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Warm-Up Exercises That Work!

Honestly, choral directors are the ones who are sick to death of doing the same exercises everyday, often up to five times a day. From what I witnessed as a high school choral director, and apparently out of boredom and desperation, many make up the stupidest warm up exercises that frankly waste time and effort on the part of both the singers and the instructor. The exercises I am presenting below are "tried and true" exercises that actually promote the development of strong and healthy voices when done correctly.

There are actually three attributes that require exercise. They are breath support, the voice itself, and the posture of the mouth. While these exercises focus on breath support and the voice, it should be understood that a "raised soft pallet" and "depressed tongue" mouth posture must be encouraged until it is habitual, and that should be done during these exercises as well as while students sing songs (including sight singing).

I am sure that most directors (if not all) are familiar with the first exercise, which I refer to as the "Breath Mover." I call it that because that is exactly what it does; it gets the breath moving. Most often I begin with this exercise no matter what the student's level of ability. This sample utilizes the full arpeggio (root, third, fifth and octave). With beginning students it is wise to only go up to the fifth and back down. As the student advances you may stretch this to the upper octave. Students should (at least initially) place their thumb on their sternum and extend their fingers over the abdominal wall muscles to feel the expansion while inhaling and the squeezing action of those muscles in supporting the voice in producing a tone. They can also place their hands on the abdominal wall muscles above their hips reaching around to their spine to feel that the expansion and support are not just an "out-in-front" expansion but that it encircles the whole abdomen.

01 "breath mover" mp3 | 01 "breath mover" WAV
Note that files are presented as WAV for easy CD burning
or as mp3 for easy ipod use. Both can be played through a media player
on your computer, WAV files are heavier data but a better quality.

The next exercise I call the "Five-Note" exercise. The exercise begins on the fifth note of the scale and descends to the root on "see," opening to "ah" (on the root) to ascend to the fifth and descend to the root again. You will hear me instruct the students to sing "aw" rather than "ah" on the recording. This is for the purpose of instilling the "dropped jaw" mouth position. It works well for choral singing and will not hurt the voice. Later, as the student's voice strengthens and matures, a purer "ah" vowel should be established, but only after the dropped jaw position is habitual. The student must connect all notes in the scale. This is the attribute that exercises the voice. If they are weak at this, a slower tempo and actually sliding or "scooping" will help them develop what is actually muscular strength in the voice that, with time, yields strength of tone and agility to the voice. If the student is particularly weak the instructor may have to revert to just a three note scale for a time. This exercise is also particularly good for working over the "passaggio" (that place that especially altos and baritones dread because they are afraid their voice will "crack"), usually around a Bb. If this problem is present the voice must be worked from the top down (which is why the exercise begins on the dominant tone) strengthening the upper register and then carrying the upper tone into the lower register.

I often have students sing this exercise while rolling an "R." Although it is not the nicest sound, if the "R" stops rolling it is because there is not enough breath support. Doing this exercise in this way forces the students to keep the air going in order to keep the "R" rolling. Since rolling an "R" is an acquired language behavior (must be learned before they are six years old) many are not able to do it. For those that cannot I require them to blow the tone through their lips producing a flapping type buzz, similar to what they may have done as children imitating the sound of trucks or racing cars.

The next exercise I refer to as the "Nine-Note" exercise. It is quite similar to the five-note exercise, but extends the scale to the ninth, or one step above the octave. Students should not progress to this exercise until they are able to sing the five-note exercise without breaking the breath (adding "H") between any of the notes. They should also be able to sing the five-note exercise at a reasonable speed.

The next exercise also goes to the ninth step of the scale, but what makes it more challenging is that it begins with an arpeggio to the octave, which is why I call it the "Arpeggio to the Ninth." Make sure students connect all notes and don't slip in breath breaks (adding an "H") between any of the notes of the exercise. If they do that they are wasting their time (and yours). Initially it will be a deliberate effort to do it correctly. In the classroom setting it is important to hear each child individually as often as possible. Instructors must be listening specifically for students to be doing this correctly.

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