Dear Evan Hansen or Company are often my go-to’s, but pick whatever is comfortable for you!) and hum along. Once I’ve done a low song or two I might move to a slightly higher, medium range song, and may even go to a song in the mid-high part of my range (not the upper limit usually since it’s hard to hum that high with a closed mouth anyway). Do all of this gently and quietly- maybe begin to play with dynamics towards the end of this step.
I spend a solid 10 minutes AT LEAST on humming, typically!
Note: If at any point during these steps, your throat begins to hurt or feel a little fatigued, stop humming! Take a minute, take a drink, and let the pain subside. Don’t be afraid to move backwards through the steps if you need to take more time in any given step.
Now you can begin to actually sing! If you begin to feel pain or fatigue, feel free to move back to humming– I switch back and forth a lot.
- Start low, as is comfortable. Again, I often start with men’s songs, but pick whatever is comfortable for you.
- Character songs are, depending on where my voice is on a given day, often a good next step. These are good because they don’t necessarily have to sound “nice” all the time– so if my voice is still kinda rough, I won’t feel bad! These can also explore UBU (Ugly But Useful) sounds and dynamics pretty fully, but only do this as is comfortable.
- Mid-High and High songs come next! Work your way up slowly!
Again, the name of the game here is avoiding pain. Don’t do something if it hurts! If you start to feel fatigued, go back to humming or stop altogether for a bit.
As you’re singing, try experimenting with vibrato, dynamics, mouth shape, whatever! If you have other mechanical or technique things to work on, try to do this!
My whole process usually ends up being 20-30 minutes, just by virtue of my car ride to school/work/rehearsal typically taking that long. What else am I supposed to do in my car besides sing?
- When Should I Warm Up?
Personally, I like to warm up a little in the morning just to get my voice “awake” and then about an hour or so before I need to use my voice. Do it every day!
- How Much Should I Warm Up?
This is a very personal question, depending on a lot of factors. A really good warm up for me will be about 45 minutes, maybe more, though that can be pushing it. You want to avoid over-working yourself as much as underworking, so everyone really needs to find their own personal “golden ratio” wherein warmups are effective without being too much. The best advice I can offer is to get to know your own voice– the more you warm up, the more you’ll know how much you need.
- How Might Warming up be Different if I’m Sick/Fatigued?
If you’re sick or dealing with vocal strain or injury, warming up is especially crucial. Generally, the golden rules when dealing with sickness and fatigue are listen to what your body tells you and be gentle! If you feel pain at any point, it’s best to stop and back off for a bit. Therefore, warming up might take more time— leave lots of time to stop and rest your voice in the process. If the pain never seems to abate, it may be best to call it a day and avoid using your voice in any strenuous ways. Treat your voice as you would treat a physical injury like a sprained wrist– you wouldn’t continue to “power through” pain on an injured limb, so don’t attempt to power through pain on an injured throat.
- Do I Still Have to Bother With all This if my Music Director Makes us Warm up Before the Show, Anyway???
I always warm myself up on my own time and treat the traditional pre-show cast warm up as a final refresher before the performance. Typical call has me getting to the theatre an hour and a half or two hours before a show anyway, so it’s usually about time for a refresher once the cast warmups start. However, I’d never be satisfied with that as my only warm up! You know your own voice better than anyone else. You know what you need to sing and feel your best! Your cast warmup is a great resource, but use it in addition to your own work.
Do you have a warmup strategy that’s never lead you wrong? Share it so others can learn!