Do you know about boot camp workouts? The workouts involve a strength circuit that engages your whole body; upper-body, lower-body, and core. There is a big cardio aspect too. They are progressive; taking you from the body you’ve got to the body you want (I’m not talking about fat here, just strength). Every boot camp starts with a warm-up; running the room, stretching muscles, increasing the heart rate slowly. Most boot camps end with a cool down; again running the room, stretching muscles, and decreasing the heart rate slowly. But in between the warm-up and the cool-down, when you are doing the exercises, that’s when all the changes happen.
According to the Mayo Clinic Fitness blog, “a boot camp workout is a type of interval training — bursts of intense activity alternated with intervals of lighter activity … this type of workout is great for improving overall strength and conditioning.”
What about boot camp for the voice with vocal exercises? You bet!
Our goal is to improve overall vocal strength and conditioning.
Our goal is not to learn techniques specific to one genre. Just like you don’t do a physical boot camp workout to learn tennis or rowing, you don’t do a vocal boot camp workout to learn indy rock or opera.
I’ve created free vocal boot camp audio tracks for you to access anytime you want. You can follow the progression of this post side-by-side with the exercises.
Vocal exercise starts with warm-ups. In Phase 1, we warm-up the whole body in a similar way to physical athletes. We stretch up, out, and down. We twist at the core, march in place, roll the neck, and stretch the muscles of the face and jaw.
Phase 2 hits the big breathing muscles. Go through the breathing exercises you have used in the past, or start with the sustained hiss. You can find a great “hiss” track in Phase 2 on the Vocal Exercises page.
But then it gets really different from the warmups for physical athletes, now it gets specific to the muscles of the throat and mouth. In Phase 3, we start humming or buzzing our lips. We start in the middle and slide up, down and all around. Sometimes we open our mouth to sing a little, but then go back to humming and buzzing. All-in-all, about five minutes of warming up should do it. Next we head into the workout.
It is essential for a vocal workout to touch base with all parts of your range. For most people this is three octaves. Since we are just entering the vocal exercises phase, Phase 4, we are going to keep things gentle at first. We hop between intervals, like 1 – 3 – 5 – 3 – 1, in our low range, middle range, and high range. Go all the way to the highest pitches, beyond where it is pretty and comes out just as a squeak. Spend a minute up there and then work your way back down.
The voice is run on muscles. Yes, there are muscles inside the vocal folds and muscles in the surrounding larynx. And there are many more muscles involved. The muscles of the pharynx, diaphragm, abdominals, and intercostals. Warning: The muscles of the neck, jaw, tongue, and upper back need to be considered. You might not want to build the engagement of these muscles for some genres, but for others, they can play a positive role. Use your own discretion and training from your voice teacher to determine how engaged these muscles should be.
The vocal exercises in Phase 4 hit the muscle building hard. To create your own muscle building vocal exercises, focus on what skills you want to develop. Keep in mind, balance strength building with flexibility and control. Exercises like Step 1: Bwa-Bwa and the series of exercises that follow, require a relaxed tongue and jaw in order to recreate the example singing. You’ll feel your abs and intercostals engage as you quickly hop through the tricky intervals. Freedom in the face and neck combined with the engagement of core muscles allow the larynx muscles to do their job – find and create pitches that are in tune without interference from extrinsic neck muscles. Yes, it can be done poorly; the singer takes a risk of creating tensions that are difficult to erase and perhaps even damaging to the voice.
What can a singer do to avoid creating bad or even terrible habits? The singer can do for the voice exactly what I do for my gym workout. Once a week I go to a boot camp workout class, where the instructor watches my technique and corrects it. Every time I go, I learn how to do it better on my own and I receive new challenges to add to my toolbox. Then for the rest of the week, I do interval training at home with videos.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to check in with a knowledgeable voice teacher on a regular basis. One-on-ones if you can afford them, or group classes if you want to save a little money. A half-hour with a teacher focusing on vocal exercises for the areas of your voice that could use attention can do wonders for your singing.
Not every aspect of vocal exercises is about building muscle. Just like in a physical boot camp, the opportunity to build mental coordination is a big part of it. For the voice, studying scales you’ve never tried before – like the blues scale (Phase 4, Step 5) – improves your mental coordination. Working on scat singing or improv (Phase 4, Step 8) not only improves your skills for those activities, it improves your intonation and pitch sensitivity for everything you sing.
You can add a cool-down at the end of your vocal exercises. Cool-down by trilling or buzzing your lips to your favorite gentle song, stretching the face and core muscles, and gently easing yourself back into the world around you.
My vocal exercises are available on nancybos.net for free anytime you need them. But in the same way that I benefit more from physically working out every day with a variety of videos, you will benefit from using a variety of vocal exercises options. Here are a few that I recommend.
Voxercise, an app for Android and iPhone by LA Voice teacher Sara Leib, is a great interactive tool for warm ups and exercises on the go or at home. The app provides dozens of piano tracks that allow you to see if you are in tune while doing them, and you can visually track the notes with “sheet music” showing each exercise. Sara even includes advice about singing through in-app videos. This new app is sure to grow and get even better in the coming months. The in-app upgrade for the full package is well worth its $13.99 price tag.
The I’m Not Crazy, I’m Vocalizing tracks by Karen Oleson are great for the voice and a lot of fun. I’ve been using them for years. You can’t go wrong thanks to Karen’s deep understanding of the voice.
The Vocal Exercises book by the publishing company Hal Leonard is available in audio form through your Kindle.
Vocal Workouts for the Contemporary Singer by Berklee Press has stood the test of time.
There are also several YouTube teachers who offer warm-ups. I am unable to recommend any of them because I don’t know their work, but if you check them out with your voice teacher you will be able to decide if they are good quality.