Effective warm-ups

Any experienced singing teacher will tell you that diving straight into repertoire is a bad idea. An effective warm-up is an essential ingredient to an effective singing lesson because it will:

  • relax the body and vocal folds
  • prepare the mouth and tongue, ready for accurate diction
  • mentally prepare the student for singing.

Asking teachers to describe their most effective singing warm-ups, we had a huge range of responses.

1. PHYSICAL WARM-UPS, PROGRESSING TO CLOSED-MOUTH EXERCISES

Many of the teachers who responded to our survey outlined the importance of warming up the body before moving to vocal exercises.

Elaine Tudor-Williams, who teaches at High March Girls' Prep in Beaconsfield, recommends starting with good posture and releasing tension before ‘breathing and body support exercises’. This lays the groundwork to start thinking about the voice:

‘Vocal exercises should begin in the most comfortable area of the voice for the singer and not be loud. Volume and pitch should gradually increase.’
Elaine Tudor-Williams, High March Girls' Prep

Grainne McLaughlin agrees:

‘All tension is felt in the voice, so I am quite strict about starting each lesson with toe-to-head tension-release exercises, followed by mindful breathing exercises before a sound is uttered.’
Grainne McLaughlin

This body-first, voice-second approach is also practised by Brian Smith Walters who makes sure that, ‘the chest, thorax, neck, back and pelvis are all ready' before going on to 'one of many exercises to stretch out the breath-support muscles.’ Brian will then move to a series of closed-mouth exercises:

‘Closed-mouth exercises are invaluable since they disconnect one’s ear. By closed-mouth, I mean anything from humming to lip trills or sirens on an ‘ng’. Most of the time, these exercises will allow for a balanced voice since the student isn’t ‘trying to make a nice sound’ but allowing for the body and the breath to react to the exercise.’
Brian Smith Walters

In fact, closed-mouth exercises were one of the most popular responses to our survey. Ben Hoadley of Mounts Bay Academy uses these exercises as a stepping stone towards creating vowel sounds:

‘Closed- or open-mouthed humming followed by an 'i' or 'ee' vowel on an arpeggio or five-note scale. This brings the voice up into the correct resonating area.’
Ben Hoadley, Mounts Bay Academy

Linda Hardwick of Hereford Music Hub suggests preceding these vowel sounds with humming exercises:

‘Bringing the arms down to the sides and keeping the chest raised, make a nasal buzzing sound, before gentle humming up and down five notes. Raise the starting note by a semitone after each mini hum, covering a comfortable range for the pupil. Repeat, using different vowel sounds to gradually open the voice.’
Linda Hardwick, Hereford Music Hub

To extend the process further, Jennifer Maslin of Tunbridge Wells Girls' Grammar School would recommend progressing from vowel sounds to fricatives:

‘After initial breathing exercises and sustained fricative sounds, such as ‘zzz’ or ‘vvv’, on tonic triads, arpeggios or octave jumps… help to sustain lower abdominal-muscle support and create a consistent even tone.’
Jennifer Maslin, Tunbridge Wells Girls' Grammar School

2. SEMI-OCCLUDED VOCAL TRACT EXERCISES

Of course, many of the exercises above are variations of semi-occluded vocal tract (SOVT) exercises. This is a technique of keeping the mouth partially closed so that the vocal folds vibrate more easily with less muscular effort. Sarah Stone was one of many singing teachers who mentioned using semi-occluded exercises to create a siren sound:

‘The perfect approach is a physical warm-up, followed by semi-occluded sirens as they are the most effective way to bridge the warm-up and voice exercises. Then onto a choice of voice exercise, depending on the student and their current singing goals.’
Sarah Stone

Ruth Munro of Putney High School sees SOVT warm-ups as a bridge to getting students using their chest and head registers:

‘Beginning with a semi-occluded vocal tract warm-up should include some idea of involvement of body connection. I would follow with activation of chest and head registers.’
Ruth Munro, Putney High School

Providing an effective demonstration of this is Lydia Jane Pugh of Guernsey’s School of Popular Music, who has recorded a short video to show how these exercises work in practice:

’My most effective vocal warm-up is the 'bubble' (or 'lip-trill') – this is one of a set a semi-occluded vocal tract exercises that I do, which prove to be the quickest and most effective at warming up voices. This one, in particular, sees students able to safely expand their ranges in a quicker timeframe than they would expect. It's very adaptable, and I find I can do many variations on this exercise to best suit each student’s needs.'
Lydia Jane Pugh, School of Popular Music

A semi-occluded vocal tract exercise:

3. QUICK SIRENING ACTIVITIES

Sirening, the process of swooping through your entire vocal range, featured in many teachers’ responses. Similar to SOVT, our respondents recommended starting on vowel or fricative sounds. Helen Perry of Sheffield Music Hub suggests a ‘zzz’ sound:

‘Try sirening, starting with a ‘zzz’ sound just vocalising the sound up and down the pitch, then change to a more produced sound and use ‘ahhh’. It’s a good quick warm-up.’
Helen Perry, Sheffield Music Hub

Dawn McGhee of North Somerset Music Service is another proponent of sirening, ‘I always start with breathing, sirening, twanging, etc’. In an effort to ensure that her students are able to extend learning beyond the practice room, she’s taken to using music technology:

‘I have my own backing tracks on my laptop. I ask pupils to bring in a memory stick so they can practise to the accompaniments at home.’
Dawn McGhee, North Somerset Music Service

Using recorded accompaniments could be an effective solution for many teachers who find themselves teaching in very short timetable slots. ‘In a 20-minute lesson, you need quick warm-ups,’ says Julia Fraser of Luton Music Service.

Her recommendation is to use, ‘five-note patterns, using a mixture of different vowel and consonant sounds. This really warms the whole embouchure up.’ And the added bonus? It’s quick.

For the most time-pressured scenarios, however, perhaps Sarah McAllister’s response will prove to be the quickest:

’Talking is the best warm-up.’
Sarah McAllister

4. PUBLISHED BOOKS OF WARM-UP ACTIVITIES

Singing is an ancient artform and has a long history of expert instruction. It’s no surprise then that many teachers cited their use of respected, published exercises that have stood the test of time.

George Dodds’ 1969 work, ‘Voice Placing and Training Exercises’, was mentioned by a number of respondents. Of the many singing teachers recommending Dodds’ book, Elspeth Hannen was one of the few to name a specific exercise:

‘I use a variety [of warm-ups], but always include ‘hum-aw-ah’, from George Dodds’ ‘Voice Placing and Training Exercises’’
Elspeth Hannen

Aimée Harris of Broughton Hall Catholic High School recommended Dodds and books by Vaccai and Lutgen because, ‘they warm the voice, as well as tackling technical issues and vocal placement.’

Michelle Heritage, who teaches in several schools, recommended using another published book of warm-ups:

‘From the book 'Sing!' by Paul Knight, I love the 'mix' exercise (exercise 11) for combining head and chest voice.’
Michelle Heritage

5. VARYING WARM-UPS DEPENDING ON THE STUDENT'S NEEDS

While not a quote collected in the survey, many responses echoed the words of Ignacio Estrada, who famously said, ‘If a child can't learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.’ Personalised learning is no less present in singing warm-ups.

Lucy Bowen, who teaches at Hereford Cathedral School and Hereford Sixth Form College, makes use of scales and sirening activities for most, but not all, students:

‘Some [students] are completely phased by warm-ups, so I use folk songs or nursery rhyme tunes like 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'’
Lucy Bowen, Hereford Cathedral School

Greg Wright, a private singing teacher, identifies students with poor core support and adapts accordingly:

’This varies from pupil to pupil. Simple scales and arpeggios are quite satisfactory for many. Those with poor support can benefit from the use of consonants and other sounds which stimulate abdominal effort.’
Greg Wright

For Alison O’Gorman, it’s not just the learner but how they are feeling on the day of the lesson. Her choice of warm-up ‘depends on the child, their state of mind entering a lesson and how much singing they’ve done since last lesson.’ She then adapts her choice of warm-up as appropriate, while finding a way to include, ‘breathing, body tension release, larynx flexibility, musical aurals with larynx and resonance.’

Of all the responses to the survey, the most unique came from Alison Place of Kingston Grammar School. Her range of warm-up exercises is augmented with techniques from a surprising source:

‘It depends on the weather and the pupil. I have a very large number of vocal exercises, and also physical exercises taken from 35 years of martial-arts experience.’
Alison Place, Kingston Grammar School

6. VARYING THE WARM-UPS TO MAINTAIN INTEREST

Personalising the choice of repertoire for each student wasn’t the only source of variety in responses. Many singing teachers were keen to highlight the importance of showing each student a range of activities to choose from. It keeps things interesting for the student - and probably stops lessons from becoming overly repetitive for teachers, too.

Abigail Mann combines repertoire with interpretation to keep things interesting, while providing scope for expression:

‘Picking a short 'beginner' song and changing articulation and dynamics can help bring variety and creativity to the warm-up.’
Abigail Mann

Paul Austin Kelly, a private singing teacher, uses a range of warm-ups and encourages his students to use them outside of the practice room. He’s even created a video to help them do so - Using warm-ups outside the practice room:

Rachael Gill, who teaches at Perfect Notes Music School in Northampton, uses tongue twisters for their benefits to technique… but also concedes that it allows her to stay focused:

‘I love to constantly use new and different ones because I get bored easily. I think tongue twisters make an enormous difference to diction and clarity.’
Rachael Gill, Perfect Notes Music School


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