How To Warm Up A Choir

I am not a fan of “warm ups.”  Any athlete or pianist will tell you that isolating a single part of the body to “warm it up” is not effective.  The whole body must be warmed.  A pianist who plays in a warm room will play much better than one who attempts to “warm up” his hands by blowing on them in a cold room or playing an hour of scales.  Warming up is a whole body experience.

Vocal exercises are excellent tools if used for educational or instructional purposes but “warming up” comes from a different place.  A choir director who runs meaningless scales is just wasting everyone’s time, especially if there is no educational purpose behind them.

Warming up the voice and the vocal apparatus is much the same as warming up the whole body but with a few additional parameters.  First, many choir rehearsals are held in the evening and the singers have already been walking, talking, breathing, eating and drinking during day.  Most likely, their voice is ready to sing.  However, there are usually a few components missing.

Imagine that a child is about to run out into the street and a car is racing toward him.   In an effort to save his life you would yell “STOP!” or “NOOOO!” or “Billy!”  Did you need to warm up to do that?  The force, confidence and conviction for that vocalization came from your brain because you knew little Billy was about to get smooshed.  It also came from your heart (the emotional one) because you knew little Billy was about to get smooshed.  Your diaphragm naturally rose to the occasion and your soft palate also raised in sympathetic response to the brain and heart in order to convey the message as fully, open and forcibly as possible.

What if your dog were to pee on your new $1,000 carpet?  If you are an owner who believes in negative reinforcement, you might yell “NO!” or “BAD DOG.”  Did you need to warm up first?  No, because it came from your brain that the dog was about to soil your new carpet, it came from your angry heart because your dog was about to soil your new carpet and as a result, your diaphragm and soft palate unequivocally made your angry intention known to your pooch.

A friend has a new born baby and it is sleeping in her arms.  With your best stage whisper you comment on how it is the most beautiful baby you’ve every seen and you ask to hold him.  You can whisper loudly because your brain knows the baby is sleeping and your heart doesn’t want to wake him so your diaphragm and soft palate do what it takes to convey your message with delicacy in hushed, dulcet tones.

You go to a birthday party and everyone sings “Happy Birthday.” The whole gathering of well wishers erupt into a rousing and full throated rendition – including two or three part harmony.  Did anyone need to warm up first?  No, because the brain and heart automatically engaged the diaphragm and soft palate with earthy bon ami.

Whether you cough intentionally to get someone’s attention, sigh on “arrrgh,” in frustration, groan at a bad joke, say “awww” at a cute kitten, jump out at someone and yell “BOO,” “Ho-ho-ho” like Santa, or bark like a dog; your diaphragm and soft palate will naturally and fully engaged without warm up because the vocalization comes first from the brain and emotional heart.

All these body parts and mechanisms are already in place and will work on command if we beleive what we are doing, singing or saying.  The first job of any choir director is not to engage the choir in meaningless warmups but to give our text meaning and purpose which should be the primary task of any director.

I’m not saying that our church choirs don’t beleive but, if they need to warm up, something else is missing.  Why can’t we automatically sing songs of adoration to God the way we would vocalize the first time we see a loved one who we haven’t seen in ten years as they get off an airplane?  Why can’t we sing in contrition they way we would if we broke our mother’s prized antique vase and bellowed “I’m am SO sorry.  I WILL replace it.”  Why can’t we sing songs of thanksgiving to God the way we would profusely thank someone who just returned our lost wallet with all the  attendant money intact?  Why can’t we sing songs of supplication to God they way someone would beg for a significant other not to leave them?  If the answer is that we need to warm up first, something else is missing.

Why do so many choir directors have to trick their choirs into engaging their soft palates and diaphragms through the use of warm ups?  The answers can be many and varied.  Maybe we don’t beleive in God.  Maybe we don’t know how to beleive in God.  Maybe we are afraid to express our belief in public.  Maybe we don’t have the conviction to beleive in God.  Maybe we have directors who don’t beleive in God.  Maybe we have directors who beleive in music.  Maybe we have directors who are only regurgitating what they’ve been taught.  Maybe we have directors who just haven’t figured it out yet.  Maybe we have directors more concerned with the notes rather than the words.  Maybe we don’t know or believe that our music has purpose, meaning and power.  Comprehension does not imply belief and without belief we can’t fully activate our bodies.

The solution then, isn’t to do warm ups.  It is to network our emotions with our bodies and that takes effort not related to music but – is wholly related to music.  At a job interview once, a member of the search committee, who made sure I knew she was a Juilliard graduate and a soloist in the church, asked me if I did warmups and I spouted to her an abbreviated version of this blog and then I told her that I do lead sung prayer before every rehearsal and she asked, “What does any of this have to do with directing a choir?”  My reply was more advanced than a mere Juilliard grad could understand; I’m not a choir director.  I am a pastoral musician who trains the choir to be music ministers and, that music should not be their ministry but a vehicle to ministry.  Directing a choir has a great deal to do with reversing foreground and background.

First and foremost though is to support what the text and music itself is saying, not to necessarily inflict our own views and emotions on it.  The last thing we need to do is sing and play as if our feelings were being injected into the music.  That happens a lot in church choirs.

Ultimately, the universe has given us everything we need to vocally do what we need to do.  The only thing that stands in our way is ourselves.  I know many music directors will disagree with me and that is okay.  Just remember that no agnostic ever burned anyone at the stake or tortured a pagan, a heretic, or an unbeliever.  If you disagree that fervently, chalk it up to differences of opinion.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to go warm up gravity because I am going jogging and I want to make sure every time I take a step, my foot will return to the ground.


One thought on “How To Warm Up A Choir

  1. Sing Better English

    Thank you for posting that.

    I absolutely agree with you that : “The only thing that stands in our way is ourselves.” when we sing. I come at it from a slightly different angle, but I was very interested to read what you had to say about ‘warming up.’ You’re right – as most choir practices take place in the evening, people have been warming up their voices all day long – and nuns who are living under a vow of silence don’t have to do warm-ups before they burst into song at their services – even in the middle of the night!


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