Warming up the Voice with Vocal Function Exercises

Want to sing happily into your wise years? All the more reason to practice your vocal function exercises! Old Woman Singing by Dutch painter Gerard van Honthorst (1590-1656).
Want to sing happily into your wise years? All the more reason to practice your vocal function exercises! Old Woman Singing by Dutch painter Gerard van Honthorst (1590-1656).
Imagine a different sort of violin. Rather than four strings, it has just one, and you don’t have to finger it to change the note. Instead, you must think the note; the string will automatically change its length and thickness to suit. The body of the violin is also continuously changing its shape as you play. Granted, this is awkward, but at least you only have one string to worry about!

Of course, what I’m trying to do here is imbue the violin with some of the qualities of the voice. The string of my one-stringèd violin represents the vocal folds, which vibrate to produce a tone. The body of the violin is the vocal tract, which adds resonance and amplification to the vibration so it can be heard on the other side of the hall. As for the other aspects of the voice, the breath, the articulators (mouth, tongue, lips, teeth — without which we’d have no consonants), I think I’ll hang up my hat on those rather than try and extend the analogy.

In short, the voice is a complicated instrument with a tremendous amount of variability in all of its parts. So how do you train the coordination between these parts?

Perhaps you do something to relax your body; to release tension in your neck, shoulders, and jaw, for example. Maybe you do something to warm up your breath. You might have a process to prepare yourself mentally, to clear the emotional detritus of your day. Perhaps — before you get down to the business of smoothing over your vocal galumphs with messe di voce exercises, with glides and vowel dances, with long tones and passage work — you engage in a ritual procrastination during which you clean the house, walk the dog, or “practice” yoga by lying in child’s pose and moaning1.

Enter my latest favorite warm-up: the Vocal Function Exercises developed by speech pathologist Joseph Stemple2 and colleagues3. As I understand it, their primary goal is to strengthen the muscles involved in phonation at the level of the larynx. Most recently, I’ve been using them to rehabilitate my voice after a month with bronchitis (which led to fantasies about next year’s Christmas CD: Meditations on Not Coughing). I’ve also found them very effective at improving the coordination between the breath, the vibration of the vocal folds, and the “placement” of the tone.

I will be honest: these exercises can be a little bit boring. But oh, the results! Give them a try.

Vocal Function Exercises

In the coming weeks, I will offer up some movement meditations I’ve used to keep myself engaged with these exercises. Because: the more mindful you can be in your practice, the more effective and transformative that practice will be. And variety is the spice of mindfulness!

  1. You laugh, but this is in fact how, on a shitty day, I sometimes start my practice. Usually, after a little while, I start to enjoy myself. The sound I make becomes pleasurable, rather than just so much whining. I’ll start to play and improvise, and before long, I’m in a great mood. In short, if all you feel like doing is whining, maybe you should start with precisely that.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.