Singers have been told to always warm up to protect their vocal health, perform with more ease and get ready for performance. For some, it is absolutely necessary. But some singers don't feel like warmups are beneficial. In fact, some find it boring and draining. So what does research say about warmups?
When I was in my high school's choir, our director would say that every disciplined singer must have a regular warmup and practice routine. Being the rebellious (!) teens that we were, we would often scoff at that remark. After all, who had the time to warm up every time before singing — and look funny doing it?
Even so, we were always diligent about it: Before each practice and performance, we would warm up using the same set of exercises for about 10 minutes. And we then happily went on to singing, confident in our thoroughly warmed up voices.
It wasn't until a decade later that I met some singers in a vocal technique course who never did warmups before a practice session or a performance. I was perplexed! It was early in the morning (when I didn't even consider myself fully awake) and they would sound brilliant without any warmups. When the topic came up in discussion, they said they never saw the point and simply did not do it.
So how is it that warmups are irreplaceable for some singers and totally unnecessary for others?
What Is A "Warmup"?
It is broadly defined as a set of exercises that one performs before singing or speaking to prepare their instrument. In a way, this is similar to warmups performed by dancers or athletes. As singers and performers progress from beginner to more advanced levels, the importance they give to and the time they spend on warmups increase (1). But when they reach a level of proficiency, they feel more secure in their technique and do not require as long to warm up.
Warmups can last anywhere between 5 to 45 minutes, but the most common practice is to allocate 5 to 10 minutes before practice. Depending on the performer and their performance day routine, some singers can spend hours — yes, you read that correctly — to warm up and prepare. Even though some studies looking at optimum warmup times found that 10 minutes is not enough and they should be around 15 to 30 minutes, it appears they were already assuming that warmups actually made a difference and were therefore necessary before performance. So does it really make that big of a difference?
Let's look at a study from 2012 where they investigated the perception of singers and listeners to determine effectiveness of warmups on the Western classical singing voice.
Can Listeners Tell If The Singer Is Sufficiently Warmed Up?
A study was designed by Lynda Moorcroft and Dianna T. Kenny to see if the singer's perception of their pre- and post-warmup voices matched the evaluation of experienced listeners. 12 female Western classical singers were recorded singing an excerpt from an aria, with a range from D4 to F#5.
At the beginning, singers sang through the cut without warming up and rated their voice and performance for qualities like brilliance, vibrato, confidence, resonant voice sensations, absence of vocal strain and perception of ease. Later, they went through a set of warmup exercises for 25 minutes, after which the process of recording and self-rating was repeated.
Unsurprisingly, self assessment of qualities with low ratings improved after the warmup. They reported finding their tone more suitable to classical repertoire and noted improvements in vibrato, concentration on appropriate vocal technique, postural alignment and satisfaction with the way they sang. They had to be more careful not to sing louder after the warmup and had greater ease in higher notes too, which were in the comments they offered.
But this was only half of the study.
In the second part, 6 experienced listeners were told to rate the same qualities in pairs consisting of pre- and post-warmup excerpt recordings of each singer. The order was randomised, so they did not know which recording they were listening to first.
After listening to both recordings, listeners would rate the qualities, note whether there was any difference in the perceived warmup state of the singer and decide which recording was the singer in a more warmed up state.
Here comes the fun part:
There were significant differences in the perceived warmup state of the singer for only 3 singers, and an important determinant was the speed of their vibrato pre- and post-warmup. Other 9 singers with more consistent vibrato rates were not perceived as being more or less warmed up in a recording. Apparently, the listeners' way of determining the warmup state of singers was heavily dependent on their vibrato.
There was also no general agreement among listeners on which qualities improved the most after warmup. In fact, the listeners correctly identified the warmup states in only 41% of recordings. Since they had 3 choices to pick from, 33% of agreement would be expected from totally random guesses. So 41% agreement is positive but still much lower than one would expect given that singers' self-ratings significantly improved after the warmup.
In the comments they offered, listeners mentioned paying attention to vocal onsets and offsets, breathiness or clarity of tone and the placement of the voice. But there was no agreement among listeners and singers on which pre-determined qualities were improved. Fascinating, isn't it?
As usual, there are some limitations to this study. For starters, the listeners were self-consistent in their evaluations only 22% of the time. This just shows how subjective and undependable our evaluations can be.
A limitation here might be rater fatigue, which was addressed by reducing the duration of recordings, but can still become significant over time.
Additionally, the singers in this study were singing Western classical, which has a pretty strict set of stylistic requirements. This might make pre- and post-warmup changes easier to notice for listeners. But contemporary singers might have a totally different experience, which needs to be studied further.
Another thing to note is that since singers are aware of going through the warmup, they might have a tendency to give higher self-ratings afterwards. Who wants to say nothing changed (or got worse!) after vocalising for 25 minutes?
How To Know If You Need Warmups
Not to oversimplify these findings, but the results of this study at least point in the direction that even experienced listeners might not be able to differentiate between the pre- and post-warmup states of singers.
In that case, we could say the benefits of warming up are mainly for the singer's perception.
In my opinion, this is quite freeing. Giving you the permission to focus on your own experience.
You find them boring? Insufferable? Distracting? Draining?
Feel free to experiment with a few practice sessions without warming up first and see if there is a notable difference.
If you think warming up is irreplaceable, securing your technique and improving your voice, go ahead and do your warmup exercises regularly. Simple as that.
However, you might want to keep these 5 tips in mind when deciding whether to warm up:
If you will be singing for a longer period than you are used to,
If you haven't sung in a while,
If you've been sick, have allergies acting up or recovering from either of these,
If you feel tired but you have to sing,
If it is early in the morning and you haven't even been speaking to anyone,
Then adding a few warmup exercises to get your support muscles started and your technique brushed up is probably a good idea.
Even though listeners may not be able to tell the difference, singers report significant improvements after a warmup session. Which might be a relief if you do not particularly like or enjoy warmups, or experience these positive changes after it.
Only you can decide if you really need to warmup. In my (very anecdotal) experience, some singers are just ready to go with no warming up necessary. If that's you, do not feel pressured to do them anyway just because everyone says so.