I just read your article, "Sports-Specific Training for the Vocal Athlete, Part 1: How exercise can support your vocal technique".
I am a member of a woman's a capella group, and have been asked to run a 5 minute physical warm-up each week, prior to vocal exercises. I am a dance-fitness instructor, and have been modifying my warm-up routines to try and better suit upper body stretching.
Could you recommend any specific exercises that I could lead that would help us to warm up/strengthen/stretch the muscle groups we need to make us better vocalists?
Cindy Whitfield, Certified Fitness Instructor, DanceIT International
Thanks for the email - this is a great question, and I wish more singers and ensembles were asking the same thing!
Physical warm-up exercises for singing serve two main purposes:
- Stretching and enlivening the muscles/tissue responsible for breathing, alignment, and vocal production to optimize coordination and range of motion;
- Enhancing kinesthetic awareness of your body and voice to help make a transition from just being a person engaged in normal life activities to being a musical instrument.
Here is a description of what I do when I have the time to get in a comprehensive physical warmup before singing or performing. I realize that singers do not always have the time nor access to gym equipment, so I'll describe my ideal scenario and then make some suggestions about how these movements can be modified to be performed without tools.
I describe the way each exercise fulfills the two purposes cited above. As with all your work in singing, stay mindful of your intentions as you perform these movements.
- Prepare the legs and hips to support good alignment and breathing. The hamstrings contract hundreds of times just from walking down the street, and sitting for long periods of time will cause them to stiffen.
- Observe any flexibility imbalances that may exist between the left and right legs and any sensitivities in the knee and hip joints so that you can be mindful of standing without collapsing into one hip or the other, locking the knees, or keeping all your weight on one side or the other.
I recommend this position, with one leg extended and the other knee bent, foot pressing against the thigh or calf of the extended leg. Notice how straight her back is as she bends over the extended leg. When I did an image search for a seated hamstring stretch, the vast majority of photos depicted people with rounded lower backs trying to touch their toes or get their heads down to their knees. If you're focusing on stretching your hamstrings, it's important to keep your lower back straight and just try to fold as far as you comfortably can at the hip. You may not need to move very far at all. Just fold at the hip far enough that you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh. Hold the stretch (don't bounce) for at least 30 seconds. Then repeat with the other leg.
Alternative: You can also perform this stretch standing up. Just make sure you're wearing stable, flat shoes.
Prone Breathing Stretch with Stability Ball
- Stretch and strengthen the muscles of costal respiration and improve lung capacity.
- Improve awareness of how the ribs, spine, and all related muscles coordinate and interact during breathing; expose any areas of tightness or imbalance.
Kneel in back of a stability ball. Place your palms down on the ball and then carefully roll forward until your torso is draped over the ball with your fingertips and toes on the floor for balance (the guy in the photo is hugging the ball, but it's better to reach your arms to the floor). Relax your neck and let your head just hang. Inhale slowly and deeply, feeling the stretch in your spine and back ribs; then exhale and feel the movement throughout your back. Repeat 5 - 10 times. Carefully roll back off the ball until you return to a kneeling position.
Alternative: Standing with knees gently flexed, place your hands on your thighs and round your spine and shoulders. This is also a good position for improving range of motion through your ribs at the back and gaining greater sensitivity to movement in that area during respiration.
Foam Roller Back Self-Massage and Simple Back Bend Stretch
- Improve upper body flexibility and alignment; relieve tightness in back and shoulders; stretch and expand front of the rib cage.
- Improve awareness of how the ribs expand in the front during breathing; expose any areas of tightness or imbalance in the ribs and spine
Foam rollers have many uses for stretching and massaging tight muscles. It's important to use correct form so please refer to this detailed article for instruction. Most gyms have foam rollers for this purpose, but if you don't have access to one you can order a foam roller for home use here.
To perform a back bend supported by the roller, position it under your shoulder blades or a little lower. Drape backwards over the roller and allow your head to fall back and your neck to relax. Inhale slowly, feeling the stretch through your ribs and sternum in the front. You may also feel a stretch throughout your abdominal muscles as well. Exhale. Breathe in and out 5 - 10 times.
Alternative: Stand with your knees gently flexed. Brace your hands against your lower back or buttocks for support and carefully arch your neck and spine backwards. Keep your weight on the balls of your feet to maintain balance.
- Stretch muscles of the cervical spine and improve circulation to all structures in the neck.
- Focus attention on head/neck alignment and expose any tightness or muscular imbalances in this area.
Here is a wonderful instructional video on performing full neck rotations (if the embedded video isn't playing properly on your browser, please use this link instead):
Full Yoga Head Rotation -- powered by ehow
If you have any difficulty performing full neck rotations, try this stretch instead.
- Improve jaw range of motion and flexibility
- Improve awareness of jaw movement and position
Open your jaw as wide as you comfortably can. Place the index and middle fingers of both hands on your back lower molars and gently stretch your jaw down a little lower. Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds. Repeat 3 - 5 times.
Chronic jaw tension is clearly a problem for many people! As I searched in vain for an illustration for this stretch, I was fascinated to come across this torture device. I personally have no experience with the Orastretch and am not recommending it, but I couldn't resist the impulse to share this link with you!
- Good stretch for the tissues that contribute to resonance, including the soft palate and pharynx. Yawning also stretches out your eardrums.
- Improves awareness of your own potential internal expansion and resonance space.
It's pretty simple: make yourself yawn. Pay particular attention to the expansive feeling throughout your pharynx and palate. Be mindful that the tongue often also stiffens and retracts when yawning; this movement is not useful for singing, so be careful not to associate the spaciousness of your resonance with retraction and depression of the tongue.
Stick out your tongue
- Most of us need to strengthen the genioglossus (the muscle that thrusts the tongue forward) and stretch and release the hyoglossus (the muscle that retracts and depresses the tongue). Stretching your tongue by sticking it out helps accomplish both of these things. See my Tongue Workshop Recap for more details and illustrations of these muscles.
- Explore tongue range of motion and expose any tightness, particularly at the base.
As with any exercise program, be mindful of your body's limitations and do not push beyond your comfort zone. These stretches are intended to gently expand your movement possibilities in ways that will be useful for your singing technique and to bring your awareness to these parts of your body. Perform them slowly and with attention and care.