I used to think that singing in the morning was not a good idea. My voice was so deep and like gravel when I woke up that I figured I should wait until later in the day. But when I exercise, I know that stretching is a good way to prepare my body and help prevent injury. I realized the same is true when I use my voice. Even though I teach voice lessons and classes and direct choruses almost every day, I use my voice for speaking even more than I use it for singing. A vocal warm-up improves the quality of my speaking voice and keeps it in good shape throughout my day. This actually makes my voice feel better (and I’m all about feeling better). It’s smart to do some vocal “stretching” every day, especially before things like public speaking, singing, classroom teaching or socializing in noisy environments … and the world is getting noisier all the time!
First, a bit of anatomy to help you understand how your voice works. When you make sounds with your voice, they come from your vocal cords which are located in your larynx (voice box). Put your fingers lightly on the front of your neck. You’ll feel vertical ridges and that’s your windpipe (trachea). Now swallow and you’ll feel something that goes up and down. That’s your larynx (sometimes called the Adam’s apple). Your vocal cords are inside the larynx which is a hollow muscular organ that sits on top of the windpipe and forms an air passage to the lungs. The vocal cords are soft tissue folds that consist of muscle, ligament and mucous membrane. (No, they are not like ropes.) They get tightened to make the pitch go up and loosened to make the pitch go down. The higher the pitch, the more the vocal cords are stretched in length. The lower your pitch, the more they are relaxed in length. As your voice gets louder, the movement of the vocal cords vibrating back and forth (100-1000 times a second!) gets wider. So, singing or speaking loudly and singing very high notes are all very demanding on your vocal cords. When you’re speaking softly to someone who is in close proximity it’s not very taxing at all. The amazing thing is that you are making these adjustments with your vocal cords every time you change inflection in your voice as you speak or change pitch as you sing, and generally you don’t even think about doing it. Who knew? (It’s like me with my car … I just get in, turn it on and drive but I have no idea how it actually works.)
A vocal warm-up in the morning doesn’t have to be a big ordeal. (Who has time for that as you’re rushing to get out the door?) You can do a few simple exercises as you prepare for your day, to just wake up your voice and lift it up and out of the low gritty place it often is in when you first get out of bed. It’s just a great way to keep your voice healthy and elastic. Your voice will sound and feel differently depending on where it is focused in your face, head and throat. (Yes, you can actually move it around.) If you are going to be singing or speaking in a large room, then it would be wise to spend time with more extensive exercises because you’ll be doing more demanding activities than just talking.
Like everything else as you get older, your voice will drop unless it’s used correctly and exercised regularly. Over many years of talking with prospective students on the phone, I can get a pretty good idea of the age of the person by the condition of their voice. It seems that people lose muscle tone, pitch and control unless they take care of their voice.
Here are a few simple ideas to help keep your voice in good shape for your whole life:
Humming and Bringing the Sound Forward
Singing in the “mask” (front) of the face is a good focus area. Take an easy breath in and exhale with lips gently closed and jaw released while humming. Begin with the nasal sound “m” and gently glide from a high to a low pitch as if you were sighing and then glide back up. As you gently hum, try to feel a tickling vibration around the nose, upper teeth and lips. This will bring the sound forward.
Lip Buzzing or Bubbles
You’re going to make a sound like a baby experimenting with blowing bubbles with their lips. The difference is that you vocalize on a tone as you exhale. Inhale, use your fingers to lift up the weight of your cheeks, wet your lips and then blow out so that your lips are making bubbling sounds. Slide up and down the scale as you do this. This brings your voice forward, relaxes the jaw and requires sustained breath.
Breath and Relaxation
If there is tension when you’re breathing, that tension will show up in the your voice.
Inhale: When you’re singing you don’t have time to close your mouth and take a long slow breath in. This is not a meditation or yoga breath, which is generally long and slow and goes in the nose and out the mouth. Inhale through your mouth with lips slightly parted. It’s got to be quick and yet relaxed at the same time. It’s like yawning quickly on cue. Make sure your throat is relaxed and open and that you don’t hear a gasping or breathy sound. That would indicate that you’re tensing your vocal cords or your neck. Your shoulders and chest should be low and relaxed and not rising when you take breath in. That would indicate shallow breathing into your upper chest.
Exhale: Exhale leaving your lips slightly parted. Make sure your chest doesn’t cave in and that you let your abdomen pull in slowly.
Inhale/exhale several times: Make sure that your breaths are focused low and in the abdomen (which should expand as you breathe in) and that you have no chest, neck or shoulder tension while breathing. Place one hand on your abdomen to remind yourself to keep the focus low and away from the chest and shoulders.
Add sound: Try exhaling while making an “f” sound (top teeth on lower lip) as you exhale and see how long you can sustain the ”f” sound. Keep your chest lifted and bring your abdomen in slowly. This is how you support your sound.
Releasing the Jaw
It’s important to reduce tension in your mouth and jaw area during speaking and singing. Place your fingers directly below and in front of your ears. Massage these muscles as you open your mouth. Allow your jaw to passively open down and back. Repeat several times.
Protect Your Speaking Voice
Even if you are a professional singer, you will use your voice for speech more than for singing. Practice reading something in a sing-song voice (as though you are reading to a child). Keep the sound placed forward in the front of your face without letting it fall back and down into the back of your throat, which can make it sound gritty.
Sing Through Your Range
Think of it like stretching your arms out wide before you have to do an activity where you are reaching a lot. If you never stretch your body, then in time all of your movements can become a major effort. The same is true for your voice: without stretching your voice up high it can become compacted, low and gravelly. I strongly believe that both women and men should vocalize in their upper range as often as possible or they will eventually lose that part of their voice. It can become extremely difficult to impossible to get it back. This is especially true as you start to get older. Sing the highest and lowest notes you can sing (Absolute Range). These notes don’t have to sound pretty; they just need to be sung without straining. Sing the highest and lowest notes you would normally want to sing in a song (Singing Range).
Vocalize on Vowels
Examples: “ah” / “eh” / “ee” / “oh” / “oo” (There are 20 or more vowel sounds.) Try singing these vowels without moving your jaw. Put one finger on your chin and sing through the vowels while keeping your mouth open and your jaw relaxed. You’ll find that your tongue has to do the work to form each vowel if you don’t move your jaw. So why would you want to do this? It allows you to open your mouth and produce a louder, fuller sound and also to have much less strain and tension in your jaw.
Examples: b, d, k, p, t, v (There are at least 24 consonants.)
Consonants help you articulate words. A lot of people drop the ends of words as they speak, or the ends of their sentences drop in pitch or trail off. These are difficult habits to break but well worth it if you want people to understand you as you are singing or speaking. Examples: hope, had, tack, sit, love. You could simply practice singing a descending scale on one of these words (or other words you choose) making sure to articulate the final consonant when you end the scale.
You can do some of these exercises in the shower or in your car or almost anywhere (especially the breathing). They are simple habits to form. Plus, your voice is portable: wherever you are … it is there with you! Do some of these every day for just a few minutes and your voice will thank you.