Feb 03 2014

Q&A: What is your personal daily routine?

On the one hand, how do you personally warm up your voice, exercise it and warm it down. Especially helpful would be some guidelines on repetition count or time duration per exercise (if general guidelines can be formulated that would be even better), as I’m always unsure how long / how many repetitions all these exercise take to reach optimal effectiveness. Is your practice the same for every day of the week? If not, how do you vary it?

This is actually somewhat difficult to put down. But there are some standard guidelines I can give.

First I would say that consistency is the most important thing. Not necessarily a great many hours, but day to day consistency. Do something every day. Some days will be a full exercise/practice session that can last a total of an hour or more. Other days will consist of not much more than five minutes of simple scales. It all depends on what you have time for and what the needs of the instrument are that day.

A general rule of thumb is to start with two or three short sessions of 10-15 minutes each. As your stamina increases the number of 10-15 minutes sessions can increase. But it is a good idea to take small breaks every 10-15 minutes regardless of how advanced you get. Even a break of a few minutes can make a significant difference in the fatigue of the voice.

Of course when rehearsing for a show there will be times when you sing for longer than that. But generally that should be occasional and not every day.

As for how I warm-up my voice, I keep it pretty simple. I follow the basic process that I teach, which is to start with the fundamentals.

I usually start in the lowest part of the range on three note ascending scales. (1, 2, 3, 2, 1…) This is to get the low register working, which provides the strength and firmness of the vibration.

I usually use the vowel ah, but sometimes I’ll use eh or ee. The objective is to establish the intensity of the vibration. Or in more simple terms the buzz.

I want to take this into the middle range but not too high at this point. How high depends on the natural range of the voice and the level of development. Actually for this exercise it is not necessary to go any higher than A in the middle. I use other exercises later to work higher. This is mainly to set the foundation.

I should say that it is a good idea to spend a couple minutes just getting in tune with the body. Slow breathing and practicing the stimulation of inspiration as a preparation before starting to vocalize is very helpful with the exercises.

Next I like to work from the other end of the range from high to low descending from the little head voice. For this I start as high as is comfortable, but high enough to easily be in what I call “female” voice. (I call it that so it is obvious what I mean. There is a lot of conflicting opinions regarding falsetto, head voice or whatever different people call the high voice that resembles a female voice. So I just call it female voice.)

I use either octave arpeggios (8, 5, 3, 1…) or five note scales (5, 4, 3, 2, 1…) on the oo vowel. The vowel choices are deliberate because I want to use vowels that contribute to the register condition I am working. One clue about how to pronounce the little oo vowel is to actually say a closed oh. Like is found in German and Swedish.

The closed oh helps to get the lips small while at the same time stretching the jaw. The opening of the jaw is important in order to have a generous resonance area. But the lips need to stay small to keep the acoustic quality closed.

This exercise is done at a very quiet dynamic level. The purpose is not to practice singing but to exercise what I call the “essence” of the voice. This essence is the murmur-like vibration at the heart of all healthy vocalization. It may seem like it is the quietest vocalizing you can do. Like you are just singing to yourself.

Even though this is exercising the upper register I want to bring it all the way down through the middle range. This teaches the voice to incorporate the ease and elasticity of this adjustment into the middle voice. Doing this makes the voice much easier to produce.

After this is completed the voice has been exercised through its complete range in a most basic way. Essentially just exercising the pure tuning mechanics of the larynx. We also have exercised the “overlap” of the middle range. This is important for avoiding the trap of pushing the lower voice up to accomplish range.

After laying this functional foundation the next step is to work the range in a more complete and connected manner. I go back to the lower part of the range and do longer patterns that cover a good bit of ground. My favorite that I do most often is an octave and a third arpeggio. (1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 8, 5, 3, 1…)

I use the ah vowel but it is pronounced more like uh, the neutral sound. When done correctly the acoustics fill out the vowel so it sounds like ah. The reason for pronouncing the neutral sound is to de-emphasize the mouth. We don’t really want the mouth to be the resonator. So the neutral form helps with that.

Another way to describe this is the neutral sound releases the proper resonating space, the pharynx, by neutralizing the mouth. If we pronounce a vowel too specifically we risk using the mouth to form the vowel and create a talking vowel rather than an acoustic vowel.

This happens through subtle constrictions in the throat that inhibit the resonance from finding its full potential.

The purpose behind this exercise is to establish the vocalization to be used for performance. Our complete voice. What I often call our final product. The first two exercises are more of “setting-up” exercises. They are not meant to resemble our actual singing. This should, at least to a certain degree, resemble our actual singing. I’ll explain what I mean in a minute.

The reason I like the long pattern is because it allows us to start addressing the upper transition and the high range while still starting relatively low. The benefit in that is by having a lower starting note we avoid the undesirable “lift” that tends to happen with higher starting notes.

Some would describe it as being more relaxed. I would say it allows the larynx to more likely find its proper stability. Which is critical for comfortable connected high notes. When the starting note is higher the larynx is more likely to rise and not have a nice stable “platform” to be played on.

I don’t start from the very bottom of the range. I usually want to start at a pitch where the top note is right around the transition area. For me I start at C major, so the top note is E natural. Lower voices should start a little lower. High voices probably should start about the same.

For females I do start at their lowest pitch because the major transition is the lower one. It is very important for females to learn how to include the lower register in a flexible and healthy way. It might not seem related, but the low register is fundamental to their high notes.

The idea behind this exercise is to work the flexible full voice from the lower to the higher in one repetition. Now, what I meant when I said earlier that this should be performance singing to a certain degree refers to how we approach the higher notes.

I always feel it is a good idea the first time we sing through the high range to do it at a moderate intensity. Similar to a speaking level. The tendency, especially for male singers, is to automatically sing the high voice full tilt like in a performance. The problem with this is we tend to over-produce the voice and lose the balanced vibration.

A way of thinking of this is each part of the voice needs to be warmed up independently. Including the high voice. This is started by the little head voice exercise. But we benefit from having an intermediate step between that and totally full intensity high notes. In fact, in many cases this moderate intensity high range fulfills what is needed.

After this I like to sing a hymn or two to incorporate words and melody in a simple way before practicing more complex music.

Specifics about number of repetitions depends on the individual range. But as I said earlier, the first exercise is only for the lower part of the range. The second exercise should explore as much of the high range as is comfortable and then descend all the way through the middle range. The third exercise is the finisher and should cover most of the range.

I’m afraid this post is too long, but this is what I do. I don’t think people should do exactly what I do, but the basic framework is a good starting point. I do feel we each need to develop our own way of warming up that is based on these basic principles and then personalized to what is needed by the individual voice.

  1. Bouviala Jacqueline

    Hi Mr Mayer!
    2 little questions :


    1) first and third exercises
    if I understood you rightly, the females ought to start in the chest for those 2 exercises?

    2) 2nd exercise
    What do you call the “little head voice”.
    Is it something different from just plain “head voice”?
    do you mean head voice in mezza voce?

    Thank you,
    I have a lot of others things to say…but later
    Jacqueline Bouviala

  2. Thanks for your questions, Jacqueline.

    1) Yes, exactly. Part of the purpose is to exercise the low/male register, so literally the bottom of the range. This is important to establish a foundation for the rest of the range. It isn’t an obvious relationship, but the low register plays an important role in the middle and high range.

    The vigorous low register provides stability of the larynx that is needed when transitioning to the standard female register for middle and high range. Without it the voice will lack core in the tone and will either have a limited range or have to resort to excess breath to whoop up to high notes.

    2) I prefer to refrain from using standard terminology because it tends to be anything but standardized. So I instead use descriptions. And little head voice is just what that describes. Head voice that has a small size. By small I am referring to the size of the glottis. I would say that plain head voice tends to be larger than it should be. And even if it isn’t it is bigger than the intended purpose of the exercise because of the full dynamic level.

    One of the purposes behind this exercise is to develop a more pure and efficient vibration. It requires less expenditure of energy in the form of breath yet also creates more acoustic energy because of more purity in the tone. The first step is to discover the coordination required to shrink the vibration. The best way I have found is through this small head voice.

    It is helpful to remember that it is a quiet sound, like singing to yourself. If that means mezza voce to you, then yes. But that is another term that not everybody really understands the same way.

    The larynx functions much more completely from the basis of this type of vibration. Hope this helps make it more clear. Thanks.

  3. Bouviala Jacqueline

    Thank you for your answer.
    It is as I thought, I just wanted to be sure!

    I am already convinced of the importance of chest voice for women.
    (By the way, I do not want to speak too much about me but…I am grateful to my chest voice, since it helped me to get my “Premier prix de chant” in Fiordiligi. And I found it by myself, a fortnight before the contest, the French teachers were not very keen on teaching chest to sopranos in the ’70.)

    I very often use to sing or even to THINK of a pitch in chest before singing a high pitch, it helps me much.

    I had a teacher whose main exercise was : jumps from chest to high voice, but it was not “little head voice”.
    Perhaps your suggestion is more secure, especially at the beginning of the routine.

    I very recently realized that chest helped me with the medium also. The problem with high pitches is often that I simply cannot reach them , the problem with the medium pitches is that I find them very easily in a wrong place. Chest helps to find the right place.

    Still, at the VERY beginning of my routine, I I do not feel like singing chest,it is not joyful enough! I sing some pitches around B third line trebel clef.

    Thank you again, I hope I did not say too much nonsense!
    (I also read the article on Garcia’s coup de glotte and I think it is the MOST PRECIOUS article on your website.)

  4. You’re welcome. Great info on how you use chest voice to help balance your middle. A risk with jumps from chest to high is to accomplish it by “whooping”, which is replying on the whoosh of breath to get to the note. This is a common but dangerous practice. By going small, which in a way is simply doing a diminuendo, we can avoid the temptation to push the breath out. Instead we achieve a balanced middle and upper range. Thanks for your feedback.

  5. Bouviala Jacqueline

    I should not have used the word “jump”.
    In that exercise , it was really 2 successive attacks.
    I will treasure your advice for jumps found in arias (especially Mozart).

    (I will stop here, I am becoming intrusive!)

  6. Good evening Mr Mayer,

    Thank you for the article (and the others :-))
    I found the exercise with small “oo” vowel and the head voice very useful! It proved easier than I expected, and when performed lightly and quietly it yields high notes easily. (but really requires concentration and focus)

    However, I have difficulties with lower register exercises as they easily cause my voice to become hoarse, even if not sung loudly. Maybe something is wrong with coordination of other elements necessary for singing…

    Anyway, I find the knowledge you share here, really necessary for vocal health and very valuable! Thank you.

  7. Thanks for your comment, Justyna. I appreciate the feedback and hearing that you tried out the exercises. Yes, the small oo exercise does require concentration so we don’t just resort to letting the voice get bigger and using the breath only for the higher pitch.

    I usually associate hoarseness with excess breath going through the vibration. Which is very easy to let happen in the low register. This is because the low register is naturally loose. Which is why we need to exercise it.

    The key is to get a true vibration on the low notes and not just a relaxed “crooning” sound. When this condition is unfamiliar it can be difficult to achieve. The most helpful ideas that I have found for this is to start by imitating certain sounds.

    For example, females can imitate a male low voice. Another option is to imitate animals. For the low register I find imitating a cow to be helpful. The objective is to get the buzzing, intense vibration of the vocal folds.

    Thanks again and I hope you keep coming back!

  8. No problem, Jacqueline. Your comments are what this is for. A new attack is a great way to think of it. I like to call it a new articulation for each note. And that can be thought of in many instances. Thanks again.

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