• Scott Carlton



As a pianist, I am familiar with keyboard scales and arpeggios. I know of their importance in maintaining a serviceable piano technique. Are they always fun? No. Do I look forward to playing them? Not always. But when I keep in mind that a pianist as great as Rachmaninoff devoted 20 minutes each day to scales, I realize their importance.

This is no less true for maintaining a healthy voice. When I was actively singing, I had a soup to nuts warm-up that varied little from day to day. I started with falsetto to “awaken” the head voice, progressing to single-note staccato, to five note scales on all vowels, to more elaborate rapid scales. I followed this with sustaining exercises – the messa di voce, followed by exercises that culminated in sustained top notes. After this sequence of vocalizing, I could be sure that I was ready to go. The rest of the session was devoted to repertory.

This routine was adequate if done once a day – I could be sure that hours later my voice would still be “warm”, with perhaps a bit of humming and a scale fragment or two before the performance. This was true especially when singing whole summers of very heavy repertory at Bayreuth, particularly in “Ring-free” years when several “heavy-lifts” (Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Dutchman, less so Tristan and Parsifal) were scheduled back-to-back nightly.

A singer of my acquaintance, who maintains a busy professional career, uses ariettas from the “24 Italian Songs & Arias”, familiar to every voice student, and felt she was ready if she sang through a verse of the opening “Gute Nacht” from Winterreise. Others have used collections such as Vaccai and Concone, not commonly known today, but once a part and parcel of every voice student’s library.

There are cases of famous singers who claimed not to warm up, or to warm up very little, saying, in one famous instance “why should I leave my best performance in the dressing room?” Lower, male voice types are well-known, if not notorious, for “warming up on stage” and frankly, in many cases, the listener is aware of this arbitrary strategy.

When is daily or structured practice as outlined above not advisable? Typically, when starting out with the new teacher, it is best to have a series of lessons to make sure the concepts are well-understood and more importantly, that the body understands them. If you have had a series of heavy sings and are feeling vocally tired, a day or two off is advisable, if your performance schedule permits.

In sum, develop a practice routine that leaves little to chance: have a set sequence of scales and other exercises that gradually warm you up and do not overly tire you. Over-vocalizing, often as a result of feeling nervous, is a mistake. Only healthy practice over a long period of study will teach you what works best for your voice, temperament and nervous system.

The “Warm-Down”

It can be helpful to do a vocal “warm-down” after a particularly heavy sing, and in particular after engaging in vocal activity that is less than optimal for the soloist. Fully supported falsetto for the male, supported“sirens” or hummed octave slides will “coax” the vocal folds into healthy approximation. Birgit Nilsson was ostensibly famous for being able to sing the “Queen of the Night” aria after singing Isolde. As she said “I have not been good to Mozart, but Mozart has been very good to me”.

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