Vocal warm ups for Drama Teachers
In a crowded timetable, how can drama teachers monitor their students’ vocal health? Jeremy Fisher considers the role of the vocal warm up.
The act of warming up the voice falls into three broad categories: body and breath, larynx and vocal folds, and resonance.
I asked three vocal trainers for their thoughts on an ideal vocal warmup. Their choice of techniques was surprisingly consistent. Jenevora Williams is an adolescent vocal expert and vocal consultant to the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, while Gillyanne Kayes is author of Singing and the Actor and has worked as vocal consultant for the National Youth Music Theatre. Pamela Hall is an actor and singer working in the education sector.
Body and breath
Many teachers will be familiar with breath exercises, but what are the benefits? Williams believes it’s because “you’re controlling the airflow. What would happen naturally is a whoosh and a fizzle, which is not useful for any kind of projected or elongated speech, and absolutely no use for singing. So you need to control the onset so that it doesn’t whoosh, and control the tail-off so that it doesn’t fizzle.” All three trainers use unvoiced and voiced fricatives to help the body/breath connection, and to provide a stable outflow of breath.
Larynx and vocal folds
Warming up the larynx prepares the vocal folds themselves for extended vocal work. Kayes uses a number of different techniques for finding and maintaining a clear sound across the range. “After doing some physical work, loosening their body, finding their space, we would move probably into onsetting of tone. We might do very gently nn, mm, ah, eh, ee sounds, making sure that there are no hard attacks and that the throat is open. You can do a bit of double-checking here by doing silent breathing or the silent laughing exercise for getting the false vocal folds out of the way.It’s a very useful exercise for quietening an excited group down.”
The siren, a small ng sound gliding up and down in pitch, is a favourite. The sound is quiet and focussed, and the pitch glides start small and increase in range (but not power). One interesting variation is the rollercoaster or corkscrew. Students design their own vocal rollercoaster, with slow climbs, fast swoops and loops or figure-eights, all done quietly and with the minimum breath. Hall often splits her class into small groups and elect a leader to direct each group. This exercise can also be done on a voiced fricative, rolled ‘r’ or lip trill.
Resonance includes vowels and the vowel chart (for finding and feeling vowel placement), consonants (beginning with bilabial and working backwards), tongue position and tongue twisters (for small, efficient tongue, lip and jaw movements), and text work. When Kayes works with articulation and consonants she finds that “the Linklater exercise where you physicalise consonants are enormously helpful and great fun as well. So rather than going through the process of explaining what plosives and fricatives and so on are, you actually get the pupils to physicalise them. They become more aware of where the consonant is placed, how it is made, and begin to sense the power of consonants in the text.”
Hall includes a projection exercise, dividing the space into three or four arenas for different levels of projection: level 1 soft intimate (useful for camera close-up), level 2 normal speech, level 3 projected speech, and level 4 extreme speech. And all three trainers use twang exercises to increase the ‘cut’ in a vocal sound without forcing.
Dealing with the adolescent voice
Boys go through five distinct stages of voice change through adolescence, and the stages are sequential and predictable. Male vocal folds grow exponentially during adolescence, and a voice can alter substantially in a matter of weeks. In fact, according to some rather startling statistics from research in Paris, 40 per cent of children have some form of vocal problem, and 10 per cent of ten-year-old boys have nodules. Williams states “With vulnerable voices, those who are going through rapid change and growth, you want to avoid anything that uses extremes of loudness and range.Permanent damage to the voice is very unlikely, but the likelihood of short-term fatigue is very common, in particular if a child has a very husky voice that won’t project or is obviously uncomfortable to use. You can work physically with things like the jaw-release exercise, chewing, moving the tongue around and breathing exercises, but you can also bring the child’s awareness to how they use their voice in certain situations – when they get angry or when they get in the sort of situations that cause them emotional stress.”
Girls appear to have four stages of change, and often have difficulty closing the vocal folds efficiently, resulting in a breathy sound. Gentle glottal onsets can help the vocal folds close, as complete glottal closure is required at the beginning of the sound.
Many of the exercises listed are described in Gillyanne Kayes’ Singing and the Actor book.
For more information visit www.vocalprocess.co.uk
© 2014 Jeremy Fisher
Jeremy Fisher is a performance coach, writer, director of Vocal Process and author of the free ebook
This article first appeared in Teaching Drama Magazine and appears by kind permission of Rhinegold Publishing Ltd