If you’re like me, you have experienced some confusion about the purpose of choral warm ups. Many people seem to do warm ups because that’s what they’ve always done—before you sing, you warm up. Even after I understood why I did my own personal warm ups in voice lessons, I still was falling back on some vague “warm ups are to choir rehearsals as stretches are to soccer practice” explanation, which, as a non-athlete, didn’t really clarify things. However, through excellent instruction and mentors, and a plethora of experience, I finally feel like I have a handle on the purpose of warm ups.
Why We Warm Up
Here are my reasons for warm ups, in no particular order:
Routine and Transition
Warm ups alert students that we are starting and they become part of the routine of rehearsal, something that students (and also the teacher) may find beneficial.
Teaching and Reinforcing Vocal Health
Warm ups are the ideal place to teach basics like proper breathing, tall vowels, and how to access high notes. Since there is no performance goal, you can focus on one skill per warm up. This focused preparation early in rehearsal prepares students to juggle more than one skill when they are working on concert repertoire.
Preparing Song-Specific Skills
This is a subcategory of the point mentioned above. Do you have lots of staccato notes in one of your pieces? Long, connected phrases? Sudden or gradual dynamic changes? Choose a warm up that focuses on those aspects, or build your own. When you encounter that particular challenge later in rehearsal, you will find that with a quick reminder about the warm up, the skill has already been mastered.
Warm-up time is when I build ear training or partner song and round skills, depending on the level and goals of the group I’m working with. If you’re working on ear training, incorporate intervals or patterns that occur in your repertoire. If you’re working on singing in parts, up the challenge level weekly by adding more parts, changing standing positions, or reducing the number of people on a part.
Warm Ups for 5 Skill Areas
When planning warm ups for my 3rd-grade choir, I cover the following skills in the following order:
- Ear training/part singing
Below I share an example and an explanation of a favorite warm-up in each category.
I incorporate focused breathing practice into every rehearsal, using an expandable ball. I use this ball because it expands 360 degrees, providing a great model for what the rib cage does when we take a full singers’ breath.
During the first rehearsal, I tell kids that to sing well, we have to learn how to breathe. I then elaborate that breathing for everyday life and breathing for singing are different. This includes a short, age-appropriate explanation of the diaphragm and the rib cage, as well as a demonstration of a good singer’s breath. I also demonstrate, in a slightly exaggerated way, abad singer’s breath, and have students identify what moves and doesn’t move during each type of breath. Students then practice their singers’ breaths.
During subsequent lessons, students breathe with the ball, inhaling as it expands and exhaling as it contracts. After a few lessons, I have students come to the front of the class and lead the breathing ball exercise, and I also have student monitors who identify a breathing star for each rehearsal.
The short explanation of this exercise is: students sing “May we follow you” on a descending five-note scale.
However, this warm-up takes lots of preparation and kinesthetic work in order to achieve its focus on pure vowel sounds and round tone. I cover one vowel sound each week, and each sound gets a picture, a hand movement (kinesthetic), and a descending five-note scale on that vowel.
Week 1: Eh [ε]
- Picture: Elephant
- Kinesthetic: Flip hands so fingers face down and backs of fingers brush slowly up against cheeks.
Week 2: Ee [i]
- Picture: Football goalposts
- Kinesthetic: Index fingers at the corners of the mouth (mimicking football goalposts). Make sure to encourage a tall sound here – kids can experiment with a very lateral ee and then a tall one.
Week 3: ah [a]
- Picture: A face with a light bulb: “A-ha!”
- Kinesthetic: A palm perpendicular to face, hand moving either down or up and out in front of the mouth. Palm moving down is best if your kids have a hard time dropping their jaw, and palm moving up and out is best if you want to bring the sound more forward.
Week 4: ooh [u]
- Picture: A milkshake
- Kinesthetic: Fingers moving away from mouth like they’re pulling a thread out of it. For this vowel, I like to ask students what their favorite kind of milkshake is, then we pretend we’re drinking a milkshake through a straw, so they purse their lips. Then we use that mouth position to make a pure [u] sound and add the hand motion.
Week 5: Oh [o]
- Picture: A face with a shocked open mouth
- Kinesthetic: The index finger drawing a circle in front of the mouth. This comes after ooh because first we remember our milkshake flavors, then we drink them, and then we say, “Oh no, my milkshake’s gone!”
Then in either week five or six, introduce the full “May We Follow You” with kinesthetics. Doing the kinesthetics in order while singing will be confusing for a few weeks—it helps if the teacher or a student who learned them quickly can model.
This warm-up helps students stretch their range, and it is so absurd that kids can’t help but enjoy themselves. Once they get up to E or F, I often have them shoot a layup on the top note, which helps them land on top of the note rather than approaching it from below.
Tongue twisters get lips, jaws, and tongues moving to encourage excellent enunciation, and I’ve found the students of all ages love the challenge and silliness that tongue twisters bring out. Both pitched and unpitched tongue twisters will help students with diction practice.
Ear Training / Part Singing
My favorite in this category is the song Fish and Chips. Many people are familiar with this song in slightly varying iterations. It is a great introduction to singing in parts,
as it has three standard sections that can all be sung simultaneously, plus a fourth verse that I learned while student teaching, which kids love for its “ick” factor. Introduce one section per week, and experiment with singing them in unison in order and splitting into different groups to sing them as partner songs.
Working choir warm ups into your lesson planning? Download our free template.
I always end my elementary choir rehearsal with a song that is purely fun—something that they will keep singing after rehearsal and tell their friends about. However, if there is a day that my warm-ups feel particularly laborious, or the kids have lots of energy, or no energy, I may add one of these songs at the end of my warm-up routine. These include any number of silly camp songs and are even more fun if they incorporate body movements ala the Chicken Dance or the Hokey Pokey.
As music educators, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. For many of the ideas that I’ve shared with you, and for their general knowledge, wisdom, and kindness, I would like to particularly thank Dr. Leila Heil, Kate Klotz, and Connie Dewlen.