I find warm-ups to be essential to any choir rehearsal for two major reasons: 1) they are an opportunity to teach musical concepts in isolation that will be used later in the rehearsal on the choir’s repertoire; and 2) they help transition the voice and the body from a day’s worth of speaking and slouching, preparing them for the very different set of demands placed upon the singer by the act of singing.
In an ideal world with plenty of time to devote to warm-ups, I believe warm-ups should address these areas and in this order:
- Dynamic stretches of the neck and shoulders, gently working them through the full range of motion.
- Reinforcement of good singing posture. Poor posture is the enemy of healthy singing.
- Teach and reinforce good vocal space, the appropriate amount of mouth space required for good sound production by the singer. A yawn or a downward sigh works well for this.
- Breathing exercises, to engage the breathing muscles and to reinforce the sense of spaciousness.
- Descending scale, legato, mid-range exercises, sung lightly (no louder than mf) on neutral syllables and using the nasal consonants (“m,” “n,” and “ng”).
- Range extension exercises. These exercises should incorporate leaps, move up and down, and gradually move to larger intervals; arpeggios and broken chords are especially useful. These exercises should also be performed at faster tempi with more open vowels (“oh” or “ah”).
- Articulation exercises. At this point in the warm-up sequence, exercises can begin to include words and phrases, with emphasis on quick, clean, and clear articulation of all consonants.
- Listening exercises. These exercises are for “ear training,” helping the choir to sing chords in tune, sing chromatic scales, hold their pitch in dissonant harmonies, etc.
- Concluding downward sigh, again reinforcing the sense of vocal space before the choir begins working on its repertoire.
Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world; I do not necessarily have time each week to include each of the steps listed above. But over the long-haul, I try to make sure that I occasionally spend some amount of warm-up time addressing the various items above. During periods of time when I have had to shorten warm-ups or omit them entirely due to time constraints, I have always found that the choir’s capacity for healthy, expressive singing suffers. We were not able to learn repertoire as fully or as musically; the choir lacked the stamina to sing more challenging pieces or to endure more intense rehearsals when there was much to be accomplished; sections lacked the confidence and capacity to sing higher in their ranges when the music demanded it; and pieces generally took longer to learn.
So I strongly encourage choir directors to include warm-ups, if even for a mere 5 minutes. For more information, I highly recommend James Jordan’s The Choral Warm-Up and Paul Nesheim’s Building Beautiful Voices. Other resources I have found helpful are The Complete Choral Warm-Up Book and The Choral Warm-Up Collection, both published by Alfred Publishing.