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Striking the Right Chords

Article by Jillian Mitchell // April 02 2008
Striking the Right Chords

It has come to my attention that some of us out there actually enjoy singing from behind the kit, or in front of the kit for that matter. With that in mind, I have devised some necessary warm-ups, with the help of Berklee’s Singer Handbook, to whip those vocal cords into shape a la Richard Simmons (without the psychedelic sequence, of course).

Before we delve in full force, I want to explain why it is absolutely essential that your vocal cords are warm before you begin any type of performance. I know that some of you may be questioning the whole “warming up” thing, myself included. I, too, have been guilty of over-confidence and not abiding to the laws of vocalization. There were times when I found myself making excuses like: “Why do I have to warm up?” or “I’m not the lead singer, who cares!” or “I am so awesome that I don’t need any stupid warm-ups!” At one time or another, I’ll bet most of you out there have mirrored my excuse-driven rationale and have convinced yourself to skip those pre-singing exercises as well. Bad idea, folks!

Like a marathon runner who does not stretch pre-race, a vocalist who does not warm-up pre-performance ensures self-destruction. So, I’m here to be a little bit in your face about it and proclaim that everyone needs to warm-up before attacking any sort of vocal activity regardless of your experience level. Whether you’re doing Aguilera gymnastics, or buried-in-the-mix harmonies, every great pair of v-cords needs to be warmed up in order to avoid not only embarrassing performances but also future maladies as well. So here goes; the whole singing thing (It’s really not as intimidating as it may seem).


Each of these exercises should be done with good posture (stand up and don’t slouch), and proper breathing (big breaths that expand your ribcage). It is also easiest to do this warm-up with a keyboard or a guitar. Exercises can be transposed up or down depending on the range you have and what you wish to work on in that particular session. I suggest trying each exercise at least 3 times over, changing your “starting note” each time (transposing either up or down). Remember to drink lots of water at room temperature (cold is bad). The total warm-up is designed to take only 3 to 5 minutes, and who doesn’t have 3 to 5 minutes to spare?

  • Chewing: Induces relaxation in the facial muscles and frees your jaw (pretend you have a huge wad of bubblegum in your mouth)
  • Lip buzz or Motorboat: This is exactly what you think it is. Tap into your inner child and buzz those lips!

EXERCISE 1: Slides - sing and slide your voice up and down, like a siren. Try bubbling your lips at the same time. (motorboat)

EXERCISE 2: Humming- gets vocal cords warm and brings the sound forward. Make sure your humming is gentle, unforced, but sounds ugly (nasal). It should sound as if it’s coming from your nose. Think “forward resonance.” Try singing on "mmm" and "ng".

EXERCISE 3: Extended 5-Note Pattern (123454321* [x3])- for flexibility and breath. Sing on different vowels each 1 through 5.

EXERCISE 4: Two 5’s and a 9 (123454321 :|| 12345678987654321)- works flexibility, range and breath

EXERCISE 5: Legato Flexibility (123454321 [x2], switch from "E" to "oo") - smoothes your range and break.

EXERCISE 6: “Vee, vay, vah, voh, voo” (5, 5, 5, 5, 54321)- brings the sound forward, works with diction.

EXERCISE 7: Octave Arpeggio (1-3-5-8-5-3-1, "mum") - works vocal break and achieves an evenly registered scale.


*Pick a scale to start your warmups, like C-major. C=1, D-2, E=3 and so on.

Hope this helps. Happy singing, everyone!



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About the Author
Jillian Mitchell

As a professional vocalist (and self-professed grammar nerd), Jill brings a fresh perspective to The Black Page. In addition to earning a B.A. in music, creative writing and English, Jill has also studied vocals with Philadelphia-based vocal coach Owen Brown, known for his work with Mary J. Blige, Celine Dion, and Wyclef Jean. Jill makes up the other half of world soul group The Mitchells, alongside Black Page creator, Sean Mitchell.

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