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The secret to an effective Choir warm-up is to keep it fresh and not let it become routine. For the warm-up is not only to get the singers' voices cranked up, but also to switch on the musical side of their brains!
You want to create a concentrated atmosphere conducive to work and at the same time you'll put your choir into good form for a long and hard practice.
Put yourself in the ordinary choir member's shoes – a hard day's work often full of frustration, the boss in a bad mood, a difficult journey to rehearsal ... all these circumstances will militate against a good practice. You'll have to replace these bad vibes with good humour and positive attitudes – and this is the real purpose of the choir warm-up.
So how should you set about it? Be sure to give a warm welcome to your singers – they need to know that you're pleased to see them! A cheerful greeting that brings forth a smile will work wonders in helping them to change over from Work mode to Choir mode.
Now you can break your warm-up into three parts:
- Breath Control, Scales, and Vocal Exercises
- Aural Training.
Keep the warm-up to about 10 minutes or less.
A tactile approach to the warm-up will help weld your choir into a team without any damaging inhibitions. During rehearsal there is always the possibility that a singer will make a fool of him or herself, and the embarrassment caused can prevent them from singing properly.
The aim of the tactile approach is to give your singers the confidence not to crumple when they're under pressure. Touch can eliminate the shyness or stage fright that can sometimes cause serious problems.
Ask your choir to hold hands while singing a warm-up exercise or a scale. Ask them to move in time to a short piece that you play on the piano - a waltz or a pop-song - while holding hands. If you have a masseur in the choir you can encourage gentle neck massage. This will help your singers achieve relaxation - the first step towards creating the correct physical tension necessary for rehearsal or performance.
The similarity between athletics and singing is striking – both involve the entire person and both demand people who are totally at ease with both their minds and bodies.
Breath control is as essential for the singer as it is for the athlete. A good singing teacher will help you understand breathing technique. There's a subtle difference between solo and choral breathing, and you'll need to assimilate this.
Ask your teacher to help you devise warm-up exercises that will benefit your singers. Vocal support is essential and exercises to develop the diaphragm are invaluable.
Design exercises which will enable your singers to sustain long phrases without running out of breath. I've occasionally brought in a good and lively singing teacher to work with my choir on breath control. This is always helpful – not least because choirs tend to take the expert and revered singing teacher more seriously than their own conductor!
When practicing scales start with downward ones. Vary their speed and seek a unanimity of vowel sound – this is essential for good choral singing. When you sing upward scales always take the choir a third higher than they will go in service or concert. This will give their high notes security in performance.
Sing chromatic scales and see if your singers can perform them without going flat. It’s not easy - judging an accurate semi-tone is difficult. Sing a full-tone scale and, for fun, a diatonic scale on a rolled r sound. Try it – it’s possible!
Here are two warm-up exercises I have found useful.
1. Tonic, Mediant, Dominant, Sub-mediant, Dominant, mediant and Tonic on one vowel sound and take the choir high a step at a time. This gives your singers a great sense of the "choral arch".
2. Tonic (minim or half-note) Tonic an octave higher (minim or half-note) and then down the scale making each note a crotchet or a quarter note. Again, go high with this, a step at a time.
Devise your own warm-up exercises in conjunction with your teacher, but do remember that each singer will have their own range. Don’t ask altos and basses to sing in the soprano and tenor range and vice versa.
Lastly, you can use quick tongue-twisters. They can be sung to scales – a whole tongue-twister per note. These are always fun and usually break down in hearty laughter! "Red lolly, yellow lolly, Red lolly, yellow lolly" and "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" work well. Of course you can compose your own, but I find the choir enjoy finding new tongue-twisters for their warm-ups themselves.
Aural Training in the Warm-Up
The purpose of this part of your warm-up is to encourage your singers to listen intelligently. Remind them that each must be able to hear the person next to them. They should never forget that they are part of a whole and that the whole is more important than the individual. Ask your choir to identify major and minor chords; pick out individual notes from chords and sing in parts the chord that will resolve the dominant seventh that you play (you will need to give them examples of this).
It’s fun to play a single note and ask your choir, on your down beat, to add all the notes that will turn your original into one great big chord, so, if you play C you will hope to hear your choir sing E, G, C in many different registers! Devise your own warm-up exercises to cope with particular problems.
Make your aural training fun and you can, of course, always introduce an element of competition. For example, ask the men to identify major or minor chords and then the women – find out who’s best at it!
A well warmed-up choir is a prelude to a good practice. You will need to be continually inventive, discovering new exercises and stratagems, always on the lookout for original ideas and always seeking a humorous and light-hearted approach to this most important section of a choir practice. The Choir warm-up is great fun – enjoy it!
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