Warming up the voice is not the same as practicing. Warming up for any physical or mental activity is a process of physiological and mental preparation. Warm-up exercises get you ready to practice or perform.
Mental and Physical Engagement
Because the vocal mechanism is so deeply internal and the rest of your process requires a special kind of self-awareness, the first step of any warm-up must be to turn your attention inward.
Your mood and general physical state are important to notice for several reasons. If you’ll be doing a longer practice session, knowing whether you feel super-energetic or definitely tired or blue may influence how long you spend and what goals you set for the rest of your vocal session. Pushing to get those high notes even if your body just isn’t up to it today – or working to exhaustion because you feel super-great or super-upset – will get in the way of steady progress. You can’t avoid these temptations until you know where they live.
Most important, though, is the inescapable fact that your body sensations and emotions are tied together, and both are wired into your voice. Allowing mood or pain signals into your consciousness is the only way to be sure you’re feeling your body fully – and that’s the most important thing for vocal safety.
After this mental check-in, the next step is to wake the body. If your life is generally sedentary, start your voice session with a few minutes of light aerobics, yoga, tai chi, or simple range-of-motion exercises like head-neck circles, shoulder circles, torso twists and hip circles. On the other hand, if you’re generally on the go, slow yoga postures and breathing exercises might be a better contrast and more helpful for balancing your attention.
From here, a typical vocal warm-up would use easy humming, tongue trills or lip trills (sometimes called lip bubbles – what brass players do, or kids mimicking engine noises). Keep your sounds medium quiet at first, even a little breathy. Keep your body moving as you loosen up the voice; stretch your face and tongue, energize the mouth, and yawn.
If you have learned how to enhance the resonance of “placement” of vibrations in your face, begin to bring those tones into your voice too, while keeping your throat easy and comfortable. Sometimes a light zzzzz is fun, or a modified hum on nnn or ng. Use whatever sound gives you the most buzzy vibration feelings in your mouth and face without having to push or force at all.
Another very comfortable warm-up is to use a drinking straw as you would a kazoo: pucker around the straw as if it’s an extension of your lips on an exaggerated vowel ooo. Vocalize on that long ooo vowel in your middle and upper ranges, staying relaxed in your throat and sending the sound through the straw. This can look or feel a little goofy, but it’s actually a very healthy exercise that helps the vocal folds move freely, and it feels round and warm inside the throat.
According to voice scientists, the healthiest production feels easy, comfortable, and effortless in the throat and resonant or vibrant in the face. So for vocal health and safety, those are the feelings to aim for in your warm-up.
Cooling Down after Practice
Athletic training often includes a cool down period that is the inverse of “bookend” of warming up. This practice allows the body to return to a resting level with minimum strain and allows your metabolism to begin “taking out the trash” left over from vigorous muscular effort.
Vocally, use the light exercises that began your warm-up: lip buzzes, tongue trills, humming, zzzzz, or the straw kazoo. Any whole-body stretching that you used as a warm-up can be repeated at a gentle pace to cool down your whole system. Massage the throat (on and around the voice box), neck, and jaw-muscle areas, and add yawns and tongue stretches to ease the throat muscles.
A hot shower or other steam treatment when you get home helps relieve the immediate surface wear and tear on the edges of the vocal cords. Slowing the breath and bringing your mental focus to present time (you’re not onstage any more) will help prepare your body for restorative sleep.