The Hows and Whys of a Good Choral Warmup
This comes up an awful lot with my students, so it seems worth putting here.
Ok, first, we all agree that a warmup is a necessary thing, right? Look, I’ve heard all the excuses: “My singers warm up before they come”; “We warm up on easy songs”; and my favourite, “My singers hate warmups, they just come late”. Ha.
Lucky for you, I have answers for each of these.
Let’s begin by being clear: If you don’t warm up your choir, they will never sing any better than they sing right at this moment. Never ever. Not bothering to warm up a choir is like not bothering to tune an orchestra: a sign that you are not really listening.
Warm ups are opportunities, not only to teach your choir “how to sing” (and frankly, I think that they are overrated in this regard); they are where you remind them how to sing together effectively, where you build the ensemble; they are where you work on skills without cluttering up your performance repertoire; they are where you help your choir internalize skills that they won’t have time to think about when they are thinking about words and itches and phrasing and expressiveness. They are where your choir learns to be a choir.
Now, all warm up exercises are probably worth your time. I say probably because, while I really want to believe that that is the case, I seem to spend an awful lot of time watching student conductors lead their groups through aimless vocalizes that serve no clear purpose, other than “I heard one should do this”. Warming up the voice is certainly important, but if it’s your only aim, then you are missing some ripe opportunities to get a whole lot more done.
Consider this: if you only have two or three hours a week to get your ensemble into fighting shape, then every minute needs to be used to its fullest potential. There is no time for single-purpose exercises. (Incidentally, I feel the same way about strength training: I like compound moves more than single muscle exercises, because if I’m going to suffer, then it had better pay off.) So, that’s something to keep in mind as you choose specific exercises.
Ok, on to how to craft a warm up sequence. Here is a list of things that absolutely must happen, and must happen in this order:
- Stretching and loosening the body, preparing for the physical work ahead.
- Working on breathing for singing (rather than speaking).
- Light singing throughout the range to warm up the vocal apparatus.
- Range extension work, top and bottom of range.
Here is a list of things that absolutely must happen, but can happen in any order (and are easily and effectively merged with the list above):
- Remind the body how to sing rather than speak: shape vowels, consonants, and line.
- Focus the mind to the job at hand.
- Open and focus the ear to what is happening around it.
- Remind the singer as a whole how to perform musically as part of a single, larger body (what we call a “choir”).
Although that list has 4 items on it, in fact, all of them can be accomplished in a single exercise. Or better yet, in every exercise.
Now, some people swear by using the same exercises every week; some swear by “customizing” to suit the repertoire at hand. I personally like to do a little of both. I think that some repetition is a good thing. As one of my teachers always said, system is comfort, and comfort is, in many ways, happiness. So having a few things that you do every time is a great way to make your singers feel comfortable, in charge, and like they know what they are doing. These are all worthy goals.
On the other hand, ruts are bad things, so you do have to balance the known with the unknown. I deal with this in a couple of ways: I have a few of exercises, really excellent ones, that I use every week. I also have a predictable sequence that I use every time, so that even though the actual task may vary, my choir knows that they can expect to start with a physical exercise, move on to breathing, then do some warming the voice and range extension, then work on one or two specific ensemble skills, and close with my favourite up-through-the-whole-range exercise. They are comfortable with the sequence, and still interested to see what I’ve come up with. When I do this right, no one sleepwalks through the warmup.
So, let’s go back to the excuses we heard at the beginning:
My singers warm up before they come. Not as an ensemble, they don’t.
We warm up on easy songs. Why would you clutter up your repertoire with skills learning? Better to learn the skill, then apply it in context.
My singers hate warmups, they just come late. The best response to this is to customize: make sure you do something that you can directly relate to later in the rehearsal. Believe me, when you say, “this is just like that thing we worked on in such-and-such warm up”, and everyone else is nodding and understanding, the laggards will be wondering what they missed. And they’ll eventually decide they should find out for themselves, and turn up on time.
It looks like a lot, all written out like that, but it really isn’t. You can do all that in less than 10 minutes, and the rewards you will reap will be with you for the rest of your rehearsal, and beyond.