Every good singer knows that before singing a song, especially an operatic aria, it’s a good idea to warm up your voice. It’s like stretching before you go running. However, through the years of giving voice lessons for kids and adults in Marin, I’ve thought: What is it that we’re warming up? The vocal folds? The breath? Yes. But more important, our whole-body coordination.

Every vocal warm-up has a specific purpose and lesson to teach. Therefore, I believe warm-ups need to be tailored to each individual. For instance, someone who has natural nasal resonance or perhaps is too nasal would not necessarily need to warm up the “ring” of the voice much. A more appropriate warm-up could be one that brings warmth and “space” into the sound. Meanwhile, someone who has a “hooty” or “woofy” sound might need to warm up the “point” of the voice. I don’t believe in “one size fits all” vocal warm-ups.

What does it mean to warm up our whole-body coordination? Well, I consider the entire spine, from the head-neck joint to my tailbone, as my vocal sound post – a very flexible, active, vibrant sound post. Therefore, warming up the whole-body coordination involves becoming aware of any undue tensions in the head or torso, softening them or perhaps spreading them around to sleepy, more deactivated parts. Tension isn’t “bad.” It’s just unhelpful if it’s all localized. For instance, if in the morning your jaw and tongue are tight, waking up the support of the abdominals will help release these important vocal articulators. If you are holding in your lower belly during the day – doing Pilates outside of class? – that can interfere with the full descent of the diaphragm, preventing a deep breath. You may have to release the belly muscles for a full breath, thereby releasing the flexibility of the head and jaw. No part of the body is an island, entire of itself!

I split warm-ups into three categories: Warm-ups that activate your vocal support, warm-ups that help create or encourage ring or point to the sound and articulation exercises for clarity of vowels, consonants, and overall diction.

Most everyone needs vocal support exercises, especially children – whose bodies haven’t yet learned the sensation of supporting the voice – and older singers who may be experiencing weakening of the abdominal muscles for different age-related reasons. From a whole-body coordination perspective, this might mean engaging abdominal support, with its inherent “good” tension, while keeping legs, arms, jaw, hands, and feet free and moving.

It’s the same with directing the sound forward into the mask to create more vocal “ring.” An optimal warm-up would teach you how to let the breath stream do that work rather than pushing with the root of the tongue.

And, the flexibility of the tongue as articulator must be coordinated with the breath stream, the support and freedom of the head-neck joint and the whole spine.

I enjoy making up warm-ups or collecting them from others. I then pass them on to young and old who come to me for singing lessons in Marin. And I especially like finding creative ways to warm up children’s voices and bodies. Any children’s book – Dr. Seuss, Harry Potter – can be plumbed for witty tongue-twisters or expressions that kids know, and turned into fun exercises.

Just remember that it’s not just the voice you’re warming up. It’s our whole selves.