Vocal Function Exercises
You will need: a stopwatch (I use my phone), a writing implement, a Vocal Function Tracker so you can record your progress (download a PDF here), and most importantly, your voice! The entire sequence takes about ten minutes.
When you’re first starting out with these exercises, you should aim to do them twice a day. Once you get the hang of it, once-daily will do you fine.
What’s with the vowels in brackets? Square brackets around a letter indicate it should be pronounced according to the rules of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This alphabet was developed by linguists for their own nefarious purposes, and has been adopted by many singers because it is so darn useful. Back in the dark ages, before I learned the IPA, I would scribble pronunciation notations in my music, only to go back later and wonder what nuanced shade of vowel I’d meant. My system was inconsistent and unreliable. With IPA, there are rules, and if you forget them, you can look them up.
[i] vowel on a sustained F. Sing the vowel sound [i] as in “tree” on the F above middle C for women, below middle C for men. Sing as lightly as possible with a focused (not breathy) tone, “forward” without being overly nasal. With this and all subsequent exercises, aim for a clean onset, without glottal stops.The goal is to sustain the tone without breaks for as long as possible, aiming for at least 30 seconds. If you can’t hold the note that long (and chances are, you won’t be able to at first), don’t fret! Sing it again. Once you’re able to hold the note for the entire 30 seconds, there’s no need to repeat it.
Here’s the F, in case you need it:F
Glides – low to high (two times). Speak (and think) the vowel [o] as in “old”. While sustaining this vowel, make an [u] as in “too” shape with your lips. I think of this vowel combination as an [o] inside of an [u]. Some notes on the vowel: the inside space for the [o] should be generous, with a relaxed jaw. The lips should be in a very narrow [u] shape. You can even experiment by thinking of initiating the tone from the lips; you’ll be able to feel them vibrating as the air passes through, so the sound has a bit of a buzz to it. (If you hold the note long enough, they’ll also start to quiver from muscle fatigue. This is a great time to develop a sense of empathy for flutists.)
An example of the vowel:
On this combined vowel, glide from a comfortable note in your low range to your highest note. Make the glide as smooth as possible, in a single breath. If breaks do occur, continue unhesitatingly. Resist the urge to drop the jaw and expand the vowel space as you ascend; this is a range-of-motion exercise for the muscles controlling the vocal folds, rather than a vowel-modification exercise.
Release the note at the top like you’re tossing it out into the universe to flit among the stars.
Glides – high to low (two times). Using the same [o] inside of an [u] vowel as above, glide from a comfortable high note to your lowest note.
Long tones on the [o] inside [u] vowel. This exercise is much like the first, only this time, we’ll use the same [o] inside of an [u] vowel used in exercises 2 and 3. Sustain the musical notes C, D, E, F, G, each as long as possible. Women will be starting on middle C; men on the C below. Keep the voice soft, with a focused tone without breathiness, and sustain the note as long as possible, aiming for 45 seconds. If you can’t hold the note that long, repeat it. With time, you’ll be able to sustain it the full 45 seconds, so long as you continue to practice!
Need a Note?CDEFG
You will probably find that you can hold some notes much longer than others. With daily practice, you’ll be able to increase the amount of time you hold the long tones. It’s nice to keep track of your progress, so make sure you download your Vocal Function Tracker.
Singers with a certain kind of training will know what I mean by certain terms used in this essay, such as forward placement, onsets, and glottal stops. If you don’t know the meaning of any of these things, or feel like you’d like to refine your understanding from a body in mind perspective, please drop me a line with your questions (scroll down and click on the envelope icon at the bottom of the page for my email). In the coming weeks, I will be offering up some movement meditations I use to keep myself engaged with these exercises, but if there are particular things you’re curious about, perhaps I can shed some light!
In the meantime, enjoy your practice!
Vocal Function Exercises were developed by speech pathologist Joseph Stemple and colleagues. Dr. Stemple has produced a training DVD on them. You can see an excerpt, where he demonstrates the [o] inside [u] vowel here. You can also read more about the exercises in these articles:
Stemple, Joseph C., Lee, Linda, D’Amico, Beth, and Pickup, Betsy (1994). “Efficacy of Vocal Function Exercises as a Method of Improving Voice Production.” Journal of Voice, Vol. 8, No. 3, pp. 271-278.
Sabol, Julianna Wrycza, Lee, Linda, and Stemple, Joseph C. (1995). “The Value of Vocal Function Exercises in the Practice Regimen of Singers.” Journal of Voice, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 27-36.