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How to lead a warm-up when you don't know what you're doing

As featured in The Harmonizer.

4 Ways to Unify your Singers

Heads up, assistant director! The director had a flat tire on the way to tonight’s rehearsal, so you will be leading the warm-up—for the first time ever!

You know that warm-ups are the most important part of the rehearsal. You also know that warm-up exercises don’t automatically make a chorus better and can actually reinforce bad habits. Yikes! Here’s the good news: you can lead a productive warm-up that guides the singers towards ensemble unity, even if you have never led one before.

1. Know your vocal target

Choose your favorite international champion chorus performance on YouTube. Find a moment of beautiful unison. I like the opening bars of “Seize the Day” as performed by the 2015 champ Westminster Chorus (“Now is the time to seize the day”). Replay the phrase until the sound of that unison is burned into your brain. This will be your target sound throughout the warm-up. Maybe you won’t get your singers to match the Westminster level of unity, tonal clarity, and vocal freedom in just 20 minutes. But having a clear target in mind will encourage you not to settle for less than the best sound that your singers are capable of, which is what being a successful warm-up leader is all about.

2. Use a simple unison exercise to build unity

Great unison lays the groundwork for great chords. Blow C and sing CDEFG (breath), GFEDC on the syllable “vee vee vee.” Listen as the chorus sings it back to you. Compared to the champion-level target unison in your brain, you might notice that your chorus:
sounds “messy” rather than “clean.”
sounds like many individual voices rather than one
unified sound.
sounds tense and pushy rather than free and effortless.
sounds out of tune, perhaps not quite reaching the
G or not quite returning to the C.
sings with breathy tone rather than clear tone
sounds low-energy.
Explain that the goal throughout this warm-up is UNITY, such that if a stranger arrived blindfolded, he/she would unable to tell whether there were twenty perfectly unified singers or just one amazing singer. Knowing the target helps singers self-correct.

3. Use these “magic phrases”
Below are five magic phrases that can be applied repeatedly in virtually any order, that will help your singers unify as they repeat the “vee vee” exercise over and over.

“Can we improve that unison by adjusting our alignment?” Variations: Feel a gentle lift in your sternum. Think “proud and noble.” Stand like a singer. Stand like a champion.

“Can we improve that unison by breathing together?” Variations: Watch my hands and breathe with me. Could you hear that we didn’t quite start the sound together? I noticed a few voices on the left side of the room were jumping the gun; let’s try it again.

“Can we improve that unison by finding some tension to release?” Variations: Shake it out. Allow your head to bobble freely on your spine, like a bobble-head. Let your tongue lie on the floor of your mouth like a carpet. Inject your jaw with imaginary Novocaine so it’s barely involved in the exercise.

“Can we improve that unison by matching the vowel?” Variations: Everyone say, “tea” three times and notice how your mouth forms the vowel; let’s use that same vowel for “vee vee”. Jack, sing by yourself; I like the vowel that Jack is using; let’s match that.

“Can we get a more unified, focused tone by lip-trilling?" (Lip-trilling, also called “bubbling,” creates pressure inside the mouth which helps the vocal folds close more efficiently and eliminates breathiness in the sound. Singers who can’t lip-trill easily can try a tongue-trill or sing zzzz or vvvvv to create similar resistance.) Variation: Lip-trill that phrase and keep the energy going all the way to the end. Lip-trill vigorously, as though you were aiming to get spit on the director! Let’s try an alternative to the lip-trill; sing the exercise on zzzzz.

4. Use “folding in” techniques

If you notice that the unity is improving except for a few outliers—such as a nervous guest who is still finding his voice—use this “folding in” technique:
Ask two of your most skilled singers to sing the “vee vee” exercise together, aiming for perfect unity. Give them two or three repetitions to adjust and unify while the rest of the chorus listens.
Gradually add more singers to the mix, one or several at the time, always allowing several chances to find unity, and include the outlier in the last group. Everyone, including the outlier, will benefit from hearing others move toward unity.
When you notice improvement, comment on it (“That’s moving in the right direction!”). When you are satisfied with CDEFG, raise the key to C# or D
and switch to “va va va” (open vowels tend to be more challenging to unify than closed vowels) and continue tweaking the unison with your magic phrases. Record the session. When you are analyzing the recording at home, notice how the sound changes after each different instruction to the chorus. Is the ensemble sound more unified at the end of the warm-up than at the beginning? Congratulations, rookie! Well done!

Elizabeth Davies is director of Sound Harmony Chorus (SAI)
and associate director of the Seattle SeaChordsmen (BHS)