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By Vincent Cefali

For music educators and choir directors, the warm-up can become a stale part of the rehearsal. When you take a fresh look at it, it can become a time for excitement, community building, and music reading. It can even offer a moment for mindfulness practices. Too many choir directors go through the motions during a warm up with mindless “mi-mi-mi-mi-mi’s” and tedious tongue twisters. It is time to give a little more love to this crucial part of the choral rehearsal and see how it really makes a difference not only in your choir’s sound, but also your choir’s cohesion as a group.

Three years ago, as a final project in my choir classes, I gave students the opportunity to create their own warm up for our class. This project was eye opening. I saw some students mimic exactly every exercise I did and when I asked them to address WHY they chose a particular warm up, they could not even give me a solid answer.

This forced me to take a step back and reflect. Was I rushing through my warm ups to get to the music? Was I missing an opportunity to really teach students what goes into healthy, lifelong singing habits? How do I make my warm up an engaging part of the classroom experience while also communicating why each part of the warm up is important?

Three Essential Steps

Now I explain to my students that every warm up has three essential steps. These essential steps include a set of exercises focused on your physical body, your breathing, and your voice. Every warm up must have a combination of exercises that delve into these.

It’s also vital to sure these exercises are engaging, purposeful, and fun. I focus on the fun because it’s the easiest way to trick kids into practicing healthy singing technique while also increasing their positive engagement in school. Middle school is a daunting age group to teach but it’s even more challenging for the students. A fun and engaging warm up is a great way to make students experience the joy in music and also to provide a space where students feel excited and comfortable to be themselves around their peers.

Physical Warm Ups

I have acquired many physical warm ups from the land of phys ed and theatre arts. Whether you are just shaking it all out or doing a plank challenge, the physical warm ups should be tied to any part of the body used for singing. I always ask my students; ”What parts of the body are used for singing?”

Hint: It’s a trick question!

Singing is a whole body exercise. So any parts of the body can be focused on during the physical warm up. I’ve seen major benefits of infusing standing yoga poses into my choir warm up. Typically every Friday, my choirs do a basic flow through some standing poses that help elongate the spine and promote healthy singing posture.

Breathing Warm Ups

Breathing warm ups have become a centering moment for my choirs. We practice mindfulness here but also explore the capacity of our breath. Before we move in depth, I invite my students to close their eyes and practice three types of meditative breathing techniques.

First we start with the standard “In through your nose and out through your open mouth.” Next we move into a closed lip breath (ujjayi breath), where you breathe in through your nose and back out your nose with sealed lips. Lastly we do a lion’s breath, where you breathe in through your nose, stick out your tongue and make a loud exhale.

Each of these breathing exercises require students to be silent, meditative, and have a chance to center themselves before we move into rehearsing music. After this, we move into more traditional breathing exercises like patching, hissing, and other exercises that build our abdominal muscles.

Vocal Warm Ups

This is where the fun happens! The key is to use warm ups that not only address a vocal need for your group but also engage them to the point where they are having fun. The easiest way to get a small, timid middle school choir to sing louder is to trick them into it.

I like to start off any warm up I do with something that works through the nasal passages and helps wake up the face. I tell students to imagine their mom wakes them up for school early in the morning and their response to her is SOO ANNOYED that they CAN’T EVEN, so they respond to her with a nasal, annoyed “MAAA!”

Let them have fun, but remind them not to push shout or scream. Then take that nasal “MAA!” and put it on a descending triad (3-2-1). Encourage healthy fun exploring the sound a nasal tone makes.

Next, to change the sound a bit, have them imagine that their mom just made them their favorite dinner! Naturally they’re so excited that they smile, open their mouths wide and say “MAAA!” with love and appreciation. Then put that on the same descending triad. The singers will be tricked into a beautiful, open sound.

Using the Alphabet

Another fun, tricky warm up is based on the alphabet. Have students sing the alphabet up and down on a 5 note pattern (1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1- etc) until the end. First challenge your choir to speed up their tempo but still be precise on all their letters. Next, pick a medium tempo but invite a student to pick two letters somewhere in the middle of the alphabet to omit. Then sing the exercise but when you get to those letters, you replace them with rests.

Concentration is key here! Your singers will not want to have a surprise solo during this warm up. You can increase the difficulty by removing more letters. It’s so fun working through this warm up that students won’t even be able to keep themselves from laughing. Allowing them to have fun with their singing and make little mistakes with this challenge will open the door to realize that to sing together, you must be vulnerable together.

The Range-Extender Unicorn

For the final warm up, which I like to call the “Range-Extender Unicorn,” have students sing a simple “You”, and slide it up an entire octave and then back down.

Where does the unicorn come in?

I like to tell my students to envision they are unicorns and to point to where their unicorn horn comes out. This is exactly where their sound should feel like it’s coming out while they make this octave leap. Since physical movement is often helpful with healthy vocal production, I then invite the students to send their hands up into the sky, out through their unicorn horn.

I swear it’s all about selling it. Your singers will giggle, think it’s goofy and give it a try. After they give it a try, you’ll see that they have a bright, heightened sound as they envision this range extension exercise going all the way out their forehead.

I tend to use all these exercises in a given week during my warm ups. Having fun and building community is one of my priorities as a choir director of young people. If our students do not love the space they are in and feel comfortable being a little vulnerable, then we won’t ever get to the challenging stuff. Grounding your warm up in a marriage of mindful practices and exciting vocal tricks is just one of the ways to build community in your choir. Do not neglect the warm up because it holds the key to success when building a strong choir culture. Instead of brushing through to get to the “music,” take some time here to focus on the singers that make your choir all that it is.

Looking for choir resources, view Music Books Plus. Our Staff's top pick is CHOIR BUILDERS

Have fun with your choral warm-ups! With this collection of fifty-four inventive and educational songs and exercises, your choir will beg for more. Start out with the unison pieces and "build" to the more challenging exercises for 2-part, 3-part or 4-part treble or mixed voices. Developed and composed by the award-winning choral composer and master teacher, Rollo Dilworth, Choir Builders will prove to be a "fun"damental way of improving and sustaining a quality choral sound with your performance groups. 

Author Vincent Cefali is a music educator teaching at Lincoln Middle School in Berwyn, IL. In his 6th year of teaching choir and general music, he has found that Zoltan Kodaly’s quote rings true, “Music should belong to everyone.” His focus in education is to provide support to create inclusive curriculum and culturally responsive classrooms through the fine arts. He holds a master’s in social and cultural foundations in education from DePaul University and a bachelor’s in music education from Illinois Wesleyan University.

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