Why do we warm up? Some might say we do this for our vocal health, to exercises our voices, to prepare them for a long day of singing and talking. Some might use warm-ups as tools for technical mastery, to work out issues that arise in repertoire. Perhaps some of us warm up (or say we did) because our voice teachers always told us we should. Maybe some of us warm up because it’s fun, or it feels good, or it connects our bodies to our voices. It may make some people feel confident, or it may lay bare the negative aspects of a singer’s voice, so that those become their only focus. I have thought all of these at various points in my vocal training; lately, I aspire to use warm-ups as a tool to meet my voice where it is, to love it (and myself), and to calm my anxiety—some of which springs from singing itself.
This is a very different essay than I typically write. I usually like to be the expert—I think most teachers do, on some level—I like to feel that I have more knowledge than uncertainty to share. But I am not an expert on anyone’s mental health, including my own, so what follows is not my typical offering of research/analysis/advice based on teaching experience. This is my mental health experiment on myself, which I share in the hopes that it might help other people.
Like many people in the midst of the pandemic, I reassessed my life and made some massive changes, including going back to school to get my PhD and moving to a new city (not to mention falling in love, and navigating long distance and then moving him to Ann Arbor with me). I am one of those weirdos who loves school and always has, and in many ways, I am absolutely thrilled to be back—but in the past, I’ve experienced some of my worst mental health periods when I’ve been a student, and my life is very different now than it was then. I’m very different, for that matter, and I didn’t want to fall into old patterns of throwing myself full throttle into schoolwork and ignoring my relationships, hobbies, and mental health.
I have anxiety surrounding music and social situations, and I don’t always acknowledge or confront it; I actually found it quite difficult to type the phrase “I have anxiety” rather than hedging it somehow (“I struggle with anxiety,” or “I have issues with anxiety…”). I’ve dealt with it in therapy in the past, and don’t deal with it directly as much these days, but it is still with me, which is uncomfortable to admit. So rather than ignore it or hide it, I wanted to actively practice some mindfulness exercises, which have been very helpful to me in the past. Since some of my anxiety is about singing, I wanted to see if I could combine singing and mindfulness exercises to make myself a quick routine that would calm my anxiety and deepen my love for myself, my voice, and singing—particularly since as a musicology PhD student, I’m singing less these days than when I was pursuing degrees in voice. In the interest of defining what “mindfulness” means to me, since it’s such a buzzword these days—and again, I’m not an expert—I mean being present in the moment, getting myself out of my head where the anxiety lives.
I went about my experiment semi-scientifically, in that I started with research. Though I have put my own spin on some of these exercises, none are my own invention. I based the order on Ingo Titze’s advice for essential vocal warmups, usefully summarized by Matt Edwards on his blog. He advises this order for mostly voice technique reasons, moving from semi-occluded exercises and slides to open vowels and arpeggiated staccatti. I also pulled inspiration from these deep breathing exercises and grounding techniques for anxiety, as well as these common yoga chants. Many of these exercises are in typical voice teacher use, and several were taught to me by my former teacher Kate Paradise. Nothing here is new—what I hope is useful is the routine and the intention: loving your voice, exactly as it is, and feeling it connected to your body.
I divided the exercises into four groups, which I always did in this order: breathing, vibration, tension release, and affirmation. I devised several exercises for each group; in the beginning of the experiment, which lasted about two months, I did all of the exercises, which took about 20–25 minutes. Now I pick 1–2 from each group, based on how I’m feeling that day, for a quick 10 minute warm up.
Intention: to take deep calm breaths, feeling the breath in your body.
Note: I do most of these lying down, because it feels nice and calming to me. Do them in whatever position feels best for you!
Lying down, place one hand on stomach and one hand on chest. Breathe deeply and fully (1 minute, set timer)
Standing, do “box breathing:” breathe in for four beats, hold four, breathe out four, hold four (1 minute, set timer)
Deep breath in, then pulse a hiss twice, then hiss all your air out slowly (3 times)
Breathe in, and chant a low/medium low tone on om, or other yoga chant you like, or simply a hum or zz (3 times)
Intention: to wake up the voice, move it gently with semi-occluded exercises and slides, and feel it vibrate in your body.
Hum and slide
Start in the low middle range and work the middle of your voice, sliding from 1 to 5 to 1 on a hum. Alternatively, you can try “zz” or “vv” with this exercise.
Five tone scale (123454321)
Work the middle of your voice. Start on a hum (or “zz” or vv”) and switch to “ah” on the highest note, the 5; keep the ah open as you descend.
1 octave slide
Using “oo” or “ee,” start on a comfortable low note and slide 1 to 8 to 1. This exercise should take you a little bit into your higher range.
I use this to feel head voice resonance, so I start it in a mid-high range. Using the notes 1-5-4321, with the 1 and 5 being longer notes, sing “zng” on 1, closing to the “ng” rather than holding the vowel. Then leap up to an open “ah” on the high note and keep it open as you descend. Sometimes I find it helpful to do this one after I’ve done tension release exercises, if my jaw feels tense.
Intention: to release any tension holding you back!
Stretch your head to one side for 20–30 seconds, then the other. Let your head hang forward, and let it fall back. Circle your head one direction, then the other. Roll your shoulders towards the back, and shake out any tension.
Use your fingers to massage in small circles and/or typewriter motion on your masseter muscle (the muscle where your jaw squares in the back, just below your ears).
Home alone face
Put your hands on your cheeks with your jaw dropped (careful not to smoosh your cheeks forward!) and using only your tongue, sing “yah” on the arpeggio 13531. Start this in the low middle range and move up into your upper range. I like to remind myself to let my jaw and tongue feel numb for this exercise.
Sticking out your tongue and on an ae vowel (like “yeah”), slide from 1 to 8 to 1 beginning on a comfortable low note and working your way up. Keep the sound bright, but not forced, and let the tongue flop out like a dog’s tongue. If your tongue tries to retract, there is tension happening—imagine your tongue being numb, or if this isn’t enough, you can gently hold your tongue out with your fingers.
Intention: to move the voice through some lyrics to warm it up for the day, and to tell ourselves positive messages about our own voice.
I Love to Sing
I use this one mostly in head voice, so I start in a middle range. On the arpeggio 1358531, sing “I” for the first three notes, then “love” on the 8-5, then “to sing” on 3-1. This is a classic choir warm-up, so many may be familiar with this.
My Voice is Enough
Starting in the middle and descending, sing on 54321 “my voice is enough.” Listen to those words as you sing them, and notice whether you believe them or not.
I Have a Powerful Voice
Starting in a comfortable low range, sing “I have a powerful voice” on the arpeggio 1358531. I use this one as a belting warmup, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be sung loudly. To keep myself from getting tense in belting, I incorporate a lot of movement, so I like to either pretend to throw a ball or bend my knees on the highest note.
My Voice is Free
Starting in a middle range and going up, sing “My voice is free” on the arpeggio 8531. I do this one pretty quickly, and if you’re feeling tense as you ascend, you can gently shake your head or shoulders, walk around the room, or throw a ball/bend your knees as above.
The affirmations were by far the most revelatory for me. At first, I resisted strongly, despite wanting them to work for the sake of the experiment and my own mental health. The breakthrough came from singing “My voice is enough” over and over again, truly listening to myself say those words about my own voice and working on believing them. Sometimes I put a hand on my chest to feel the vibrations of my own voice as I sang them, which helped me feel more present and escape my judgmental brain. The exercise that gave me the most trouble was “I have a powerful voice;” in the past, I have felt self-conscious about my relatively small voice, which led to tension issues as I pushed to gain volume. When I first started these warm-ups, I found my voice getting tired quickly, after only twenty minutes. I presumed I was simply out of shape, but after a few weeks, I figured out that I was pushing on several of these exercises, trying to make my voice sound a certain way. Warm-ups should not only help us warm up our voices, but warm up our brains to the way we want them to speak to our voices, to ourselves—my brain was not warming up properly, and couldn’t lose the judgmental attitude. I tried moving directly from “My voice is enough” to “I have a powerful voice,” reminding myself that I didn’t have to make my voice powerful because I was saying the words, but that my voice is powerful, and I was simply affirming it. This worked almost instantly, and I felt more relaxed throughout the entire warm-up routine.
I don’t know if warming up daily in this way has lessened my anxiety overall—it’s possible, and I certainly intend to keep doing it to see if it does. But I do know that this routine has helped me confront some lingering insecurities I have about my voice and work through them, and it has made my singing feel calmer and more enjoyable. This was an incredibly personalized experiment, so I advise singers who want to try this to customize the routine; pick one or two exercises in each category, maybe trying different ones each time until you find your favorites. Focus on the feeling, close your eyes if it feels good, and listen to your voice without judgement and with love.