Want to sing like Reba? Vocal warm-ups are the first and most important step to keeping a healthy voice and reaching your full potential as a vocalist. Vocal warm-ups prepare your voice box for singing, acting, and public speaking. Without vocal warm-ups, you risk ruining your vocal cords, potentially causing long-lasting damage.
Fortunately, there are plenty of quick and effective ways to warm up your vocal cords. Country music star Reba McEntire provides several singing tips that have been beneficial for her own vocal abilities: warming up in the shower where it’s warm and humid, warming up by singing vowels, filling the cavities of your chest when singing to improve breath control, and managing environmental factors to prepare your voice for longevity.
From length of warm-up to breathing tips and other techniques, we will cover all you need to know to safely and effectively warm up your vocal cords, so you’re ready to take the stage and deliver the performance of a lifetime, every time.
The vocal cords are bits of soft tissue, or membrane, that are also known as vocal folds. They are located in the larynx, stretched across the trachea, and open to amplify sound. They also close while eating, so as to direct food into the esophagus.
While men and women both have vocal chords, the thickness and length of the vocal folds varies between genders. Men have thicker vocal folds which produce lower tones, allowing them to hit low tones like baritone or bass vocalists. Women have thinner vocal folds, which makes for higher-pitched voices, like mezzo-soprano or soprano vocalists who can hit all the high notes.
There are several preparatory steps to take before engaging in a proper vocal warm-up. The most important factor to consider pre-warm-up is what you eat and drink before — and when.
Consume foods and liquids one to two hours before you plan to warm up your vocal cords. Avoid eating heavy or acidic foods, or drinking liquids that have too much fat or gas, like milk or soda. Caffeine constricts vocal cords, so skip the coffee as well. Eat and drink items that are warm or at room temperature — not too hot, not too cold.
Tea, particularly with honey, is one of the most popular pre-singing liquids, since it soothes the throat. Some vocal coaches advise skipping the lemon since the acidity can dry out your throat. Alternatively, it is advisable to simply gargle the liquid to reap the benefits without overfilling your stomach. Tilt back your head so that the liquid mixture reaches the base, and gargle while humming a high pitch, to ensure that the vocal cords receive the maximum benefits.
It is possible to accomplish a complete vocal warm-up in as little as five minutes. Most vocalists, once they have the hang of techniques, will take around 10 minutes to warm up their vocal cords. Professional singers can take as much as thirty. The length of the warmup is not as important as the quality of the vocal warm-up. Just as a track and field athlete would not run a race before conditioning, so should you, as an aspiring vocalist, aim to develop a warm-up routine to ensure your most important muscle — your voice — is ready.
Try Reba’s tips for warming up in the shower. The warm water and moisture in the air loosen up all your muscles — vocal and the rest of your body, too — helping you ease into your warm-up. Make sure to pay attention to your breathing, counting to 10 in one long breath before releasing. This helps ease tension that’s stored in the rest of the body. Start with humming then maintaining single-letter tones, like “n” or “g.” Finally, give your face a gentle facial massage to loosen up your cheeks and mouth, too. This will allow the most amount of sound to flow through you once you’re properly warmed up.
The power of your voice comes from within your body, which means posture is a key to proper warm-ups. The correct posture is relaxed yet with a straight spine (try standing on the balls of your feet instead of your heels). Make sure your facial muscles are soft and you’ve released as much tension from your body as possible.
Standing up straight, breathe deeply into your stomach cavity, expanding your lungs and taking in as much air as possible while keeping your shoulders low and relaxed. Power comes from the core, so try placing a hand on your stomach to make sure you’re breathing into the right cavity.
Regulate your breathing so that it becomes rhythmic and almost subconscious. This will allow you to focus on your sounds.
Lip trills and tongue trills are designed to help loosen your facial muscles and relax your tongue so that your truest voice can emerge. Standing up straight and with your tongue and mouth completely relaxed, inhale deeply and blow air out from between your lips, as though you are blowing bubbles underwater. Your lips will flap against each other, like you’re making a motor sound that sounds like a vibrating purr. Try this several times with your tongue resting comfortably in your mouth.
Next, once you are completely comfortable making lip trills, introduce a single note. Choose whichever note comes naturally and easily, usually something in the middle range. Once you can sustain the single note while making lip trills, see if you can hit multiple notes. If you have trouble with this, go back to your breath and make sure it is even and consistent, before trying again.
Tongue trills are an excellent warm-up technique that also help improve overall singing. Tongue trills are essentially a sustained, rolled “r” sound. To complete a tongue trill, first try curling your tongue. Keep your mouth slightly open and see if you can hollow out the front part of your tongue. Place the tip of your scooped tongue against the roof of your mouth and attempt to flap your tongue against the hard palate. Rolled “r”s come naturally to those who speak such languages as Arabic, Russian, Spanish, and more; if you find you are having trouble making the sound, try purring like a cat and sustaining a note in the meantime. If you practice every day, the sound and tongue motion will eventually feel like second-nature.
Once your lips and tongue are warmed up, practice making sounds with your lips gently closed. Breathe in, and as you breathe out, make your sound. Try connecting sounds and feeling how they resonate from within you. Humming causes sound to come out of the nostril, but is nevertheless an effective method for warming up vocal cords to prepare them for open mouth singing. Since humming requires no effort from the tongue or mouth, it is a prime place to begin, to ensure everything stays relaxed. With your lips gently sealed, make a “mmm” sound — this is your starting point.
Prior to warming up, your voice box will have limited range. To increase your range from one octave to three or more, begin at your natural starting point (your neutral “mmm” humming sound). Pick a key, like C Major, and sing the notes up and down one octave. Next, you may shift all the notes up one octave, or expand the octave range to reach the next group of seven notes up.
Warming up vocals with vowels is perhaps one of the most effective techniques, not simply for preparing your voice box for performance but for also elongating your vocal cords, improving pitch quality and tone, and better controlling range and breath. Vowels should form the crux of your warm-up routine.
First, prepare the vowel sounds: “ah,” “eh,” “ee,” “oh,” “ewe” (or “oo”). Next, beginning with middle C and “ah,” work an arpeggio up and down. Then move to middle C and “ee,” and so on. Once you have completed all the vowels, try shifting keys or octaves. There are also many popular variations to this vocal exercise which include consonants, for example “mah,” “meh,” “mee,” “moh,” “moo.”
While vocal warm-ups may seem daunting, they only require between five and 10 minutes per day to get your voice in perfect shape for singing, public speaking, or stage acting. Vocal warm-ups are important so as not to strain your voice, which can result in lasting harm, surgery, or worse. It is very important to take care of your voice in the downtime (some professional singers will only whisper or try not to speak at all in between performances!). Practice the above warm-ups each and every day, and you’ll be ready to hit those high notes (or low notes) in no time at all.
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