Maybe you think that vocalizing is the most boring part of your voice lessons. There’s no fun melody or moving words. It’s just a series of scales that go on forever. But your teacher insists that you do these exercises at the beginning of each lesson and in your own practice time. When you are in the privacy of your home, you might just “skip” those boring exercises but I am here to tell you that there is a great importance to vocalizing and it’s not just about “warming up.” Through those exercises, you learn and solidify your technique and in many ways that makes it the most important thing you can do in your practice time.
Technique? That’s boring!
You may find that technique is boring but technique is a necessity of singing well. Yes, of course you can and do learn technique through the songs that you are singing but that does not diminish the importance of singing vocal exercises. When you remove the complex text and your emotional connection that you have with a piece of music and just sing on one vowel in a scalar exercise you are able to focus on the technical aspects of producing a tone much better. You can hone in on where you feel the vowel focus inside your mouth and head. You can concentrate on engaging your support all the way through the exercise. You can focus on the connection of vowels without the distraction of words and complex melodies. Vocal exercises strip away some of the extraneous “stuff” so you can get right to the core ideas of how to sing properly. If you can do it in a vocalize, you can do it in your repertoire.
Start slowly and in a low- to mid-range
When you first start out with your exercises, do not sing the fastest, highest, loudest vocalise you have. Think about it like stretching your muscles out before you go for a run. You work gently at first and then get a deeper stretch as you feel more limbered up. The same thing applies to singing. Perhaps start with some stretching so you free any tension you may feel. Then do some deep breathing so you can connect to your breath and support muscles. Then start slowly with a five-tone exercise down (sol-fa-mi-re-do) on one vowel like on [i] or [o]. Start this near the bottom of your range (not the lowest part of your range) and continue up to your secondo passaggio. Once you’ve reached that point, do the same exercise down the scale but maybe add a different vowel (ex. [ i – i – e – e – i ]) Concentrate on the breathing, the focus of the vowel, the legato.
Continue with another exercise that maybe ascends and descends quickly from “do” to “sol” and back to “do” singing one vowel as you ascend and another when you descend. Concentrate on keeping the vowels focused, managing smooth register changes, singing legato, not over-manipulating the changes between the vowels. Take this vocalise up through your secondo passaggio and maybe one step higher. Then make sure you descend back to where you started.
Once your voice and breath are moving, then explore your high notes, sing faster, lengthier scalar vocalises and work on the more advanced techniques like mezza di voce, trills etc.
Use part of your repertoire as a vocal exercise
If there is a particular issue you are having in your repertoire – an approach to a difficult high note, a tricky coloratura passage – isolate a section of your repertoire (1 bar, or 1 interval, or 1 melisma sequence) and create an exercise out of it. Start in your mid range and sing that particular passage on a neutral vowel that you know you can successfully execute. Move up the scale in half steps and go past one or two steps above the pitch where the original passage is placed. When you feel confident with the way you have sung that, change the vowel so it more closely resembles the vowel of the actual passage and try to maintain the same consistency. When you isolate passages in this way, you also discover what the real problem is. It may be the vowel. It may be the approach to the high note. It may be the tessitura. When you go back and sing it in context after you have vocalized it in this way, it will seem easier than you think.
No more scales!
OK, I will admit that scales get monotonous really fast. But while scalar exercises are very important, they are not the only way to learn technique. Old time teachers from the Bel Canto School of Singing often wrote vocal exercises that addressed specific technical issues but in the form of little songs. These are songs with and without words, with accompaniments that have very specific uses – to learn legato, portamento, trills, arpeggios, and much more. You can sing them on any vowel and they are simple enough that you can still focus solely on the technical issue at hand. You can check out the Matilde Marchesi “Bel Canto: A Theoretical and Practical Vocal Method” and Vaccai “Practical Method of Italian Singing.”
You could also go back to those “24 Italian Songs and Arias” that you knew so well as a young singer. Pick your favorite song and sing it on one vowel and focus on the technical aspects that are important – placement, support, legato, etc.
Don’t Overdo it!
Finally, make sure that you don’t overdo your vocalizing. I know that may seem counter-intuitive but vocalizing is about learning and solidifying the technique while your repertoire is where you apply your technique. If you spend too much time and energy vocalizing you will not have any voice left to work through your repertoire. You should be able to do your technical work in your vocal exercises in about 20 minutes.
I got some great advice from a very well known internationally acclaimed conductor. I was vocalizing in my dressing room before a performance that I was singing with her and she knocked on my door and said, “Don’t leave it all in the dressing room!” Sound advice indeed.
What are your favorite vocal exercises? Let us know in the comments below!