Beyond the Vocalise: Musicianship-Strengthening Warmup Routines for Choirs

Beyond the Vocalise

Musicianship-Strengthening Warmup Routines for Choirs

By NAfME Member Dr. David Fryling


When we teach in an ensemble setting, we are always teaching “togetherness” in some way. And the musical and artistic strength that comes from students singing, together, is far greater than the sum of its parts. 

I believe it is our duty as conductor-teachers to teach our students that working together makes us stronger—not only as singers, but as musicians and as empathetic human beings. And our work toward engendering this begins in the warm-up.


I believe our main focus should be on using the warm-up time to build ensemble skills from the start.


The choral warm-up is traditionally viewed as a time to work on posture, breathing, and group vocalizing techniques–and these are all invaluable tools to transition your students from the hallway to the rehearsal hall. However, just as importantly, it also needs to be:

  • A time to (re)invigorate the group’s musical skills
  • A time to (re)connect the group as an “ensemble organism,” encouraging more meaningful musical communication among the group members. 
  • A time to a time to show them how to bring, what Walter Bitner calls, their “wholehearted attention” to the rehearsal


I believe our main focus should be on using the warm-up time to build ensemble skills from the start. Just like an effective basketball coach, we need to: 

  • Watch (listen to) the tape (the choir)
  • Define skills that we hear our team needs to work on
  • Abstract them into various drills to start our practice together


chorus | Highwaystarz-Photography


My philosophy of conducting is deeply rooted in the belief that there are relatively few things in the conductors control, and very many things that are the ensemble’s responsibility to master and execute. I often use the metaphor of “Dance Partners,” because:

  • Both dancers must be masters at the art & technique of dancing
  • There are two active, creative, and independent participants
  • Even though one of the dance partner “leads,” it takes two (independent and equally skilled dancers) to tango!


We’re training an Ensemble, and since “ensemble” means “together,” we need to begin each rehearsal with the basic skills of “Doing Musical Things, Together.” I like break these into three separate categories:

  • General Ensemble Skills
  • Ensemble Diction Training
  • Group Eartraining & Literacy Skills


Let’s take a deeper look at each of these categories:


General Ensemble Skills

This category can be described as learning how to use our EARS to communicate with each other. Exercises should be built around the following concepts:

  • Singing steady tempo subdivisions (eighth note scales, etc.) independently of any conductor
  • Following conductor-led rubato manipulations of time (while singing subdivisions of the takt)
  • Balancing chords in slowly moving harmonic progressions 
  • Singing short, simple, improvised phrases of music with careful attention to word stress (explore different word stress options with the same text, and have students determine what these option are)
  • “Reading the conductor’s imagination” as cues for dynamics and articulation


Photo: Bob O’Lary

Ensemble Diction Training

The next category introduces and reinforces the skills necessary to make the right sounds at the right time, together. Diction is tricky beast, but it can be broken down into manageable parts that–with consistent reinforcement–can become second nature for your ensemble. Exercises should be built around the following concepts:

  • Abstracting vowels kinesthetically (“vowel hand signs”) and symbolically (utilizing IPA symbols on the board and in the music)
  • Experimenting with the vowel color palette (exploring bright vs. dark options within the same vowel)
  • Abstracting the five diphthongs (can be remembered in the sentence “May my boy now mow?”)
  • Applying rules of shadow vowels (always following two consecutive voiced consonants and all final voiced consonants)
  • Placing “consonants of duration” (any consonant that can be held out indefinitely) before the beat
  • Singing tongue-twisters together in perfect vertical (i.e., rhythmic) alignment


Group Eartraining & Literacy Skills

The third and most important category focuses on encouraging growth in music literacy and aural awareness. Singers live or die by how well they hear. Their basic survival from note-to-note depends on a sophisticated awareness of intervallic relationship and harmonic implication–in other words, the only way we can sing the next note is if we can imagine the next note. Exercises should be built around the following concepts:

  • Solfege memorization and utilization (movable do is most useful for building harmonic awareness)
  • Intervallic audiation 
  • Improvisation within a key or mode
  • Sight reading


I hope you’ll be able to join me at the National Conference in Grapevine, TX, where I will offer specific examples of some of the exercises I use, and that you can take home to your singers. This approach is extremely effective in engendering even more ownership of the skills and responsibilities inherent in the ensemble experience, and will help you build stronger student musicians.


About the Author:

May 26 David Fryling Headshot Smile

Dr. David Fryling, a NAfME member, is Professor of Music and Director of Choral Studies at Hofstra University, where he conducts the select Chorale and Chamber Choir, teaches beginning through graduate-level studies in Choral Conducting and Literature, and supervises choral music education student teachers during their field placements. David’s recent invitations include various all-state and regional honor choirs, master classes, workshops, and adjudications throughout the Northeast, and in Virginia, North Caro lina, Michigan, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Utah, and Alaska. During the summers of 2007 to 2013 he served as conductor of the World Youth Honors Choir and Festival Choir and Orchestra at the Interlochen Arts Camp, and has been a guest artist for the past two summers at the NYSSSA Choral program in Fredonia, NY. He is the founding conductor and artistic director of eVoco Voice Collective, currently serves as president of the Eastern Division of ACDA, and was inducted in the fall of 2014 into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame as “Educator of Note.” Read David’s full biography and more about his work at his website.


David Fryling presented on this topic at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference


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