In classical music choirs, warm-ups are seen as an essential activity before a rehearsal or performance. Some gospel choirs do warm-ups also, but others don't. What is the purpose of warming up? Why does it matter?
The phrase “warming up” really means getting the vocal cords ready to be used.
The tissues that make up the vocal folds should get a good circulation of blood flowing through them before you start singing in full voice. One choir director said, “It takes 7 minutes of singing for the vocal folds to fill with blood and literally be 'warmed up' enough for safe singing . . . Like with any other muscle we intend to use, we must first warm it up and bring blood to the muscle or risk significant injury to the muscle.” (Source: choralnet.org).
Singing loudly and singing high notes puts more demand on the vocal cords, so that's why warm-ups should start out with singing in an easy, comfortable range and moderate volume. Gradually work your way up to the more challenging singing.
The 7-minute guideline is how long it takes for your vocal cords to warm up if they're completely cold. They will not be that cold if you have been using your voice (talking, etc.) for most of the day. So warming up before you sing is only partially about physically preparing the vocal cords. Usually when you warm up you have other goals as well.
One of the things you want to get out of warming up is preparing the rest of your body to sing by reminding yourself of the postures and vocal techniques that you have learned for getting the most out of your voice.
Talking will bring circulation to the vocal cords, but when you're talking you don't use the same kind of breathing and projection that you do when you sing. During warm-up you want to take the time to remember how you want to hold your body, control your air flow, and relax your mouth, face, and throat in order to get the best sound without straining. Do your choir members ever show up at rehearsal feeling tense and tight after a long working day? Warm-up is the time to shake that off and get loose.
Warming up also helps to prepare the mind for singing. As the choir begins to sing together during warm-up, they want to focus their minds and their ears on listening to one another and working on blending their voices.
How do you know when you are really warmed up?
Your goal in warm-up is to be prepared for the singing you have to do. One voice teacher said, “When you can hit all the notes in your range with no discomfort and your passagio area is smoothed out, you are warmed up and can confidently apply full voice.” (Source: Judy Rodman) . The passagio is the part of your range where you have to shift from your chest-voice (lower-note) singing to your head-voice (higher-note) singing.
How do you warm up a whole group? If the goal of warming up is to get everything running smoothly in the body and the voice, won't it take longer for some people to reach that goal than for others? How can a director know when every person is ready?
The director can listen to the choir as a whole and decide when they're starting to sound the way they ought to sound. But there could be particular singers who still need more singing time before they're ready to challenge their voices. Encourage each person to pay attention to how they are sounding and feeling and continue checking their technique.
As the director, you may want to plan your rehearsal time so that the order of the songs allows people more “warm-up” time if they need it. You can start off rehearsing the songs that are in a medium range and at moderate volumes and wait until later in the rehearsal to do the songs where the singers need to “belt it out” or sing a lot of high notes.
As I mentioned in my post about best practices for conducting, a director should tailor their conducting to the particular needs of a specific song and a specific choir. Here are a couple of examples of how that works.
These are two videos of a choir that I work with in Orange County. In each of them you can see some standard choir directing moves that I use all the time, as well as some signaling that is specific to the particular song.
(By the way, this choir has excellent musicians who play on almost all of their songs. It's just a coincidence that both of these videos are a cappella songs.)
On this song, King Jesus Is A-Listenin', most of the gestures you see are my standard moves. The way that I'm following the rhythm of the singing and the notes going up and down with my hands, I always do that.
But on the lines where the sopranos say, "He's got power in His hand, and He's taking me away," you'll see a gesture that I improvised for this song. I hold out one hand in the direction of the sopranos, with my palm facing toward them (the first time it comes is at the 1:24 mark). The reason for the gesture is that during rehearsals the sopranos were sometimes singing the word as "hands", a plural, when it's supposed to be singular, "hand." So I started showing them my single hand as they sing that line to remind them not to put an "s" at the end of "hand."
Something else that didn't show up in the video is when they reach the part that says "oh, oh, oh, oh, King Jesus is a-listenin'", I formed "O"s with my hands to let them know we were going to that section of the song.
Now here's another video of the same choir (different day and different person doing the filming, so it's a little rough):
This song is called "Hallelujah Lord."
Here, as we're starting into the song (at the 0:12 mark), you can see me doing the classical-style conducting beat patterns. That wasn't necessary at the beginning of "King Jesus Is A-Listening" because the beat isn't as strict on that song, you can be flexible with it. But on "Hallelujah Lord" everyone is singing different rhythmic lines that have to fit together, so it's very important to stay on a steady beat. The tenors are the ones who anchor the song, and I counted off two measures for them so that they would have a strong sense of the tempo before they started.
When the altos come in (at 0:31), you see me gesture toward them with two fingers outstretched. This is because they start with a split part, first altos and second altos singing different notes. They always remembered this anyway, but it doesn't hurt to give a signal that's in sync with them.
At 0:36, there's a phrase where the tenors sing one line while the other parts sing a different one on top of it. I start the tenors off because they come in first, but then for the rest of the phrase all of my conducting is synced with the other three parts. That's because the tenors were the most solid on their part. I knew that I could leave them to carry theirs on their own and focus on the others. If the tenors had been at all shaky about keeping to their rhythm, then I would have had to practice conducting their line with one hand and the line for the other parts with the other hand (that would have taken a lot of preparation and practice, but it is possible).
At 1:21, they start into another passage where several different lines are going on. The tenors start off, then the second altos, then the sopranos, then the first altos. At 1:38, the basses join in. Once they come in, my conducting is completely focused on the basses. It had been a challenge for them to hold onto their timing and their notes in this passage during rehearsals, so I give them full attention to help them stay on track.
One of the beautiful things about rehearsal time is that you can observe your choir and see what areas they need the most support in. A director who knows their choir can work on guiding them through songs in the way that is best for them, a way that a stranger wouldn't be able to do, no matter how skilled the stranger may be. Sort of like John 10:27.
Conducting, of course, is the way you
communicate with your choir during the performance. How do you make
that communication the most effective?
Understand what information the
choir most needs from you. This will be different from choir to
choir and from song to song. On one song, their biggest need may be
for you to guide them through twists and turns in a complicated
harmony. On another song, they may need you to keep them focused on
staying in rhythm together. And in another song, they may be solid
on their parts but need reminders on the lyrics. You will know what
they need on each song observing their strong and weak points when
you're working with them in rehearsal.
Plan your signals. What gestures
do you want to use to communicate the needed information? I have a
web article about some of my preferred hand signals for choir
directing (here's the link:
But there will be some situations where you need to come up with a
signal that might be unique to that one song and that one choir.
Think about what you're going to need and come up with a plan.
Take time alone and practice
conducting through the song. Remember that whenever there's a
change coming, you want to give your signals enough in advance so
that the choir isn't taken by surprise and they can make a smooth
transition. Try to practice it enough times that it becomes
automatic for you, almost like a dance.
Think of rehearsal time as a time
not only for the choir to work on their vocals, but also for you to
continue to refine your directing technique for the song. You've
already been preparing on your own, but in rehearsal you see if the
choir is successfully getting the message that you're trying to give
them with your signals. And, as I said, you get an idea of what
areas the choir needs the most guidance in, and you can adjust your
When the time comes that you're
singing the song in service, stay in the moment and stay focused. I
try to keep my body language flowing with the feeling of the music
at the same time that I'm giving the signals that are required to
keep everything together. This serves as an example to the choir
also of how to get into the spirit of a song at the same time that
they're focused on getting their parts right.
Choir conducting is an art. The
director brings both together both the technical skill and the
spiritual sensitivity to bring the best out of the choir and the
music. Work on developing both and communicating them both to your