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‘Warm-Ups’ Versus ‘the Warm-Up’

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You quite often hear people saying things like, ‘I heard a good warm-up the other day,’ or, ‘Have you got any good warm-ups?’ When they say this, they are generally meaning a short song or round or singing game that can be learned in a few minutes and has some element of fun to it – vivid and/or nonsense words, rhythmic bounce, interesting combination into parts etc. These are useful things to have about the house, and you can see why people like to collect them.

However, it is worth making a distinction between these ditties known as ‘warm-ups’ and the warm-up – as in the part of a rehearsal in which you get a choir primed and ready to sing. You may sometimes want to use ‘warm-ups’ in ‘the warm-up’, but they’re really not the same thing. One is a self-contained activity, and the other is a process – and the first does not fulfil all the needs of the second.

It’s easy to see why the two get conflated, though. It’s not just the overlapping terminology. It’s because if you go to a workshop or an educational event then you will probably find ‘warm-ups’ being used as much of the material in the warm-up session. And in a workshop context, they are very fit for purpose. You’re in a situation where there are a bunch of people who do not yet have any common musical ground, and an easily learned, entertaining ditty is an excellent way to build a sense of group feeling in a short time. Moreover, in a situation where you probably have very mixed abilities and experiences singing together, starting off with items that work within a restricted range is going to be important to build confidence.

But in the rehearsal regime of a regularly constituted group, the elements that are so vital in a workshop situation are much less relevant. The singers have a well-established group feeling from singing together every week, and share the common ground of repertoire they have worked on together. In this context, the warm-up has a very different function: to get the singers in a state where they are vocally and mentally ready to tackle the repertoire the rehearsal will focus on.

For this purpose, the vivid ditty may be actively counter-productive in two dimensions. First, in its restricted range: singers need to warm up to at least the range of the repertoire they’ll be using during a rehearsal, if not a little wider. Spending 5 minutes focused with a 6th in the middle of the voice not only doesn’t deliver this, but can even encourage people to shut down their head placement. Second, the profusion of word sounds and images get in the way of refining the ensemble sound. The kaleidoscope of vowels (not only fast-moving, but often simultaneous) can be too fleeting to hear properly to match shape or tone. And the daftness of words that is such an advantage in an ice-breaking situation likewise distracts and dissipates mental focus in an established group.

Of course, much of this depends on how the material is delivered. It is certainly possible to use a ‘warm-up’ as a vehicle to hone choral craft, and they often have useful benefits for musicianship and imagination too. So they can play a role within the warm-up process – particularly with a function of transitioning out of every-day world into singing world. But they need to be part of a more structured process: a series of four or five ‘warm-ups’ does not ‘the warm-up’ make.

Having said that, I think they come into their own more at other points in the rehearsal, as attention refreshers, as energisers, as mood-changers. Strategically placed throughout a rehearsal, they can be of significant benefit to the overall mental stamina of the choir.

So, I’m saying it’s good to keep collecting them; they will remain useful things to have. But maybe think a bit more strategically about who you are using the exercises with, what those singers need, and thus how you deploy them.

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