Warming up & breakfast
I sometimes feel a bit hypocritical when I skip breakfast.
You see, I go around telling anyone that will listen that just as breakfast is the most important meal of the day, the warm-up is the most important part of the choral rehearsal. It’s harder to say that with conviction if you’ve not eaten anything before noon.
So, we all know why breakfast is important. (If not - well you’re on the internet already, go and find out.) The reason I hold a parallel view of the warm-up is because - like breakfast - it might be a thing with one identifying label and be done at one specific time of day, but it is made up of a varied and flexible number of elements that simultaneously serve several purposes, both immediate and long-term.
Preparation for the rehearsal
This is the obvious bit: getting the muscles loosened up, the breath engaged with the voice, the vocal folds flexible, the resonators resonating.
Some people say, ‘oh, but I warm up in the car on the way to the rehearsal’. This is better than no warm-up at all, of course, but doesn’t really cut the mustard. I don’t recall any studies that suggested a Volvo’s driving seat was particularly ergonomically designed for singing, for instance. Also, a director who puts any care into their warm-ups designs them to prepare specifically for the activities they’ve planned that evening. For example if Magenta is going to be working on our one piece with significantly higher range demands, I make sure the upper parts of our voices are good and ready during the warm-up. Of course, if anyone comes in late, I then have to do another subsidiary warm-up before we attempt that piece.
When we arrive at rehearsal, we’re still a-buzz with the distractions of real life. The warm-up provides a liminal space where people can transition from their daily identities into their roles as choral singers. Just as we need to get the kinks out of our bodies for the voices to work, we need to get the kinks out of our brains in order to make good music. Have you ever noticed the contrast in state of being between a group of people who have warmed up together and someone who joins in without having shared that experience? Sure, the majority state of mind prevails quite quickly, but the difference at first is palpable.
The warm-up is where you establish your values as a choir. It is where you abstract from the complex musical structures you sing for the rest of the evening the simpler elements through which you will then approach your work. Your warm-up establishes what you care about corporately: for some choirs it will be technical control, for others it will be relaxation and freedom, or imagination, or communication, or playfulness. To miss the warm-up is to withhold your full participation in the choir’s moral order.
Skills-development (aka preparation for the choir’s future)
The warm-up is where you can work on the long-term development of a choir’s voices. The need for physical and mental preparation for the rehearsal in hand means you are you going to be working with pared down musical and vocal tasks, which are also ideal for learning and practising particular elements of technique. The repetitiveness of drilling a vocal exercise to get the voice limbered up is a great vehicle for practising a specific technique, and the requirement for focus that technical work presents in turn facilitates the mental preparation.
The warm-up is also where you can develop a choir’s musicianship. Rhythmic skills, tuning, understanding of scales or harmonies, aural acuity are all skills that you need in repertoire, and again the warm-up is a great place to introduce these bit by bit over the long term so that when you sing repertoire that needs those skills, you have some experience to draw on. I used to think I was clever when I invented warm-up exercises designed to solve a rehearsal problem in the repertoire we’d be singing later that evening. I later realised that it’s more useful to invent exercises that develop skills to solve rehearsal problems in the repertoire we’ll be singing in 3 months time.
The warm-up is where the choir learns to sing together. Elements of choral craft such as blend, tuning, vowel matching and synchronisation are as much a matter of interpersonal osmosis as technique. (The technical term for this is the chameleon effect, and I discuss it in Part IV of my forthcoming book.) So, however well you personally might warm up at home, and however careful you are to blend with other people, if you’re not there at the warm-up, they won’t have the chance to learn to blend with you. This is also the long-term parallel of the ethical preparation for an individual rehearsal: not warming up with the rest of the choir suggests an individualistic ethos that will discourage people from the kind of coordinated behaviours that they might otherwise engage in.
So, that’s why I care about the warm-up. I think the reason other people might not so much is simply because of its name: at a pop concert the warm-up act isn’t necessarily very good, and is generally held to be missable. Perhaps we should rename it to give it its proper value.
How about: inauguration
Right, now I’m off to make some porridge.
P.S. A quick howdy to the people coming over here from ChoralNet. I realised that my recent posts had been quite arrangement-focused, so I thought I’d post something a little more directly choral to welcome you. Hope you visit again soon.