20+ Surefire Ways to Warm Up Your Choir
By Jennifer Moorhatch
What types of vocal warm-ups do you use for your choir rehearsals? The answer to this question can take on myriad forms depending on your situation: what type of choir you direct – school, church, community, collegiate, volunteer, or paid; your choir’s age or level of experience; and perhaps the least considered – the purpose behind your choice of warm-up.
For some, vocal warm-ups for choirs may be little more than an icebreaker activity and a chance to get the voices moving. However, warm-up activities can be used in a more practical and productive manner when used to address larger issues – like vowel unification across the choir and repertoire-related skill-building. Your choristers can really grow in their skills and musicality with carefully structured warm-up activities that are purposeful and relevant to the choir.
Getting your choir to buy into the warm-up time in your rehearsal depends in large part on how interesting and useful they find the activities. It is important to keep your warm-up time flexible, fresh, and functional while choosing exercises that they also enjoy. I find it helpful to think of warm-ups in terms of groupings or families of exercises. Choose a few from each family for each rehearsal for maximum flexibility and practical application.
Choir Warm-Up Exercises
Active warm-ups (1–2 minutes)
Depending on the time of day, you may need more or less of these types of exercises. Active warm-ups may include light calisthenics, posture exercises, or stretches. In an early morning rehearsal, it can be helpful to have students spend a full minute or two with active warm-ups before you progress to vocal warm-ups. It can really help your students be awake and productive during your rehearsal time if you help them wake their bodies up. And it’s important that your singers recognize that singing is a full-body exercise. Some of my favorites are:
- Jump or run in place – follow a beat or rhythmic sequence
- Jumping jacks
- Lap around the auditorium or rehearsal space (endless variations, seasonally inspired or age-specific: hop like a bunny, gallop like a horse, high knees, gliding, walking to a beat, etc.)
- Shake each arm, then each leg for an 8 count, 4 count, 2 count, 1 count, then reverse back to 8
- Stretches, particularly of the back, spine, and neck
- Balance exercises – standing on one foot, etc.
- Facial expressions to relax and warm up the face: wide eyes, eyebrows up and down, smile and frown, etc.
- Posture aligning: reach down and touch your toes, then reach high and look at the ceiling; take a deep breath to expand the rib cage, bring hands down to lightly rest on your head, then lightly let arms fall to your sides
- Echo clapping, or follow the leader through four-beat patterns – clapping, vocal percussion, noises, etc.
The important thing here is to keep it fun and flexible. Change it up from rehearsal to rehearsal. Create a game out of these exercises; incorporate musicality (dynamics, rubato, phrasing, etc.) or attention to the director’s cues (follow the director through a series of exercises) to build other skills. And be sure to allow adequate space for each singer to participate without interfering with others.
Breathing Exercises (1–2 minutes)
It is important to spend some time here at each rehearsal. While the choral rehearsal time crunch may not allow the time to go into a full explanation of what is happening inside the body to produce sound, it is important for all singers to have a basic familiarity with the importance of breathing and breath support. These can flow naturally from your active warm-ups, or sometimes even be creatively combined with stretches and posture exercises. Some of my favorites are:
- Long slow breaths: Many variations, but most often using a slow four count to breathe in and blow or hiss out, sometimes with a brief hold in between. Students should focus on feeling the movement of the diaphragm and the expansion of the ribs while keeping shoulder movement to a minimum.
- Blowing out (trick) candles, i.e. focusing on catch breaths or vocal attacks: Blow out eight quick candles in a row while focusing breath on the tip of your finger extended away from your body.
- Breathing combined with a vocal noise: Sigh, or an extended note on a particular pitch (A 440, or a starting pitch of your choice)
There are many options here, but it can help students if you ask them to place their hands right on their midsection/diaphragm to feel the movement – either on their sides at the base of the rib cage, or with one hand in front and one hand in back, both hands in front, etc. Or, hands can be placed over their heads or extended out to the side. You can also incorporate squats or raising their folders up and down to help them feel the full body incorporation of the breath.
Noises (1–2 minutes)
Again, depending on the time of day, you may need more or fewer exercises from this family. Noises are vocal exercises based on glissandos, placement, vowels, etc., without the restriction of particular notes. These types of exercises help the voice to wake up in a healthy way while accessing all vocal registers and allowing students to slide over passaggios easily. My favorites are:
- Lip trills/lip buzzing – an essential exercise for all singers! This can be difficult to learn (it actually took me several months to be relaxed enough to do this!), but it really showcases consistent breath flow and relaxation of the facial muscles in a way that keeps the voice protected. Use this in a variety of ways – glissandos, sighs, sirens, roller-coaster patterns, singing around a circle (a fifth, octave, or two octaves), buzz a favorite or silly song, use a five-note exercise, use a round, etc.
- Sighs, sirens, and roller coasters – use open pure vowels and slide the voice from high to low, low to high, and back to low, or in a variety of spins and twists for creative options. Have the students draw large circles or shapes with their hands, or use throwing motions to work on placement. The best practice here is for the students to imitate the noises and exercises in quick repetition after you demonstrate.
- Tongue twisters, repeated words, or combinations of sounds – use a passage from one of your songs, or a specific series of words, and slide them around from high to low. Have them follow rhythms, inflection, and diction patterns by imitating you. Spend much of the time here in head voice.
Incorporate some of these along with breathing exercises for a natural flow to your warm-up time.
Vocal Warm-Up Exercises for Choir (2–3 minutes)
Here’s where you’re going to want to spend a little bit more of your time. These types of exercises help your choristers strengthen their voices while developing flexibility, precision, and tone quality. Combinations of pure vowels, carefully chosen words for diction, specific vocal techniques, blending exercises, placement, tone, and musicality – all of these skills can be incorporated into these exercises.
There are hundreds of useful exercises here, and the variations are endless. Making these exercises as specific as possible to your choir (their strengths and weaknesses, repertoire selections, age, level, etc.) is the best course of action. As a general rule, I like to begin in head voice, midrange (key of A, G, or F) with descending patterns, light sounds at the beginning but gradually increasing in volume and strength of tone towards the end of this family of exercises.
I generally keep them in unison for these types of exercises but may build them into structured chords towards the end. I like to use descending five-note patterns, ascending/descending five-note patterns or octaves +1, arpeggios, outlining chord progressions, and cadences. Incorporate phrasing, dynamics, shaping, and clarity of pure vowel blend into every vocalise you choose. Again, demonstration and repetition is the best practice here.
Blend/Intonation (1–2 minutes)
These exercises help your students to focus on listening to the blend around them – between sections and within their own section. This is a great time to practice the formation of pure vowels, messa di voces, and tuning of chords – all useful and important skills for ensemble singing. Focus on having every chorister form the vowels the same way that you do, which can be accentuated by having them draw a circle around the mouth shape with their finger while they sing, and have them learn to listen for uniformity of sound, volume, and tone. Some basic exercises here are:
- Build blocks of chords: 1, 3, 5, 8 in any key for four-part choirs, and ascend or descend by half step. Explore dynamics and messa di vocesby watching the conductor. You can even have students take turns directing some of this portion.
- Unison “ooo” vowel: begin the choir in prime unison, then gradually move them by section using ½ steps, whole steps, skips, etc. Explore dissonances and consonances here, suspensions and resolutions, cluster chords, cross voicings (very important, as this is always difficult for young choirs!) End by bringing them back to prime unison, or to a beautiful choral resolution. Follow a chord pattern from one of the pieces you are studying, or begin and end in a key that relates to your opening piece, or just use creativity to create different sonorities to explore.
Solfege and Hand Signs (1-2 minutes)
Try to incorporate a little bit of this at each rehearsal. Teach your choir how to use diatonic and chromatic hand signs while singing solfeggio exercises, and continue to incorporate them into your sight-singing exercises or repertoire selections. It is important for choristers to understand keys, tonal relationships, and intervals, and equally important to create a concrete application for them with hand signs.
I like to use ascending and descending diatonic scales in major or minor, and generally have various sections stop on specific scale steps to create the chord structure I want for that day. The most basic is to create a do-mi-sol-do tonic chord by having part 1 (basses, A2 or B2) remain on low do, part 2 sing the scale up to mi (altos, A1 or B1), part 3 sing the scale up to sol (tenors, S2 or T2), and part 4 sing the scale all the way up to high do (sopranos, S1 or T1). Reverse the process for a descending scale.
I also love the exercise that I call “syllable plus one,” where you begin on low do, then do-re-do, then do-re-mi-re-do, etc. for ascending, and building backward from high do for the descending. I love to use this exercise in a two- or four-part round. Do these exercises in a variety of keys that relate to the pieces that you are planning to rehearse that day. Continue directly into structured sight-singing or sight-reading exercises at this point, or build right into your first repertoire selection of the day with solfege.
Structuring your warm-up time in each rehearsal can be a fun and creative process for you while bringing excitement and focus to the beginning of each of your rehearsals. Try to hit one or two exercises from each family of exercises at every rehearsal for a total of about five to seven minutes. Recognize that you may need to spend more or less time than this based on the time of day or age of your choir members. But the main thing to remember is to keep it fun, flexible, functional and fresh. Help your students build their voices and improve their musicality with a fun and productive warm-up time at each and every rehearsal!
About the author:
Jennifer Moorhatch is the School Editor at J.W. Pepper & Son, Inc. Prior to becoming an editor, Jennifer taught choral, general and instrumental music in various private schools in Pennsylvania for 19 years. In addition to traditional choirs, she also taught several specialty ensembles, such as an a cappella choir, madrigals, chamber music, and handbells, taking her groups on several international tours as well as local appearances. Serving as the head of a local conservatory, she also worked as the musical director and accompanist for numerous music theater productions, while building a large private studio for students of voice and piano. She continues to perform as a soloist and accompanist. Jennifer is active in worship music as well, in both traditional and contemporary formats.
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April 12, 2022. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)