As I mentioned in my last blog, I’m on a 3-month break from the grind, staying with my partner’s parents in Oakland, PA. Over the past week we’ve had a LOT of snow (although I am informed that this is barely a dusting by Pennsylvania standards) and have been spending plenty of time nestling inside rather than venturing out too much. We still made time for the YMCA though, don’t worry.
For me as a writer, this solitude has been wonderful. The ability to just sit down and write without distractions has been such a joy.
For me as a performer, it’s a little different. I’m used to having people to bounce ideas off, colleagues to rehearse with, a director to push me in this direction or that. Something in particular that has slipped a little has been my vocal practice. I’ve not needed to perform in almost two months, and with Christmas, New Year, and nothing to make me concerned for my vocal health, I haven’t been all that bothered with singing practice.
So, this week I’m getting my arse in gear, and getting back to regular singing and vocal practice. I have a show to come home to in April, and I want to be sure I’m up to scratch.
But how does one exercise their voice when they’re alone? Here’s some things I like to use to keep myself sharp.
I like to start my warm-up in the shower. It’s an effective way to skip to having your muscles warm and loose, and the moisture in the air is great for nice lubed up vocal chords. Spend some time taking long, deep breaths; if you can, breathe in for a count of 10 (while staying nice and relaxed) and release that breath over another count of 10. This will ease some of that body tension that might hold up your voice. Make sure you check in with your neck, shoulders, back, hips, and knees – you might want to give these a gentle massage to work out any stress. Give your face a nice massage; work your hands over your forehead, nose, eye socket, cheeks, and jawbone. Try some light humming, then maintaining a tone on a single letter (n, or g are good ones!).
Once you’re out of the shower, check in again with that breathing; spend some time taking nice, deep breaths, making sure you’re breathing right down into your belly. Regulate your breathing and try to make it as rhythmic and subconscious as possible.
trills and tongue stuff
Next, get some lip trills going. Take a nice deep breath, and with your tongue and mouth completely relaxed, blow that air out between your lips, as though you’re blowing bubbles under water. Your mouth should sound like a motor purring. If you’re having trouble, try putting your fingers to your cheeks, and make sure your diaphragm is supporting the breath. Once you have the hang of it, add an easy single note. You can move into sliding up and down several notes once you can do this with ease.
Move on to tongue trills after this; essentially sustaining a rolled r sound. This might come more naturally to you if you speak languages such as Arabic, French, Spanish, etc. That use the rolled r sound in speech. If you’re having trouble, you can try purring like a cat and sustaining a note instead!
extending the voice
Now that your mouth and face are relaxed and moving, try some humming. Breathe in, and as you breathe out through the nose, hum nice and gently. The sound will come out of your nostrils and doesn’t require any effort from the mouth or tongue, so this is a nice way to check in with your voice while maintaining relaxation in your face.
Once you feel comfortable humming at a couple of different pitches (you might like to try sliding up and down notes and checking in with your voice across several tones), we can move into scales. The purpose of singing scales is to expand your range past your normal speaking voice; over time you may find you can stretch from one octave to three or more. If you’re a fair pianist, you can tap these out on a keyboard or piano. If not, there are several apps you can use to mimic a piano, or you can find a whole load of scale videos on YouTube. Start from somewhere comfortably within your natural range, and gradually expand up and down, making sure to stop if you find yourself straining.
Then we can move into vowel sounds. First, just try out the vowel sounds “ah”, “eh, “ee”, “oh” “ewe”, “oo”, feeling out how they sit with your voice and in your mouth. Then you can try these out over scales again, or through an arpeggio (again, if you understand music, tap these out for yourself, otherwise you can find arpeggios to follow on YouTube). You can also add in consonant sounds such as “mah”, “meh”, “me”. “moh”, “moo”.
diction and clarity
I like to do some tongue twisters too, to make sure my diction is clear. Things like “red lorry, yellow lorry”, “one bed bug bled blue black blood while the other bed bug bled blue”, “Mrs Puggy Wuggy had a square cut punt, not a punt cut square but a square cut punt. It was round in the stern, and blunt in the front, Mrs Puggy Wuggy had a square cut punt”, or any number of tongue twisters you can find online. Start off slow, really ensuring your mouth is around all the consonant sounds, and gradually speed up.
practice makes perfect
If you’re working towards singing, then make sure you practice with a song or two that you like to sing. Get a backing track, tap it out on your keyboard, or just play the song on Spotify and sing along. Work on the same song for a while, to really get the hang of it. Make sure you’re singing with strong posture, not slouching and not tensing up. Ensure you’re controlling your breath throughout; use your diaphragm to support your singing and think about where you’re taking breaths during the song. Emote and enunciate. Sing confidently! It might not sound brilliant to begin with, but the more you practice, the better it will get. If you can face it, try recording yourself, so you can pick up on the parts where you’re faltering.
If you’re working more towards public speaking or acting, then practice with speeches, words from scripts, anything at all. Again, make sure you’re keeping a strong posture, breathing with control, and speaking with confidence. And again, recording yourself can only help.
Of course, practice by yourself can’t replace the benefits of having sustained vocal tuition, but if you’re looking to keep yourself in shape in between work or classes, these are some useful tips to make sure you don’t lose progress.
And one final tip: your overall health matters. Eat well, sleep well, get some exercise, and take care of your body. If you’re a performer, your body is your instrument, and all the vocal technique in the world won’t help if you’re not taking care of it.