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Wake up the Body

First we must prepare the body to sing. Several exercises can contribute to this:

  • Stand quietly. Take a "sun breath." As you inhale through the nose (to the count of 4) raise your arms, keeping shoulders comfortably relaxed. If you are able to do so, touch your hands over your head. Exhale through your mouth to the count of 4 while gradually lowering your arms. Over time increase the count to 6 and then 8. As you become comfortable with the exercise, add a 4-count hold at the top of the inhalation
  • Gently shake your wrists. Flop your wrists in front of you. Shake your hands more vigorously as if trying to get water off them.
  • Move your elbows and hands in a circular manner. Wake up the arms.
  • Roll your shoulders in a circular manner up and back.
  • Extend one arm in front of your body fingers pointed up. Pull gently to free the wrist. Point the fingers down. Pull gently to free the wrist. Repeat with the other arm.
  • Clasp your hands together behind your head. Gently pull down on your head while exhaling. (Caution: Those with neck injuries-take care with this exercise or avoid it completely.) Lift your elbows and head while inhaling through the nose. Repeat slowly 3-4 times.
  • Finally, stand quietly with arms relaxed at your side. Take a full breath while bringing your arms overhead. Keep shoulders comfortably down and relaxed. As you exhale, lower your arms, keeping sternum elevated and shoulders down. Your posture is somewhere between the typical "teen slump" and the stereotypical "military rigid." The body is now awake and in a position for effective singing.


These exercises are several from the many effective exercises that singers can do to ready the body for singing. They generally work well in close quarters and are designed to bring a state of readiness to the body with special attention to relaxing muscles in the neck which attach to the laryngeal cartilages. Freedom and readiness are the issues: free the voice and ready the body.

Wake up the Breath

The Process of Breathing: A singer's breath involves the coordination of muscles of the ribs together with muscles of the abdomen, a process called muscular antagonism. The muscles of inspiration–the external intercostals and diaphragm–work to create a partial vacuum in the lungs. Natural air pressure moves air into the lungs. The muscles of expiration–the internal intercostals and several muscular layers of the abdomen–pull the ribs down and in and the belly inward, which moves air out of the lungs across the vocal folds.

The Process of Phonation: The vocal folds are brought into vibration through a principle of physics called the Bernoulli Principle. (It is the same principle that gives lift to an airplane or forward motion to a boat.) The vocal folds are "sucked" into vibration through the partial vacuum created by the air rushing out of the lungs through the trachea. In an ideally phonated pitch, the movement of breath is met precisely by the approximation (adduction) of the vocal folds, which are brought together with the right amount of muscular energy that is neither too tense (producing a glottal plosive) nor too relaxed (producing a breathy vocal quality). Voice and breath are precisely coordinated resulting in "singing on the breath."


Exercises: Once the body is alert and energised through a physical warm-up, it is time to wake up the breath. These exercises are effective:

  • Place your palms on the bottom of the rib cage, fingers crossing the abdomen and touching in front.  Breathe low and deep, observing that the fingers separate as the result of an effective inhalation. Hiss, long and sustained, keeping the rib cage and sternum elevated.
  • Inhale and hiss, five times staccato.
  • Inhale and hiss, twice staccato and then sustained.
  • Inhale and sing on a comfortable pitch in mid-voice, "Sah-sah-saaaaaaaaaaaah." (Sing twice short and then sustained.)
  • Inhale and sing on a comfortable pitch in mid-voice two staccato pitches, "Sah-sah" followed by a sustained five-pitch scalar passage (5-4-3-2-1) on "Saaaaaaaaaaaaah." Repeat several times, each time a half step lower, remaining generally in mid-voice range.

Other exercises

  • Hold your hand up in front of your face fingers spread. Imagine that each finger has a candle lit at the end. Blow out the candles one by one with five staccato breaths.
  • Toss an imaginary ball to someone across the room. As you throw, exhale with a hiss.

The intent of these vocalises is "vocal-ease." Breath flow needs to be uninhibited and immediately connected to the sound. "To sing is to breathe."  The flow of breath may be imagined as water pouring forth freely from a garden hose. The sound on the breath is as a leaf on the stream of water, carried effortlessly and completely connected to the stream of water.


Observations about breathing

  • Never plan to use all of your breath. The singer who sings to the last millilitre of breath may well have done so at the expense of introducing tension into the voice or body, not to mention a likely sacrifice of expressive singing. The "last gasp" of breath is rarely connected to easily produced sound, and it is generally unmusical.
  • The issue with breathing is not who can sing the longest phrase, although it certainly is a goal of vocal pedagogy to increase the length of phrase that can be sung. The primary issue with breathing is to keep a smooth, consistent stream of sound always connected to breath.
  • Avoid holding back the breath. Give the breath into the phrase. Holding back the breath to "save it" for the end of the phrase may lead to vocal tension and erratic voice-breath connection. Ironically, the more breath you give to the phrase, the more breath you have to give.
  • Coordinate the breath with vocal onset, so that the sound is neither breathy nor tight.
  • If the sound is too breathy, try "narrowing" the vowel concept, singing a very rounded [u] for example. 
  • If the vocal onset is tight, use an aspirated consonant [h] to assist vocal production. Rather than [a] sing [ha]. Gradually reduce the intensity of [h] in the sound until the [h] is only imagined, not audible.
  • Maintain the body in its upright and ready posture.
  • Oversupport can cause as many vocal problems as undersupport.
  • For posture: "Sing in the position of breathing––breathe in the position of singing."
  • Take an easy, silent breath.
  • Breath holding may increase lung capacity, but will not enhance breath management.
  • If the vocal onset or release is jagged or erratic, move the hand in an upward sweeping motion to encourage a smooth onset or release of sound.
  • If the vocal release is tight or constricted, keep the throat open after phonation; imagine that you are continuing to sing, even after you have released the sound.


Wake up the Nose

"Once the body is ready and energised for singing and the breath vitalised, it is time to "wake up the nose."

The Italian maxim goes something like this: "Put some nose in the sound without the sound being in the nose."  Virtually everyone agrees that, in the bel canto style, nasal singing is avoided. The converse is also true: "cut-off nasality" is to be avoided. Nasal sound has a twang that is generally out of place in classical singing. On the other hand, the sound of "cut-off nasality" is dull and monochromatic, flat (not in pitch but in resonance). In a balanced voice there is some nose in the sound, but the sound is not nasal. A good test is to sing and pinch the nostrils. If the sound doesn't change at all, there is no nasality in the sound: it has "cut-off" nasality. If the sound changes a lot, there is a nasal twang: it has too much nasality. If the sound changes slightly, then the balance is probably right. This is a tricky concept to teach. Voice teachers use a variety of techniques to get the right mix of nasality in the voice.

In a choral setting the best way to "wake up the nose" is through a humming vocalise.

Bring the lips gently together as if humming [m]. Place the tip of the tongue easily behind the upper teeth as if singing [n]. Hum using this combination of [m] and [n].  Experiment in mid-range with random humming sounds, single pitches and gentle glissandos. Use the humming "puppy whine" in upper register as a means of developing nasal placement and as a technique to connect with head register.

Once you are comfortable with humming, try this vocalise: 5-3-4-2-1 (sol-mi-fa-re-do) in major mode and in a comfortable mid-voice range. Hum the first four pitches and sustain the final pitch on the vowel [a]. Repeat several times a half step lower each time, but remaining in a comfortable range.

Another useful vocalise on the same pitch pattern (sol-mi-fa-re-do) or a more extended pattern

(sol/mi – fa/re – mi/do – re/ti – do) is [ni-ne-na-no-nu] sung while doing gentle circular gestures with your hand in front of the body as if lovingly stroking a cat.


Observations about Resonance

  • A resonator is a secondary vibrator, not capable of initiating pitch, but capable of altering the amplitude and timbre of the pitch for better or worse. If the voice doesn't sound good or if it is not projecting well, it may be because the resonators are not well adjusted.
  • Resonance adjustment (the tuning of the cavities of the mouth and throat) is often most effectively done through vowel modification. For example, if the [ah] vowel is too bright, modify it to [aw].
  • If the resonating cavities (primarily mouth and throat) are not tuned to the pitch from the vocal folds, then the vocal folds must "force" the air cavity to vibrate, rather than vibrating in sympathetic resonance with the voice. Forced resonance is inefficient for singers; sympathetic resonance is the goal.


Wake up the Voice

Once you have animated the body, initiated consistent breath flow, easily connected breath to sound, and energised the nasal placement, it is time to extend the range of the vocalises to awaken the full range of the voice.

There are numerous vocalises that effectively achieve the goal of vocal extension. Two which are often used with choirs are:

  • This arpeggio: do-mi-sol-do-ti-sol-fa-re-so sung on these syllables: [u - - - a - - -].
  • The ascending arpeggio is on [u] and the descending arpeggio on [a]. At the same time move your hands in a big "rainbow" arch, beginning in the middle of your body and radiating outward.
  • The scalar passage: 1-2-3-4-5---1-2-3-4-5---1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 on these syllables: [si - - - o], [si - - - o], [si - - - o - - - - - - - - - - - -]. 
  • On the first five pitches, each time make a small circle with the hands in front of the body; on the 9-notes scalar passage make a big circle with the hands, again radiating outward. Note: this exercise may not be as effective if sung too quickly.


  • There is something about movement of the body that exerts a positive influence over the sound that is produced, energising it with freedom and connection to the breath.
  • When the voice is "cold," it is best to begin the vocal warm-up with descending vocalises in mid-range. This procedure, especially with inexperienced singers, will more consistently deliver vocal sounds that are free of tension and on pitch.


Make the Sound Beautiful

Once you have animated the body, initiated consistent breath flow easily connected to sound, energised the nasal placement, and extended the range of the vocalises to awaken the full voice, it is time to focus on vocal beauty.

Notice the order: vocal beauty is the last important vocal component to be addressed.

The exercise most often used for beauty of sustained singing is a single pitch in mid-voice, first hummed pianissimo and then sung with gradual crescendo on a succession of vowels that grows increasingly brighter: [u - o - a]. If the vowel is truly unified, somewhere in the [a] an overtone (or sometimes two) emerges as a result of the vowel unification. When this happens, the choir is truly singing in tune.

For optimum sound, think in this order:

  • Breathe
  • Sing
  • Sustain
  • Release


For optimum resonance, encourage the following:

  • A comfortably low larynx
  • A high velum
  • Balanced nasal placement
  • Relaxed lips
  • Relaxed tongue

For beautiful sound and optimum resonance, use the following:

  • the look of pleasant surprise on your face
  • the look of hopeful anticipation
  • the beginning of a smile
  • the appearance of inhaling a pleasant aroma, such as a rose

To do all of these exercises every day will probably require 10-15 minutes, and there may not have that much time in a choir rehearsal.

Regular use of these vocalises will maximise time spent on them at rehearsals. Slight variations from day to day are good, but in general keep the routine the same; in the long run that will produce the most consistent results.

Research has demonstrated the value of singing every day. The vocal exercise does not have to be complex: easy humming in the shower or simple scalar passages in the car on the way to work are effective; certainly more extensive vocalising is needed for more rigorous singing. The benefit of humming is holistic: somehow we feel more integrated, grounded. 


The story is told of two foresters, one of whom wanted to get ahead of the other by going immediately into the woods to chop trees. The other stopped first to sharpen his axe. Forester no.1 felled his tree first, but Forester no.2 felled many more trees by day's end.



Characteristics of a Good Voice
  • Pitch-centered. Singers can and should sing to the centre of the pitch.
  • Free. Good singing feels and sounds effortless; unnecessary vocal tension is released.
  • Beautiful and resonant. Exercises that encourage a comfortably low larynx, a high velum, "forward" placement, relaxed lips, and relaxed tongue will contribute to a naturally beautiful sound.
  • A pleasing vibrato.   In Seashore's classic definition, "A good vibrato is a pulsation of pitch, usually accompanied with synchronous pulsation of loudness and timbre, of such extent and rate as to give pleasing flexibility, tenderness, and richness to the tone." Pitch fluctuation in a healthy vibrato is about a semitone with about six undulations per second. A vibrato that is too rapid is called tremolo; one that is too slow is a wobble. Vibrato is a result rather than a technique. When the voice is free, breath-centered, pitch-centered and resonant, vibrato emerges; it is not taught. Vibrato is a sign of a healthy voice. In Miller's view it is acceptable to call attention to unhealthy vibrato, so that a singer may correct it. 

Much debate among singers, singing teachers, and choral conductors has centered on the topic of vibrato. It is possible for good choral union and vibrato to peacefully coexist. Straight-tone singing to the point of "laser-like" vocal production is unhealthy and unpleasant. Likewise, a vocal free-for-all in which singers are allowed to do anything and everything with vibrato does not yield the most satisfactory choral sound.


A Note about Blend

              A choir learns to sing together to the extent that members develop unified concepts of pitch, vowel, diction, rhythm, articulation, dynamics, balance, and timbre.

In rehearsal singers should:

  • Sing precisely the same pitch. 
  • Sing precisely the same vowel. 
  • Sing exactly the same rhythm (with special attention to consonants). 
  • Sing a unified articulation: staccato, legato, marcato, or tenuto 
  • Sing a unified dynamic level. 
  • Be sensitive to the need to balance all voice parts.
  • Sing with a unified timbre, bright or dark.

Suggestions for General Health 
  • Aerobic conditioning assists vocal conditioning. When you exercise, you oxygenate the capillaries throughout the body, including the larynx, and singing is enhanced. Caution: Consult a health-care professional before beginning a programme of aerobic exercise.
  • Hydration assists good singing. A water bottle is a good companion. 
  • Avoid dehydrating substances: antihistamines, alcohol, and caffeine.
  • Eat foods that focus on the dietary pyramid: high on fibrous fruits, whole grains, and vegetables; low on "bad" carbohydrates and "bad" fat. 
  • Take a good multi-vitamin supplement. 
  • Avoid foods that produce mucus, milk products especially
  • Speak at an optimum pitch for your vocal health. The voice can be damaged if speaking pitch is too low or too throaty.
  • Warm-up the voice daily. A few descending vocalises, humming and singing (perhaps in the car on the way to work) will help keep the voice in shape.
  • Whispering is hard on the voice.
  • Avoid clearing your throat, a very rough experience for the vocal folds.
  • If you are not well, stay home and rest. Don't sing while ill or vocally impaired.
  • Avoid getting a cold, an annoyance to the general population, deadly for a singer. Avoid touching your eyes and nose as these are good conduits for infection. Wash hands frequently, especially during cold season.




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