Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Importance of a Choral Warm-up

I've been thinking a fair bit about choral warm-ups and thought I'd share a few thoughts about them, and what aspects I feel are important. For now, I will not be including specific examples, in order to keep the post at a decent length, which I imagine will end up being long-winded as it is.

Do choirs need warm-ups?

There was a time in my life when I questioned the value of choral warm-ups, especially for someone like me who spends the better part of the week singing in choirs, and felt perpetually warmed-up. I was always especially skeptical of their use with a professional choir, where one would expect that the singers would arrive to rehearsal prepared, which would include arriving with their voice ready to go. Also, most of us use our speaking voice all day, which may not account to a full singing warm-up, but it is amazing how much easier it is to sing in the evening as a result. I often then wondered if a conductor could save ten minutes of their rehearsal by not doing a warm-up. I would also consider arriving to rehearsals late in order to miss the warm-up. I know a few conductors who from time to time go without a warm-up, and for the most part are able to have an effective rehearsal.

Once I started conducting choirs regularly, I discovered that I was gravely mistaken, and that missing a warm-up could contribute to the overall efficiency of the rehearsal. A few of the side-effects I've noticed from an un-warmed up choir include:
  1. lack of focus, more talking through rehearsals
  2. poor intonation (unaccompanied pieces which consistently go flat)
  3. vocal fatigue, and general choir fatigue in the last 1/4 of the rehearsal, making the last part of rehearsal nearly useless.
Attempts to get more rehearsal time by eliminating the warm-up, usually returned a less-productive rehearsal.

So the answer to the question.

- Choirs of all levels, ages and abilities NEED warm-ups

Important aspects of a choral warm-up

A good vocal warm up need not to be a long one. I find five to ten minutes to plenty of time. Any less and you haven't accomplished anything, and much longer and you've lost the focus of the group. There are some exceptions to this - especially an argument for a longer warm-up when it is the early morning session of a retreat weekend, or a pre-concert warm-up where you might spend more time acclimatising to the space, or getting the choir into a "performance mood".

Four things to achieve in your warm up:
  1. Focus
  2. Physical "muscular" warm up, including breathing, and heart rate!
  3. Auditory warm-up (listening! intonation!)
  4. Vocal warm-up and dexterity.
How you achieve these results will vary from conductor to conductor - and as I mentioned, I will make little attempt to address specific examples in this posting - resources are readily available for those who want them. However, I would like to comment on all four aspects.

1. Focus

The biggest frustration with most choral conductors is the apparent inability of the chorus to actually watch the conductor. In your warm-up, develop tactics which force the choir to watch you. Breathing exercises which involve hand signals only. Diaphragmatic "explosion" exercises like belting out a "PA!" "NA!" "ZAH!" or whatever on cue (and not in rhythm). Altering dynamics and articulation using only gesture, no verbal instruction (and chastising them when they are not following). Most of the time, with a good group, you don't even need to express what you want with words - gesture should be enough.

2. Physical Warm-up

One of the warm-ups I do before a concert concentrate on stretching calves and hamstring muscles. It quickly became of the favourite exercises of the choir - and many might ask what doest his have to do with singing? Just remember, as a chorister, you use every muscle in your body. Standing requires much energy, holding a folder for an hour will do horrid things to your back unless you've prepared yourself for it. The list goes on. Breathing exercises go without saying, and should not be undervalued. There are many options here. Do you have a yoga or personal trainer in your choir? Invite them to include something for the choir!

3. Auditory Warm-up

As a chorister, learning how to listen both to your own section, as well as learning to listen to the other sections is integral to learning how to tune, and blend. Exercises to deal with tuning and blend need to be addressed in your warm-up.

4. Vocal Warm-up

Probably the most obvious of all of them all, the whole reason for having a warm-up, is to activate the singing apparatus itself. Find a way to warm-up the entire range - think of warm-ups that will help the lower tessitura of the altos and basses, as well as the higher tessitura of the soprano and tenors (hint: altos and basses LOVE to sing low, and show the other sections how low they can sing - don't be afraid to stretch the boundaries, but do not encourage pushing. Don't be afraid of the vocal fry when working the low range of the bass. Some of them find it quite relaxing). I cannot stress enough the need to remind the choir not to push, and allow the lower register to be relaxed - especially when dwelling in the lower extremes. As well as a brief talk about muscle support and "spin" when working with the upper register of the Sops and Tenors.

Singing speaks louder than words

Too often, a conductor spends more time talking about warm-ups than actually warming up. I try to take the approach that every minute when a choir is not singing, is a wasted minute. Nothing is more true than in the choral warm-up. The length of time it takes to criticize and "fix" issues that arise in the warm-up will counteract the whole purpose of a warm-up. By all means, fix problems - but don't dwell on them. Simple instructions, short sentences and too the point will be more beneficial than explaining the entire vocal apparatus, muscles, and everything involved in creating the sound. Let them sing!

Use your accompanist

If you have an accompanist, use them! Be creative, use good chord progressions, musical accompaniments to the warm-ups. Tuning exercises should of course be done without the piano, but more melodious examples should have the benefit of a more melodious and helpful accompaniment. Nothing is more fun than a creative warm-up.

New vs Old

New warm-ups are necessary to keep things interesting. But if you do only new warm-ups, you'll waste time teaching them to the choir, rather than singing. I would even say that approximately 90% of your warm-up should be warm-ups they know, to allow them to sing, with the other 10% maximum being new exercises that you will bring back again over time. Some days, you may choose to only use old Warm-ups. There is nothing wrong with routine, provided it is a good one, however, variety is the spice of life, so don't be afraid to switch it up a bit once in a while.

There are my thoughts on the subject. I welcome your input and suggestions as well.


Anonymous said...

Mightily interesting, thank you!

Stealthy Dachshund said...

Well... let us engage then in warm-ups! And maybe I'll even be on time for one...

I remember that terrifying exercises where we had to sing up in semi-tones?

And, say for instance, we had new members who weren't terrifically experienced, a few scales may go a long way to train their ears...