Even the most novice of singers are familiar with a certain number of warm-ups and vocal exercises for singers, whether these exercises come from taking a few voice lessons, taking choir in school, or watching an instructional YouTube video. While the vast majority of voice teachers and choir directors use vocal exercises during their teaching sessions, I’ve found that instructors often forget to explain the purpose of doing these repetitive and even silly-sounding vocalizes. Vocal exercises are essential to any singer’s development and, if done correctly, will accomplish the following goals:
- A warmed up voice ready to healthfully sing for the remainder of the day
- Improved technique and vocal agility/ flexibility
- Ear training and pitch retention
An endless number of resources and vocal exercises for singers exist today, so rather than outline every possible exercise; my purpose for this article is to provide an overview of basic exercises applicable to singers of any experience level. These exercises can be made more difficult by stretching higher or lower in the vocal range, speeding up or slowing down, alternating vowels, or combining one exercise with another for an extended vocalize.
*DISCLAIMER: I am a voice instructor who teaches classical technique, and this list of vocal exercises for singers reflects that teaching style; however, nearly all of these exercises are accessible to singers of any style and will undoubtedly benefit any singer’s practice.
It is essential for singers of any experience level to incorporate breathing exercises into their practice routine. Breath control can easily make or break a singer’s success while singing, and the easiest way to ensure healthy singing for long periods of time is to first set up the breath using either of the following two exercises:
“Straw Breathing” – The singer inhales and exhales for a predetermined number of beats (or seconds) as though he or she is inhaling and exhaling through a straw. To achieve this affect, simply imagine your lips are surrounding a typical beverage straw, and begin to inhale. You should feel a bit of resistance in both the inhale and exhale due to the constricted lips. Try the following sequence, and eventually work your way up to longer inhales and exhales, such as 10, 12, or even 16 beats each:
- Inhale for four beats; exhale for four beats (repeat cycle twice).
- Inhale for six beats; exhale for six beats (repeat cycle twice).
- Inhale for eight beats; exhale for eight beats (repeat cycle twice).
“Yoga breathing” – the name of this vocal exercise for singers originates from the fact that I first learned the exercise while taking a yoga class. This exercise gradually adds air to the lungs through a series of stacked inhales and leaves the singer not only with a lung capacity ready to take on a singing session but also a wonderful sense of calm and mental clarity. To begin, close your eyes and go through the following sequence:
- Inhale through the nose until you reach what feels like 25% of your lung capacity, then hold for a few seconds.
- Inhale through the nose again until you feel you’ve reached 50% of your lung capacity, then hold for a few seconds.
- Inhale through the nose again until you feel you’ve reached 75% of your lung capacity, then hold for a few seconds.
- Inhale once more through the nose until you feel you’ve reached as full a breath intake as you can manage, then hold for a few seconds.
- Finally, release the air out of the mouth in a slow, steady stream
While there are several pronunciations of each English vowel, I’ve listed below a typical pronunciation of each vowel commonly used in music lessons. These pronunciations eliminate any sense of diphthong and closely relate to the International Phonetic Alphabet. Practice saying each vowel a few times before moving on to the vocal exercises:
a – pronounced “ah” (as in “father”)
e – pronounced “ay” (as in “may”)
i – pronounced “ee” (as in “heat”)
o – pronounced “oh” (as in “boat”)
u – pronounced “oo” (as in “youth”)
Beginner Vocal Exercises for Singers
Humming not only serves as a mindless vocal activity while cleaning the house, but also provides an excellent way to gently warm up the voice. Humming exercises are ideal for singers new to music, singers warming up early in the day before much talking or other vocalization has taken place, and singers who need to vocalize in an environment where they can’t make a lot of noise. There are two types of hums to use—try the first type a few times by humming a single pitch (something easily within your vocal range) before moving on to the second:
- Hmm – This hum is most likely the type that comes to mind. The “Hmm” hum is produced by keeping the lips lightly together and teeth slightly apart.
- Nng – Imagine singing the word, “singing” on a single pitch, and rather than cutting off the sound after finishing the word, hold on to the “ing” of the word to produce a nasal humming sound. The back of the tongue will be raised and the mouth open. The “Nng” hum is particularly useful for warming up the lower vocal range where the voice tends to fall back into the throat—by using the “Nng” hum to help bring the voice forward, the singer will have a much easier time transitioning into the middle and higher registers.
Hum to Vowel Transitions
Using either of these two hums, try singing a descending 5-step scale somewhere in the middle or lower part of your vocal range (in Solfège, this scale would be Sol – Fa – Mi – Re – Do).
Ex: G4 – F4 – E4 – D4 – C4
Once the exercise feels comfortable, try sliding open from the hum to an “a” vowel on each pitch of the descending scale. Begin the exercise in the same place in your range as you began previously. Continue up the scale by half step for a few repetitions, gradually warming up the middle of the vocal range (for example: if you begin your descending scale on G4, then the following repetition would begin on G#4).
Ex: Hmm à a – Hmm à a – Hmm à a – Hmm à a – Hmm à a
G4 F4 E4 D4 C4
Ex: Nng à a – Nng à a – Nng à a – Nng à a – Nng à a
G4 F4 E4 D4 C4
An arpeggio is a sung sequence of notes from a chord and can have several variations. Begin with the most common: the Major arpeggio. Starting on a pitch lower in the vocal range, sing the following sequence using the five vowels, assigning one vowel to each pitch. Then, repeat a half step higher. Continue this pattern for a few repetitions, and try to stretch higher up the range than in the previous vocal exercise.
a – e – i – o – u
C4 – E4 – G4 – E4 – C4
(Do – Mi – Sol – Mi – Do)
Once the above arpeggio is feeling comfortable, try extending the exercise to include one more note—the higher “Do.” Instead of going through all five vowels with this extended arpeggio, try choosing two vowels to alternate, such as “a” and “e”:
e – a – e – a – e – a – e
C4 – E4 – G4 – C5 – G4 – E4 – C4
(Do – Mi – Sol – Do – Sol – Mi – Do)
Intervals: Thirds & Fifths
We can now isolate parts of the arpeggio to practice singing intervals, specifically thirds and fifths (an interval is the space between two notes/ pitches). Practice singing both intervals independently on one vowel (any of the five vowels) beginning lower in the vocal range. Once each interval feels comfortable, combine both intervals to make a new exercise sequence (as seen below). Repeat the process up by half step, as before:
3rd: C4 – E4 – C4
Do – Mi – Do
5th: C4 – G4 – C4
Do – Sol – Do
Sequence: C4 – E4 – C4 – G4 – C4
Do – Mi – Do – Sol – Do
Using these basic vocal exercises for singers, any vocalist can build a well-balanced beginner-level practice routine. Before moving on to more advanced exercises, take the time to ingrain these basics into your voice by extending higher and lower into the vocal range, practicing each exercise on every hum and vowel variation, and monitoring how these exercises benefit your current singing repertoire.