The Effects of Missing the Warm-Up

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Choir directors sometimes find it a bit of an uphill battle to persuade all their singers that they really need to be there for the warm-up. This is a subject I’ve talked about before, but a recent experience shed a particularly vivid light on it. If one person comes late for the warm-up, the difference it makes is perceptible, but the warm-up is still effective. If nobody is there for a warm-up, everyone suddenly realises what it is they have missed.

The occasion was a concert Magenta had been asked to perform in, at which there would be no facilities to warm up. The organisers apologised, but explained, not unreasonably, that their budget didn’t run to hiring extra rooms. Nonetheless, it was a gig we wanted to do for all kinds of reasons to do with relationship-building and good karma.

In other situations like this, we have arranged to meet at someone’s house or place of work to warm up, but the logistics on this occasion made this impossible – it was an early concert at some distance away, so many of our singers were coming direct from work and meeting at the venue. Some of us had a chance to warm up our voices individually before we left, but by the time we closed the concert, that was four hours in the past.

So, we did as best we could under the circumstances, and it was okay. Well, pretty good – we succeeded in making people feel happy, which was the aim. But we noticed effects in multiple dimensions:

  • Vocally, we lacked a degree of power, resonance and colour compared to usual. I was very pleased how the choir handled this – they worked within the framework of what we had without forcing anything – but the choral instrument was generally a bit muted.
  • Expressively, we had the Manager on duty rather more than we’d normally want to. The lack of the mental preparation left us all under-primed, and thus having to draw upon conscious control rather than heading straight into the flow-state of a dominant Communicator
  • The connection within the ensemble wasn’t as tight as we’d usually expect. Again, I was pleased with how our blend survived this intact, although there were moments where the rhythmic precision suffered. This is partly related to the previous point – there was less eye contact between singers as people had to turn their focus inward to monitor their own execution – but it was remarked upon afterwards as a specific experiential deficit in its own right.
  • The performance as a whole lacked adrenaline. This is related to the vocal issues – it is the sympathetic nervous system that lends that extra clarity and ping to the voices – but also affected the overall feel. The performance was a bit safe; it didn’t have quite the sense of daring that lights up both performers and audience. It was telling that one singer remarked on feeling tired on the way home – when our usual experience, even after rehearsals is to be buzzing so much we can’t sleep.

This makes it sound terrible – which it wasn’t. It was a controlled and expressive performance, which demonstrated very pleasingly how much skill now vests in the individual singers as well as the team. And if it made us work harder to achieve the expressive effects we usually take for granted, that’s no bad learning experience.

But it also showed us very clearly what proper preparation adds to the whole. In theory, this is not a surprise; we all knew that warming up is important. But for that very reason, I had no recent experience of performing without it. If you’re wondering if it really makes that much of a difference – oh my goodness yes!

I think the two things that I might not have noticed were it not for this experience are, first, what a significant role arousal plays within the warm-ups to rehearsal. I don’t plan my warm-ups thinking, ‘body, breath, phonation, musicianship, ensemble - oh, and adrenaline’; I go for the first five, and encourage on-the-ballness and raising of game throughout. I hadn’t noticed before how much that process of piquing people into peak performance involved just the right dose of adrenaline.

Second, I hadn’t realised the role of the warm-up in releasing adrenaline for performance. Mostly on performance days, my conscious focus is engaging the parasympathetic nervous system – of keeping perception and awareness open, keeping the breath deep, the heart serene. But I guess the raising-our-game process is still at the heart of our warm-ups.

And the bonus thing that occurred to me as I wrote the previous two paragraphs is the role of the connection within the ensemble in releasing adrenaline in both contexts. Social contact is stimulating, especially when you are meeting with the purpose of achieving something none could manage by themselves. Maybe the reason I’d not noticed the role of the warm-up in releasing adrenaline is because it’s not something I need to pay attention to. So long as I get on with the breath…ensemble process, the singers will take care of the job of lighting each other up.

Hi Liz

This post totally resonates with me!

My new community choir did a 'sharing' for friends and family a while back. We did a brief warm up and ran through a few songs, BUT we didn't run the whole set, in order, in choir formation like we normally do and when we came to perform things just didn't gel as well as normal.

It's always hard when you have to rely on the organisers of an event to provide warm up space and access to the venue. At the very least I like to be in the actual performing space to do some kind of preparation. It's important to feel the acoustic and sense the layout of the space.

In more general terms, there are individuals in larger choirs who consistently miss (avoid?) the warm up. But they are probably the people who most need it!

I occasionally just launch into the first song with no warm up at all. Then do our warm up and sing the song again. Everyone notices the difference. Nuff said!

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