What if I told you that you didn’t actually have to warm up your voice? What? Seriously!
It’s a strange one to comprehend for singers and vocalists, as warming up has traditionally been such a part of our habitual practices around singing, and in particular, taking singing lessons. But that’s just it – it’s a habit. Warming up is not necessary as it is really only just a mental crutch. So you will find that as you become a more experienced singer, the less you may feel that you need to warm up.
Here is a snippet from The Naked Vocalist Podcast, where voice educator Robert Sussuma says why he is not a fan of warming up:
Are You Warming Up Out of Habit?
If you think about the kinds of things you might typically do to “warm up”, you might think of movements and patterns that feel familiar, so that you can ready yourself to complete the task. But have you ever stopped to think why you do that?
If it feels that you aren’t able to do something, then perhaps you aren’t actually able to do it yet? (like Robert Sussuma said in the podcast clip, are you substituting learning for warming up?) Also, might you be feeling the need to warm up because you think that’s what is required for you to be able to sing better?
I notice many students come to a lessons and expect to have half an hour, or more, of vocal warmups before singing. Perhaps this is because the traditional models of singing lessons tended to be structured that way (I’ve done this for 15 years, and only challenging this habitual practice now!)
I’ve noticed it almost seems like an addiction for some singers – that they feel they won’t be physically ready until ‘X’ has taken place. After challenging my own thoughts on this recently, I have started to change the way I structure lessons as a result… thinking instead of “what does this singer need the most in this very moment?” And more often than not, the singer needs to be challenged in new and unexpected ways (see below for how to add variation and randomness to your practice
The Difference Between a Warm Up and A Workout
A vocal workout is different to a warmup. Because I’m not saying that singers don’t need to do any exercises. Vocal exercises are how we learn and create new skills. We do an exercise to perform a task, and this forms neural pathways which allow us to be able to repeat a task, or have coordination.
“In brief, a neural pathway is a series of connected neurons that send signals from one part of the brain to another”. (Great Minds Clinic, 2017)
You can gauge what happens in your practices or performances (although perhaps best not to leave it the last minute in the performance high pressure environment!) to tell you what else you need to practice. If things aren’t going to plan, then you likely still have more to coordinate and learn. “Warming up” will not do this for you. You can distinguish between feeling the need to do a vocal warmup out of habit vs. needing to do a new vocal workout due to a part of your coordination being out of balance.
The other thing is, right before or during performance time is too late to learn a new skill. At this stage, and especially in the moments leading up to and during a performance, your brain is starting to process more and more – it simply cannot take on more information. See my blog post here What to Think About During a Performance – this hack will help you beat performance nerves.
It IS an Energy Thing
Where I might disagree with Robert Sussuma is that I believe warming up has a place. And that is in getting ready energetically for a performance. Any personal trainer would vouch for the importance of preparing your muscles before commencing a period of intense exercise. And it is more for the mind than the body.
It will also likely be different depending on the day, so if you are feeling subtle changes in the way your voice behaves, don’t worry. There are so many variables that can factor into how you perform day to day: how much sleep you’ve had, how you feel emotionally, your immune system, your diet, stress and hormone levels for example.
Checking in mentally, physically and emotionally to gain an awareness of what you actually need in in preparation for singing, vs what you think you might need is key.
We learn best when circumstances are variable – meaning when we are exposed to change and chaos. It might seem that this type of change would not be helpful, but it is.
The variation theory of learning emphasises variation as a necessary condition for learners to be able to discern new aspects of an object of learning. In a substantial number of studies, the theory has been used to analyse teaching and students’ learning.
If we imagine a world without any variation, we can instantly get a feel for how mundane and boring everything would be. the mind would have nothing to provide a challenge. And this is exactly why variation in our vocal warmups or workouts can be useful. So your mind is always stimulated to find new ways to learn how to do something.
It also ensures that you are listening to your what your body, mind, or nervous system actually needs in any given moment, not what you think it needs.
By putting variation and randomness into your practice time, you will be less likely to be thrown off when the real event happens – in performance. And this is what we really want, right? To be able to nail our performances – to give exciting, fresh performances, not overly safe, predictable, or performances where we look like deer caught in headlights because we weren’t ready for all the variation thrown at our minds at once. Just think of all that you have to process come performance time: new venue, new sound system, amplification, looking out at the audience, a bright spotlight shining in your eyes, important people in the audience, and much much more.
Here are some ways you can try varying your practices:
- Change up where you practice
- Change the tempo of your song (speed up or slow down)
- Sing in a different key
- Add movement to your singing (break the traditional ‘poise’)
- Change the intention/feeling
- Add dynamic changes to your singing (loud, soft, breathy, edgy)
- Highlight the lyrics in different ways
- Sing on a microphone
- Sing in front of someone new, or in front of a new group of people
In fact, I always tell my students to never sing a song the same way twice. You want to be present at all times and respond to your internal and external environment. This is what creates captivating and exciting performances. And remember, you DON’T need to warmup!
Kullberg, A., Runesson Kempe, U. & Marton, F. What is made possible to learn when using the variation theory of learning in teaching mathematics?. ZDM Mathematics Education 49, 559–569 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11858-017-0858-4