In gym class, warm-ups are the kids who always get picked last.
Let’s be honest. When rehearsing you’re a cappella group, how many of you actually use warm ups? I suspect the statistical findings of the A cappella Blog will one day try to figure that out. But if I had to guess, I would guess that answers range from “what are warm-ups?” to “what are warm-ups?”
Finding a choral director or professional singer who doesn’t believe in warming up is near impossible. As a choral director, warm-ups are the fundamentals of singing. In my opinion, if you’re choir is not singing correctly, it’s because they haven’t successfully warmed-up. Warm-ups teach vocal health, vocal pedagogy, group intonation, correct singing posture and breathing, and many more important tools that singers need. It’s like playing Call of Duty on your Xbox without knowing how to shoot your weapon. Once you start playing online, everyone secretly hopes you step on a grenade.
So why don’t a cappella groups warm up? The answer is simple- it’s the same answer as to why musicians don’t practice. It’s boring. Really really really really really really boring.
“It’s so loooooooooong.”
“It’s sooooooooo repetitive.”
“This has nothing to doooooooooooooooo with pop music.”
“We don’t haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaave time.”
Yep. You’ve probably heard one of those before, or some variation. I will never argue that warm-ups, especially warm-ups used in traditional choirs, singing lessons, and professional choirs, is worthless. However, I would like to offer an alternative to those groups who secretly hope they would warm-up, but are too afraid to say anything because they don’t want to be the one picked last for dodge ball.
The answer is….wait for it…improvisation!
Okay. Stop laughing.
I’m serious. The key to warming-up is to make it fun, make it challenging, and still address some vocal need. The key is a technique I learned directly from Bobby McFerrin. It’s called “Circle songs.”
The technique is simple. Someone, anyone, should start singing. What they sing is a 2-4 bar phrase.
It should be repetitive: Something they can sing accurately over and over.
It should be singable: If someone were to sing it with you, they should be able to pick it up in 1
to 2 hearings.
It should establish a tempo: Everyone should be able to tap/clap/snap along
It should not have lyrics: Use your favorite scat syllable. Doo’s, la’s, bop’s, and jin’s are always fun
Once this 2-4 bar phrase is established, then the fun begins. Someone else, or several someone elses should add their own part. Something different that adds to the song. The phrases should stay within the 2-4 bar phrase and the established tempo.
When adding parts, this does not have to be one at a time. In fact, the first or second time you do this, NO ONE is going to want to sing. People are inherently shy when it comes to improvising. Its fine if instead of adding one person at a time, EVERYONE starts at the same time. Yes it will be chaos, but at least you started and the ice has been broken.
There is no wrong way to compose a circle song. If you have a better way to do it, then go for it. For more inspiration, I suggest listening to the following records:
Bobby McFerrin- Circlesongs. Sony Records, 1997
Keep in mind, these are not rounds, canons, or fugues. “Row Row Row Your Boat” is not an example of a circle song. You want to create something, a nonsensical pattern, that someone can add to, not repeat at a different time. Plus, “Row Your Boat” has lyrics, which beginning circle songs should probably not have. It’s okay to add lyrics anytime you want, but for groups starting with circle songs, lyrics add a challenge that may frustrate some people.
I know what you’re thinking. This guy is crazy. There’s no way we can improvise on the spot just by reading a blog. Well… yes, crazy and I are cousins. But try it. You’ve got nothing to lose. As the guy who was always picked last for dodge ball, I always wanted to the chance to prove myself.
But not in dodge ball. I hate running…and jumping…and catching… and gym…