Exercises: Philosophy and Practice

It is not necessary to have one hundred different exercises in your teaching repertoire. The effectiveness does not lie in the notes and syllables themselves, but in what you can demonstrate and illustrate with the exercise and how you can bring about a change in the understanding, feeling and practice of the singer. You can do that with three, or seven, or, if you’re easily bored, ten different exercises.

That said, we never stop adding effective exercises to our repertoire. Every year I learn from my colleagues, and sometimes even from students, new, interesting and effective exercises. There is no limit to the resourcefulness of musicians. We are all looking for better ways of explaining the unexplainable.

Why sing exercises?

The most basic reason we should begin the lesson or the choral rehearsal with exercises is that, just like in any sporting endeavour, the muscles need warming up before we begin running or jumping or throwing things. The teaching of pieces, and the kneading of the vocal apparatus in technical learning are easier, more efficient and time-saving, and much more effective, when the voice has already been brought into a fairly decent shape, the muscles into tone. That much should be obvious, although you would be surprised and appalled by the experienced conductors who skip this step entirely. Foolishly. It is making your conducting and teaching life more difficult than it need be.

In the private lesson, much of the technique is taught in the form of exercises. This is so that when the student works at home or sings in public he can bring his voice to its optimum state by these exercises, in a concentrated, orderly way, the same way every time, with a manner, a process that he recognizes. This not only gives a better feeling of confidence, but after a while the voice itself knows what to expect and can automatically and habitually find its best technique in the shortest time, with the least amount of effort and without guessing and confusion. Every successful singer has his or her exercises with which he or she warms up and prepares for the performance, in the same way every time. This can become a ritual, but a very effective one and not only a superstitious propitiation of the good-luck gods.

There is a school of thought that says that the exercise itself has properties the singing of which will change the way the vocal apparatus works, especially the parts that are not under our conscious control, even if the student has no idea that it’s happening and doesn’t even understand the principle. If, indeed, the teacher even understands the principle.

There was a workshop, at which the teacher succeeded in one afternoon to make worse one young soprano after another by the application of a set of bizarre vocal gymnastics, involving heavy chest voice, carrying the weight of the voice up an octave, making an audible and nasty register change over the passaggio primo and brutally poking the upper voice toward the front. The young students were looking more and more confused and the teacher did not recognize the deterioration in the sound of the voices. No, I don’t know why not either.

It should be obvious to all that understanding technique will make good habits that much easier to establish. Feeling the effects of changing the action of the vocal parts that you are able to consciously change is a large part of learning to sing. The parts that are beyond conscious control are beyond control and we should not be trying to bludgeon them into submission. Understanding the technique and the feeling of good production is the most important part of learning. There is no benefit in hoping that the voice will obey, zombie-like, because we have subconsciously driven its myriad parts to new sets of movements, new configurations.

That is not to say that you cannot influence what the voice sounds like by what you chose to sing. You certainly can, and we find this every day in people who are singing “out of their Fach”, that is, singing a preponderance of repertoire not suited to their voices. If that keeps up, the sound of the voice will begin to change because of the unconscious constraints the singer is perpetrating on the vocal apparatus.

This is also the reason that sopranos should be discouraged from singing the bass exercises at choral rehearsals. This act of self-indulgence only serves to set up the muscles in such a way that it makes the true, useful part of the voice, the head voice and in the proper octaves suitable to the soprano voice, difficult to control. It’s only confusing to the muscles.

They get such proud looks on their faces – “Look at me. I can sing low E!” Why a soprano would want to sing a low E is beyond me. Difficult and ugly.

This business of the voice adapting to certain repertoire can also be positive. A well-trained voice which, for instance, sings lots of Bach, will find Bach easier and easier to sing.

Choosing exercises

In the lessons, make sure that the students have a clear understanding of the patterns of the exercises that you give, so that they can remember them and practice them at home. They might have to write them down (using the method followed below). Some students are musical enough to remember the pattern easily and some can’t remember them for the ninety seconds it takes to explain the correction of the first pass.

I have often said, over many, many years, that when the student begins to practice and can’t remember the exercise, he should call me on the telephone and I will sing it to him. So far, no one has ever done this.

Exercises are never boring if you do them thoroughly and often enough. In fact, they can be endlessly fascinating as well as frustrating.

Exercises for solo training are not the same as a choral warm-up. Choral warm-ups are done as much for establishing cohesiveness in the ensemble and for warming up the ears and brain as for establishing technique (although I try to cram in as much instruction as possible in the time allotted). The conductor can’t possibly deal with the full educational content of the exercises in the too-short-already choral rehearsal. The exercises for both the private lesson and the choral rehearsal can, however, be in part the same exercises, but there are exercises that are better for choral use than for solo use, and vice versa.

In the lesson, treat your exercises as essential and important. Start with one or two but no more, until the student is used to this method of carrying on and begins to see the point. If there are too many, the exercises can become trivialized and the student races through just to get them finished, without due thought and consideration. Get the student started in the habit of concentrating on the exercises just as thoroughly as on the repertoire.

Doing the exercises

There are some methods for ordering your exercises, making them more effective. These are applicable to both choral warm-ups and solo lessons – for instance:
• Start the exercise in the upper middle part of the voice and each pass (the pattern of notes, in each key) should go down (or up, if you have room before arriving at the upper voice) by a semitone;
• Begin with something simple to remember that has a melodic logic to it,
• major arpeggios or major scales are quite logical;
• Start with the vowel A (an open vowel);
• Follow with the vowel I (a closed vowel);
• Begin with longish notes and gradually speed up;
• Add more vowels, O and E;
• Consonants can come last.


Always start the rehearsal with exercises that are simple and sustained, on an open vowel, with a minimum range of a fifth, with a pattern that starts above, but no higher than the middle voice, and descends. It is possible that sometime you may be blessed with a group of such beginners – and they do exist – that they can’t cope with a fifth. Then use a third. From time to time we come across a student who or a group which has never done scales or arpeggios, or exercises of any sort. Interestingly, they seem to be astonished by what is being asked of them. Ease them in gradually. Always start where the choral singers actually are and not where you want them to be. This is a good plan for all of us, including soloists.

So, for instance

Key of C (starting on G above middle C) 5 4 3 2 1 on the vowel A, tempo moderato (legato, of course, and not making a new attack, or a poke, on every note going down).
Then, repeat the pattern, raising the key by semitones and stopping at the key of G, making the high note (5) D. This is high enough for the general alto and some baritones at the beginning, before they are warmed up.
For variety, call out the next vowel while playing or indicating the next key higher, using the vowels O, E or I.

Note on U: It is not very useful to specifically exercise the vowel U. This vowel is easier and less time-consuming to address in situ, in a piece, than to exercise separately. There are two ways to sing U – correctly, with the lips (loosely) pursed, and incorrectly with the lips pulled out to the sides. The singers must be reminded to keep the U as open inside as the other vowels; otherwise it will not be heard at the same volume level as the others, especially, for some acoustical reason, in men. This has several unfortunate effects:
• It makes some words difficult to understand;
• The phrase or line will have a dip in the intensity at the point of U;
• It will make a following syllable seem more prominent, thus: “alleluia”: a-le-loo-yah!.

Carry on with short, sustained middle-voice exercises if you wish, or go on to an exercise that brings in some other aspect, such as faster notes, more vowels or a greater range, working your way up to long, fast exercises with lots of changes in vowels and consonants. Consonants should be introduced last of all, when you are confident (if we ever are) that the concept of the legato vowel stream is fully understood.