March 19, 2011

For Singers Only: Ed’s Vocal Warmup Routine

Recently my writer friend Laurie Wagner asked me to get together with her visual artist friend Kc Rosenberg to help her explore her new interest in singing and music. I would describe Laurie as God’s gift to creative people, (or to use another analogy, if creative people were plants she is like sunlight, water and that special dirt they sell in bags at Home Depot). Laurie has several things going that help creative people get closer to being creatively successful. One of those qualities is that she’s a natural born networking person with many interesting friends, and when she asked me to hook up with Kc, I said “done”.

I just love getting exposure to anyone working on their own art, and I especially like it when they are taking part in some creative category other than my own. Kc is the Director of the Freshman class at California College of the Arts, and she lives in an old Alameda Victorian house fabulously loaded with her visual work, which it turns out is only walking distance from my house. It’s a supercharge for my own creative energies to experience people like this in their own environment.

Kc’s new pursuit is singing rock music, and if this meeting had come only 3 years ago I would have had mainly an instrumentalist’s viewpoint to offer, but singing has become a focused passion of mine since the summer of 2008, so suddenly the topic holds many possibilities for discussion and participation.

For Kc’s benefit I have prepared my condensed thoughts about singing exercises into a short rundown, which I have shared below.

Most of these singing exercise tips came from my singing friends or Youtube videos. Between the intense competition of the singing field and my own modest talent, I can not currently claim to be an authority on vocal techniques, but I can begin by saying that I believe no advice below will ever hurt you. If you have been singing for years then I also believe anything below that you are not already doing will significantly benefit you.

Since I was a child I signed up for and sang in numerous choirs, and although I sang on pitch and in rhythm I felt consistently challenged and disappointed with my singing progress. This went on for years, even decades.

The fact that I am a modest talent as a singer is perhaps my best feature when I offer this singing advice. If you are as challenged as I am, then one of your biggest victories will be finding a way to enjoy doing these vocal workouts for pleasure, because enjoy it or not if you are in my position you will need to sing exercises every day for at least 8 minutes to make the kind of improvement I am promising. If you are just starting out you will be extraordinarily happy with your singing in 6 weeks time if you sing every day following the tips below.

(I am not selling anything though, no further promises are made, and this workout will not help you if you are threatened at the beach by a large muscular competitor to your companion).

Another source of vocal guidance came to me from my old High School friend Mark Oakley, who was the first guitarist I was ever in a band with. In addition to his own natural talent Mark had the good fortune to come from a musical family. His Mother Jackie Pack taught piano and voice lessons at their home, and she would remain available to us with such things as showing us how to chart out rock vocal harmonies, feeding us her very memorable homemade lasagna, and eventually giving in to Mark’s urgent pleadings for a Fender Twin Reverb Amplifier. She was right about earplugs too, which we gave in to begrudgingly and which basically saved us from years of true hearing regrets.

I remember Mark giving me bits of advice about vocals back in the day, and then much later in 1999 (around my 40th birthday) he sent me a cassette he made of his favorite warm-up routine. It sounds like a classic choir warm-up, but it has very carefully chosen ranges, starting in the middle and immediately going down at first, then moving up in half steps until reaching a reasonable G note above middle C, (a forgivably high note for male vocalists, but impossible for me in the beginning). Then it settles down in the middle of the range and repeats the strategy using arpeggios. The whole thing takes 8 minutes, and I’ve now sung it what feels like 10,000 times thanks to a solo driving commute and what must have been the last ever stock cassette deck in my cherished 2001 Suburu.

In addition to Mark and Jackie, special thanks also to Carmen Borgia, David Bell, Alison Davy and Maria Volonte who have all participated in the profession of singing and have each given me jewels to work with during my vocal journey.

If you are planning to record your singing, double the 8 minute warm-up routine to 16 minutes (do it twice with variations). The 8 minute routine alone will provide an 80% improvement in your vocal capabilities. Doing it twice will provide a 95% improvement. If you are planning to do some serious reaching of your limits, then doing the routine three times with variations will take you 99% there. The other 1% will have to come from you, your heart, or a potentially higher source.

I once read that Michael Jackson did a 2 hour warm-up every time he recorded. It doesn’t surprise me to hear that. By comparison, the pleasure and immense payoff of exercising your vocal instrument for 24 minutes before you sing songs is a small investment when you see how far some people take it.

To hear Mark's vocal warmup routine, click or cut and paste this link and choose "Vocal Warmups":

Here are my compiled vocal tips:

1) Start with Throat Coat tea! Or your favorite Herbal tea, honey optional. Not too hot, (and never anything cold during singing). It’s nice to use an electric cup warmer; I love mine and consider it mandatory for long singing evenings. Sip or gargle with warm tea right before singing and every 20 minutes during your session. If a given song is the wailing barnburner of your repertoire, sip or gargle immediately before and after pushing your limits. This will make a huge difference in saving your voice that night and the next day.

2) Stretch by imitating a yawn, opening and closing your mouth widely and gently, like a limber ballet dancer stretching out. Feel the back of your jaw for any tightness and stretch and loosen like an athlete preparing for a run.

3) Begin by introducing yourself to the routine by singing all 8 minutes of the warm-up using a consonant/vowel such as “Na”.

4) After you are familiar with the warm-up, begin singing the routine using the following five Consonant/Vowel sounds: Na Nay Nee No Nu. When repeated 3 times this sequence will take you up and down a scale perfectly. (8 notes up and 7 notes down=15, and 5 vowels x 3=15). You may find this will take some practice at first and require a bit of vocal coordination. (This method affords the benefit of systematically introducing all the primary vowels to every note in your range).

5) Optional second and third set: repeat the warm-up routine again using the following 4 variations in whatever amounts you choose:

A) Sing “La ga, La ga” in place of the Na Nay Nee No Nu sequence.

B) Sing “Ung-ga, Ung-ga” in place of the Na Nay Nee No Nu sequence.

C) Sing using what is called the “vocal fry” which is the quiet little buzz in the back of your throat that a baby makes. (This amazed me when I first heard it because it seemed so insignificant. Then I realized how many singers use this component and how expressive it can be).

D) Sing using lip trills. This one wins the “feels like an idiot” award, because you move from the baby realm to the seeming maturity of a seven-year-old on the playground. Gently close your lips and then press the sides of your cheeks with your fingers to allow your lips to flap into a trill while singing “doo”. The finest opera singers do this all the time, and although I have been assured of some benefit of articulate flexibility, the true reason I have included this in my routine is because I love the contrast of how ridiculously childish it sounds versus their otherwise serious music.

6) Enhancement: while doing all these exercises, keep both feet flat on the ground and occasionally gently stretch one arm straight above your head keeping the other by your side. Then relax and alternate arms with each scale, feeling your diaphragm and body loosening up.

7) Sirens. Start near your lowest note and sing gently and smoothly with Glissando (like a Fire Engine) until you nearly reach your highest note, and then return down again. If you experience a break in your range along the way, explore by carefully lowering your volume and singing over that area until you discover why you are either cracking your voice or somehow faking your way through.
Most beginning singers are understandably concerned with the highest and lowest notes of their range and don’t realize there can be issues right in the very middle. Eventually you should be able to navigate through repeated sirens at every volume level without the slightest break in your voice.

8) Volume swells. Most singers want power available to them, and many understand the importance of dynamics. For these reasons, try singing both these exercises and actual songs as softly as possible and then build them slowly into your fullest voice. There are two approaches here:

A) Start a song very softly and then slowly build each line until you reach a crescendo at either what you feel is the most appropriate part of the song or the area that most challenges you. Then back off 20% as you finish the song or set of notes.

B) Sing each individual song line or scale by beginning softly and then swelling into a full voice by the end of the line. Be willing to exaggerate your ability to be dynamic to the point of ridiculousness, but without hurting yourself. As you progress, find your weakest word/note combination and then stop and sing it soft to loud and soft again. Swell…swell…swell. Listen to your tone and ask yourself where the sweet spot is. When you find that sweet spot, burn the feeling into your mind for reference the next time you sing.

9) Extend the stomach/abdomen (diaphragm). If you slightly “push out” your abdomen to its full position you will discover an additional 10-20% of singing capacity you didn’t realize was there. You may have the very natural but musically mistaken instinct to hold your stomach in. This may happen for two reasons:

A) You’re consciously or unconsciously embarrassed to make yourself look like you have a pot belly. Pavarotti didn’t suck in his stomach and presumably didn’t care once he began singing. Follow the same approach and don’t allow self-consciousness to enter into it. In truth, your appearance will not appreciably change when you do this, and if you’re lucky enough to attract attention it will be your singing others will be paying attention to.

B) You may think that slightly or dramatically holding in your stomach is applying firm diaphragm control. It does not. Go ahead and hold in your stomach if you are posing in your swim suit, but unless you’re singing live in your briefs or bikini, don’t sweat it!

10) Be conscious of vibrato. It’s a common complaint in school choirs that some singers over-rely on or even abuse their vibrato. Begin by doing all warm-ups without vibrato, become aware of areas where you feel naked without it and then after establishing a confidence of straight tones add vibrato judiciously where you feel it makes the most musical sense.

11) Sing at half-speed or slower. Slow down a challenging song and take it one word at a time, sustaining each word and syllable into many seconds. Sing each note or word as many ways as you think sounds appropriate and then move to the next word. This is a fun exercise that can cause a song to last 10-15 minutes or more. Use it on the song selections you are preparing to perform or feel the most challenge or commitment to.

12) Sing A Capella. If you accompany yourself on guitar or piano, begin a song by playing at normal volume, and then bring down the volume of your instrument to a pianissimo, leaving your voice at the same regular volume. Then stop playing completely and finish singing the song A Cappella. Once you are fully singing by yourself you will find closing your eyes or even turning off the lights will allow you to more closely focus on your sound.

13) Sitting is great, but standing is best. Standing offers more capacity from your diaphragm than sitting. Sitting has been successfully proven countless times by singing piano players and folk singers, but standing will offer the singer more capacity and opportunity for power and range, so keep that opportunity in mind if there is no compelling reason to sit.

14) Double-check the larynx. Touch the larynx (voice box) on either side of your throat with the tips of the fingers of both hands as you sing. Feel for any unneeded rising of the larynx. The voice box should not rise excessively as if to overcompensate for lack of range or power.

15) Relax the muscle under the jaw by touching with your thumb as you sing. This jaw muscle (located under your tongue) does not need to be tense. Different vowels will play on this muscle, and when you sense or feel it tense with your fingers try
relaxing it consciously and listen for a favorable improvement in your tone.

16) Find the sweet spot of your head position. Look down slightly and compare with looking up as you sing. Pointing the head down and slightly drawing in the throat will offer an unexpected openness you might not have expected. By contrast, peak moments of a song may call for pointing the head up and calling out the power of the chest, but notice that looking up too high will stretch the voice box unfavorably and restrict it.

17) Inhale all breaths through the nose. Yoga and athletic exercise both bring up this issue for various reasons but the conclusion is the same. Consistently inhaling through the nose may require repeat practice, but you will notice an elegance and relaxed control that is superior to inhaling through the mouth.

18) Explore singing until completely out of breath. Explore this sensation over and over and learn to not be afraid as your air depletes. There is a normal instinctive panic that any animal feels when running out of air. Find that place that is usually left to automatic reflex and become its master by negotiating how you will sound as you are on your last ounce of air. You can gain confidence as you explore this dark alley, and becoming familiar with it will remove another possible source of fear each time you sing.

19) No smoke of any kind. You may have heard the ugly rumor that cigarettes are harmful to all sorts of bodily organs, lungs being relevantly at the top of the list. Add the throat and you’ve got a very good reason to avoid this unbeneficial activity. (If you choose to smoke other stuff change immediately to cookies or brownies. Enough said!).

20) Try Listerine. Joseph Lister was a legend. Gargle before singing to clear food and reset your natural flora.

21) Avoid certain foods, especially scratchy and phlegmy foods. In truth I haven’t discovered a no-food list that I feel is universal. My advice for now is to avoid anything that leaves your throat feeling scratchy or with more phlegm. You will know from experience. Gargling with warm water followed by Listerine and/or Throat Coat tea will correct most food mistakes the singer may make.

22) Drink lots of water. Drink water before, during and after singing. Hydration is a big issue to singers, so take care of this consistently and you will notice a difference. Also important if you are including alcohol in your singing session.

23) Forget everything above, be yourself and trust your judgment. If you feel like I do you may choose to drill every one of these singing exercises until you absolutely drop…(without hurting yourself). Once you’re done, sing however the song feels right. After you are warmed up, practiced, and refreshed your own judgment will be the best judgment.

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