by Taylor Morgan and Karen Sussman
If you’ve ever been part of a chorus or vocal group, you have no doubt participated in an initial warm-up session before getting to the business of learning your music. You may have sung several scales just to get the voice into “singing mode”. Depending on who your choral director was, you may have never been told that warm-ups were something more than seemingly tedious preliminary exercises. They are really, ideally, a series of techniques for building your vocal potential and learning and practicing how to produce the desired sound in the safest manner for your vocal health.
Singers are vocal athletes. Just as football players—to choose just one sport to focus on in particular—engage in strength and conditioning and other intense workout sessions to stay in the best shape to unlock their fullest potential on the field, and participate in training camp activities with their teammates and coaches, so too must singers “work out” their voices to keep them in peak condition, and practice safe techniques.
Because if you never practice, how will you know how to sing well and safely, in a way that allows you to hit difficult notes, achieve a desired tone, or wow an audience without cracking or straining? It would be the same as an NFL wide receiver learning every route he’d be expected to run, but never actually practicing on the field until the moment he’s facing the opposing defensive line on Monday Night Football. With so many new elements at play—including the presence of defenders that will try to tackle him before he can complete his route, or his connection, or lack thereof, with the quarterback—elements that the receiver never got to physically see or face before the big moment, it’s impossible for the player to do his job while accounting for so many new, unfamiliar variables.
This is what leads athletes, vocal or otherwise, to injury. The practice of techniques that elevate your singing is important, but so too is the practice of therapeutic techniques that protect your voice and build healthy resonant voice production. Football players do similar exercises to protect themselves from potential injury. For example, they have to learn how to fall, since they’ll more often than not be tackled by someone or be tackling someone else. And just like athletes get massages to soothe their muscles, so too should singers massage theirs. Our most popular tutorial video shows you how to massage your larynx.
Even though it is much more common for a football player to be injured during training than a singer is from routine warm up exercises—(owing to the latter’s disinclination to run at others full-force sixty or so times per performance, as the former do)— NFL players will continue to participate in these physical exercises because they know how essential consistent practice is to their own, and their team’s, success. They also know that it is more likely that they will be injured if they push themselves too far without warming up their bodies first. The solution to preventing injuries is not packing it in and saving every single thing for the game itself, but to be careful and mindful of your technique, to know how and when to apply what.
Resting the voice periodically in short intervals, what we call a voice nap, is essential to preventing overuse, but complete disuse is likewise bad for vocal health, because when the time comes to sing, the voice is not used to proper method. Without proper use and training, the voice becomes deconditioned. Moderate warm ups each day, barring extenuating circumstances such as a vocal fold hemorrhage or severe illness, are not harmful if you employ the techniques mindfully and correctly.
According to fellow voice professional Meredith Colby, author of Money Notes: How To Sing High, Loud, Healthy, and Forever, evidence shows that the musculoskeletal system “benefits from ‘warming up’ before strenuous or specific activities. [Her] experience shows that when a singer warms up in a gentle and intentional way, their voice is more responsive with a fuller sound, and their experience of singing is easier.”
There have been more objective studies that sought to find out if there was actual benefit to the voice by using warm-up exercises, and how much was beneficial, including Acoustic Analysis of the Influence of Warm-Up on Singing Voice Quality by Edward Półrolniczak and Michał Kramarczyk from the Journal of Voice, March 22, 2023, as well as this article, also in the Journal of Voice: Quantifying Subjective and Objective Measure of Singing After Different Warm-Up Durations by Ragsdale, Lloyd, et al (Vol. 36, Issue 5, September 2022). The studies did support the notion that warm-ups were beneficial.
At Professional Voice Care Center, we strongly encourage consistent warming up to train and to prepare your body and mind for serious singing. We encourage doing so in a situationally-aware manner: pick and choose which warm-ups to practice per your instructor’s guidance, and the degree of intensity based upon the circumstances. The bottom line? Warming up properly, along with proper vocal hygiene, is the most important thing any singer can do to improve and maintain their voice. Happy singing!