Friday Lessons: Olympic Prep



Getting ready to perform, be in sports or music, takes a great deal of preparation.  It's tempting to look for the perfect workout or the tried and true regimen.  

I've been thinking about this while watching the Olympics this past week.  Surely the greatest athletes in the world, who also have access to the greatest training, and training facilities, in the world have it down to a science.  But what I noticed on the sidelines was that the way to getting ready to perform was as varied as the individual athlete.

This was particularly evident in the swimming competitions.  While some competitors paced back and forth on the desk, hopping slightly, rotating their neck muscles, listening to music, pumping up teammates, and shaking their arms out, others, notably Michael Phelps, tuned all the chaos out.  In fact, his preparation game face was so severe it made me shiver in my flippers.

Sometimes singers are looking for the warm-up that will get them to a great performance of a song.  In reality there is no steadfast rule for how you should warm-up, what warm-ups you should do, or for how long.

Much like olympic athletes, your goal is to build an awareness of your own body and then create the regimen that your body likes.  

As singers our bodies are our instruments.  Your voice teacher can give you exercises to try out and suggestions for areas to target, but ultimately your body will tell you when and how much to do.

Here are some things to ask yourself as you build up your voice and your individualized routine:

  • What time of day works for me to do my warm-up?
    • Think about the schedule you normally keep.  If you wake up very early in the morning, then early morning might not be a good time to dig into some heavy vocal lifting.  However, you might want to do some gentle warming-up for a few minutes first thing in the morning and then do some more targeted exercises later in the afternoon.  There is no rule about when you warm-up, or even that you do your entire warm-up in one go.  
    • After I had my baby I had to squeeze in practice whenever I could and expect to be interrupted.  I began to do 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there throughout my day and it worked for me.  Think about what makes sense for you, and listen to your body.  It will tell you if the schedule feels right, or is overly taxing.
  • How much space between warming up and singing songs feels the best to me?
    • There is no rule that says singing songs should be immediately preceded by warming-up.  Sometimes, with time constraints this is the only option, but consider warming-up then doing other activities for a while and returning to your repertoire.  
    • I like to warm-up for about 20 minutes and then let my voice rest for about 30.  Play around with some different time periods and see what feels best.
  • How long of a warm-up fits my voice?
    • Some singers prefer an extended warm-up of 20+ minutes.  Some singers feel great after 5.  Sometimes it depends on the day.  For example, if my breathing is feeling shallow I'll tack on about 5 minutes of breathing exercises that build into the vocalizing.  
    • If I'm getting ready for a lengthy performance I don't want to overdo it on the warm-up so I'll limit it to about 5 to 8 minutes.  But, if I'm really trying to target specific areas of my voice on a non-performing day I'll spend 20 to 30 minutes on exercises.
  • What kind of exercises feel the best for my voice?
    • There are many, many variations on a vocal exercise.  As you progress through lessons with an instructor you'll pick up all sorts of ideas for exercises.  Your teacher may even have specific recommendations for your voice.  Every voice responds uniquely to each and every exercise.  Pay attention to exercises that feel like they loosen the instrument and get it ready to sing.  A few examples of the kinds of exercises you might incorporate into your practice are: slides, scales, arpeggios, staccato patterns, small intervals, large intervals, working from head voice to chest voice, and working from chest voice to head voice.  Likewise, remember that all exercises can be done on a lip trill, a hum, any vowel, and any consonant, or no consonants at all.  
    • For example, I like to start with a sliding exercise on a lip trill to loosen up my constriction (we all have some!), then I like to work with arpeggios across the entirety of my range.  I might tack on a cool down exercise like descending on a simple syllable with an easy vocal production.  This routine does a good job of getting my voice into a comfortable place for singing my favorite tunes.

The vocal work-out that you do on your own is as unique as yourself.  Your instrument will give you a lot of information when you listen to it.  Your body knows what feels good and what feels like strain.

You want to push yourself, but never to the point of fatigue or strain.  Try new things with your voice.  You are encouraged to experiment.  You may find new exercises that feel just right to you.  You may also find that some exercises you've learned in lessons work better for you than others - that's ok.

With the guidance of your instructor, you'll also better understand what areas of the voice you want to target.  Your instructor will help you to identify areas of strength and weakness and how to balance those out.  But much like the doctor-patient relationship, this process can only work when you bring all of your personal awareness to the table and are ready to workshop your instrument collaboratively.

The point of warming up is to get you prepared to do whatever Olympic-esque vocal performance you're working towards.  Be it singing at karaoke night or fronting a band, your voice will thank you for treating it like a professional athlete.

Whatever works for you works.

I just had to finish with a Phelps game face.

I just had to finish with a Phelps game face.

Friday Lessons are where I talk about practicing, performing and other aspects of being a life-long learner of music.  Appearing most Fridays.