Sometimes the most professional, big time singers are the worst at following a structured warm up routine. The benefits of warming up your voice prior to your singing practice, rehearsing with the band, recording in the studio or of course performing live are undeniable.
It’s the goal of this post to help you learn from their mistakes and to look after your instrument by maintaining good vocal health. Your vocal cords can only tolerate so much misuse and abuse before they start to break down on you at the worst possible times.
As a vocal coach, it has been my fortune to be backstage with a number of seasoned, experienced, professional singers. I have observed first hand how big time singers are not always the best at following structured warm up routines, and their often haphazard approach to warming up the voice can do more harm than good.
I have seen impressionable, inexperienced singers follow the example of these big names with little or no structured warm up routines before singing. Just because they see and hear their idols not warming up, they think they can get away with committing the same vocal sins.
There are so many reasons to warm up your voice, including:
- Establishing correct diaphragmatic support and breathing.
- Warming up the vocal cords and exercising the tendons and ligaments that anchor our voice box (larynx) and are instrumental in helping us to enjoy freedom of movement to help us safely reach our lowest and highest notes, as well as everything in between.
- Maintaining or repairing minor vocal damage from the night before. An appropriate vocal warmup can help reduce swelling and inflammation in the vocal cords and can help you to achieve better cord closure.
- Warming up your voice prior to a gig allows you to refresh the muscle memories for both breathing and vocal coordination to allow you to sing at your best.
- An appropriately structured vocal warmup allows you to open up your airway and establish the correct open throat feelings and position to reduce strain on your voice, making it easier to hit those high notes.
- It gets your ears and your voice in tune pitch-wise.
- Your vocal warmup is your last opportunity to troubleshoot any challenge areas you have in your voice prior to going on stage or recording in a studio.
Popular excuses for not using a structured warmup for your voice
- “It’s just a band practice”
- “After a couple of songs on stage, my voice just warms up naturally anyway”
- “There’s no place to warm up. People will hear me!”
- “I usually just have a couple of drinks or a smoke or vape and I’m ready to go”
- “I’ve seen professional singers who don’t warm up and they sound great!”
If you’re a singer that doesn’t warm up before they begin singing, what’s the excuse that you use to avoid it?
Let’s shine a light on all of these excuses and see if they stand up under scrutiny:
- “It’s just a band practice”… Regardless of whether you’re singing for fun, or singing in front of a paying audience, the level of energy and the intensity that you exert on your voice is going to be very similar. If you are performing in front of a live audience, the majority of singers tend to sing a little bit harder and stronger because the adrenaline is running high. Your voice doesn’t care which of those two scenarios you’re operating in.
If you are singing high intensity rock or pop (or any style for that matter) and you neglect to warm up your voice, you will risk straining your vocal cords by applying excess force to a cold cord to sing higher. If you’re screaming without a warmup, that’s even worse on your poor voice.
- “After a couple of songs on stage, my voice just warms up naturally anyway”… If you’re a singer that falls into this category, those first two songs that you’re straining to hit the high notes by using excessive tension on your cords and adopting the “weightlifting” mentality will contribute to a singing voice that will feel the effects of vocal fatigue later on in your set.
Any time that you need to push your voice to sing higher or stronger is a good sign that you’re singing on cold vocal cords and you’re risking vocal strain. This is not only in your voice, but in the tendons and ligaments that play such a crucial role in supporting your larynx when you sing.
- “There’s no place to warm up. People will hear me!”... Most bars and music venues have bathroom stalls. They sometimes have little side rooms where you can go and do your warmup. Regardless of whether you need to warm up around other people or not, if you’re wearing headphones and singing along to a vocal warmup programme, you will be surprised how fast you forget about worrying what others think of you when you get on with the job of preparing your voice for top level performance.
- “I usually just have a couple of drinks or a smoke or vape and I’m ready to go”… I wish I had a dollar for every time I hear singers with a similar response to this. When you smoke or vape, you’re passing gasses across your vocal cords that are guaranteed to remove the protective layers of mucus that we rely on as singers to reduce harmful friction on the vocal cords when we sing.
You’re not doing yourself any favours here. Yes, you might like to have a smoke before you hit the stage to ease your nerves, but you can achieve the same effect through practicing singer’s breathing exercises that will help you to reduce pre-stage nerves without having a negative impact on your vocal cords.
As to alcohol, drinks are usually served cold and that’s where most of the problem lies. We want the vocal cords to be nice and warm to be able to perform at our best and you’re about to throw a cold drink down your throat. This is definitely going to mean that your vocal cords will take longer to warm up if you’re drinking a cold drink prior to singing.
It’s a commonly accepted practice to have a couple of shots of spirits before you hit the stage to “relax your voice” and deal with those pre-show nerves. This is a practice that professional singers like Sammy Hagar (ex lead singer of Van Halen) used to swear by before he hit the stage. The only problem with this is that if your vocal cords are slightly dehydrated to begin with, you’re going to make the situation worse for yourself and you’re going to be singing on a dry throat three or four songs in. You’re far more likely to be reaching for that cold drink to replace lost moisture in your throat, which is only going to make matters worse.
- “I’ve seen professional singers who don’t warm up and they sound great!”… A perfect example of this is Joe Elliott from Def Leppard. There are nights when he basically just makes a whole bunch of screaming sounds backstage in an effort to warm up his voice. When you take on an unstructured warmup strategy like this, you run the risk of only warming up some areas of your voice and you can easily neglect the essential, foundational stuff like building good diaphragmatic breath support and establishing open throat technique prior to hitting the stage.
If you look at the rock singers in particular that are still out there and doing it night after night who have enjoyed long careers performing to arena-sized audiences, these singers tend to fall into one of three simple categories. The first category is people like Glenn Hughes (ex Deep Purple) who is still capable of hitting all of his high notes in his 70s, for iconic songs like Mistreated and Highway Star. Glenn has maintained his phenomenal vocal range and his vocal agility and is a better singer now in his 70s than he was when he was in hsi 20s. This is due to great vocal technique and great vocal maintenance routines for his voice.
The second category is all the rock singers that were born with above average mass and length in their vocal cords that have tended to take their vocal powers for granted and have neglected to maintain structured vocal exercise and warmup routines prior to touring and during touring. We see an astounding number of these singers now in their 50s and 60s whose voices are breaking down because they have not been properly maintained. Regular vocal maintenance and warmup routines can help to offset unhealthy habits like drinking and smoking because vocal cords as they get older, if they’re not properly maintained, tend to lose their vocal agility and take much longer to repair.
The third and final category and singers who are experiencing a variety of vocal conditions, including polyps, nodes, cysts and partial vocal cord paralysis. Regular vocal exercise routines, and regular pre-show structured warmup routines can greatly reduce the risk of developing nodules, polyps or cysts on your vocal cords, as well as being able to aid in the treatment and reduction of any existing conditions that may be developing on your vocal cords.
When you do a vocal warm up, it helps to warm up your body as well! Singing any form of high-energy music requires a warm body and a warmed up set of vocal cords to not only help you sing at your best, but to also prevent injuries to both your vocal cords and other muscles or parts of your body, like your jaw. A warm body from a good, structured warmup routine can help to prevent damage from pushing too hard in your stomach area, which is something that happened to Lincoln Park’s Chester Bennington (RIP).
Better information leads to better singing.