In a culture where people sing all the time, every day, or in a profession or context where you sing regularly, then your voice is pretty much ‘warmed up’ all the time, and if you have sufficient body awareness, you will be loose, relaxed, and limbered up in any case. But when working with ‘civilians’ who sing in a choir just once a week, or who come to a singing workshop every few months, a vocal warm up is both important and necessary for many sensible reasons that any good choir director will be familiar with. However, if you need any more convincing, here are some less obvious reasons of why preparing to sing should always be incorporated into a choir’s rehearsal plan:
- Transition from the everyday
Many choirs are run on weekday evenings and their members have usually come from a hard day’s work and a multitude of demands in their personal lives. The atmosphere we are trying to create in rehearsal is one of relaxed informality, of focus and concentration, of silliness and imagination, of creativity and beauty, of timelessness and joy. Most of these elements are missing from our everyday lives, so in a warm-up, we have to allow a period of transition for people to settle into a different world: a world of music-making and collaboration.
- Relax and release tension
Having sat all day at a PC, driven for half an hour, and rushed to get to choir on time, it’s no wonder people are rather tense and a little stressed. Their shoulders are up by their ears, their pelvises are locked, their jaws are clenched, their brows furrowed. We need to coax and persuade people to relax, release, stretch, let go and be free in their bodies (and minds!).
- Connect body, breath, voice
Warm-ups help us to re-connect three vital components of singing – body, breath, and voice, and remember how they are inextricably linked. Gone are the days of the clenched buttocks, feet in second position, and formally held hands of the posh recital. We need to get back to the cotton fields, the chain gangs, and the weaving looms, and sing with our bodies, breathe with our imagination, and dance with our mouths.
- Engage imagination and creativity
If we just go through the motions of familiar technical exercises it soon gets boring and we don’t put ourselves fully into the work. However, if we can engage our imaginations then we become totally engaged in the exercises and get the maximum benefit from them. So rather than asking someone to simply stretch upwards, ask them to reach for the stars; rather than asking for short, sharp breaths from the belly, ask them to pretend to be a steam train.
- Hone listening skills
We have become a visual society. We are constantly bombarded with visual imagery through advertising, TV, cinema, the internet, etc. There is such a cacophony of visual noise in our everyday lives that it is important to switch this off and re-connect with the world of sound, re-engage with our ears, hone our listening skills. Warm-ups are one of the ways to do this.
- Develop sense of timing and rhythm
In Western culture, this is perhaps one of the hardest challenges, especially if we are learning songs from the ‘world music’ repertoire, e.g. from Africa or the Balkans. Ours is predominantly a culture where music is melodic rather than rhythmic. Our songs, if we can dance to them at all, tend to be in strict 4/4 or 3/4 time. In our warm-up sessions we can practice off beats, all coming in at the same time, strange dances to 7/8 beats, clapping in time, stepping in time, and so on. This will all feed back into those songs that have a rhythmic basis, it will also help the choir engage their bodies with their voices.
- Be conscious of working with others
Your choir members have chosen to come out to sing with others, but when singing in unison, we need to be conscious of everyone else in the choir in order to sing at the same time, to get be singing the same melody and to articulate the vowels similarly to enable vocal blending. In harmony singing this is even more important. There is a tendency when running warm-ups to simply give out a series of individual exercises, but it is also important to introduce exercises that help people work with and off others to enable them to develop a greater awareness of the rest of the choir around them.
Ultimately, time spent on developing the voice, body, and mind through fun and imaginative warm-up exercises will result in a relaxed, centred, focused, and engaged choir and a more effective and productive rehearsal.
An expanded version of this article was first published on 1 February 2009, written by Chris Rowbury.
Featured image credit: “Choir” by Enterlinedesign, via Shutterstock.