"The human voice is the organ of the soul."
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Warm Ups and Exercises that Strengthen Voice Quality, Tone, and Volume
Anyone who has ever played a sport, gone jogging, or taken an aerobics class knows that you should warm up before you exercise. Stretching and other warm ups help prevent muscle strain, improve performance, and can increase the longevity of use. So how about before you give a speech, teach a class, or facilitate a group? Do you warm up your voice? Do you stretch your face?
Not only will they help you prevent voice strain and improve the quality of your voice, vocal warm ups give you access to use your voice more effectively. Varying the tone, volume, and inflection can make a huge difference in HOW your presentation is received by your audience.
This edition of Hot Air includes some tips and techniques that will absolutely, no kidding, you-won’t-believe-how-easy-it-is, significantly improve your voice quality. (READ: This will not happen through osmosis.)
Warm up your whole body through simple stretching exercises, shoulder and necks rolls, and face stretches. Yes, face stretches. We tend to warm our bodies up from toes to neck, but neglect our head and face. Start with the Prune Face. Squeeze everything in your face as tight as possible (like a shriveled prune). Hold the “squeeze” for a few seconds and then do the Yawn (or Lion) Face. The Yawn Face is the opposite of the Prune Face, whereby you should open your mouth and eyes, stretch everything as far open as you can (that includes your tongue). Hold the Yawn Face for a few seconds and then back to the Prune Face. Repeat the sequence 4 or 5 times. Massage your jaw, your sinuses (forehead and nasal area), and your ears to help your face loosen up. Ahhhhhhh. Doesn’t that feel good?
Just like the rest of your body, it is imperative that you warm up your voice muscles, too. While performing vocal exercises, it is best to keep your arms hanging loosely at your side and your feet shoulders’ width apart (neutral position). Review Part I: Back to Basics Breathing for reminders on proper abdominal breathing.
Humming is probably the fastest and easiest way to improve the quality and longevity of your voice. Not to mention, it’s really cheap. The following exercise is adapted from The Lawyer’s Leading Edge: Exceptional Courtroom Performance, written by my good friends Lisa DeCaro and Len Matheo.
Fine Print: This exercise is not intended to give you a prettier singing voice and will not guarantee you a spot on American Idol.
• Start humming with your mouth closed, either a comfortably low note, or the melody to a familiar song like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, or Happy Birthday.
• Progressively hum louder.
• Then open your mouth wide and relax your jaw so that the humming sound is coming more from your nose, rather than your mouth. Keep humming, not singing, and concentrate on relaxing your jaw. Jaw tension can cause you to strain your vocal chords. Tip: If this is difficult, try placing your tongue flat against the roof of your mouth.
• Increase your volume until you can feel your sinuses vibrating and continue humming for about 5 minutes. A bonus if you have allergies or a cold is that your sinuses will drain after a short while.
• Practice for 5 minutes every day for a week, and you will notice a remarkable difference in the quality and control of your voice.
Voice Amplifiers (or Resonators)
When we breathe properly (from the diaphragm), air is pushed out of the lungs, through the trachea, and past the vocal chords. Sound is produced because the air causes the vocal chords to vibrate. However, the vocal chords can only initiate sound; they are not responsible for volume and tone. That amplification of sound is caused by cavities of air in your face, head, neck, and chest called resonators. Relying on your vocal chords to increase your volume will cause voice strain and possibly, loss of voice.
In addition to warming up your vocal chords, you should also warm up your voice amplifiers, or resonators. The following exercises (also adapted from The Lawyer’s Winning Edge) are designed to open up the amplifiers, or resonating cavities, in your body. First, spend a few minutes on each of the five sounds. Once you feel like each cavity is warmed up, put them all together consecutively with one breath. Remember, the purpose of these exercises is to warm up your nasal cavities, etc., not to sound beautiful.
“MEE” ‘Very nasal sounding; from high up in your nose; warms up your nasal cavities and those in your forehead. Tip: If you can’t feel it vibrating in your nose and forehead, place a pencil between your teeth and try to send the sound up and over the pencil.
“MAY” Still nasal, but from about the middle of your face; lower in your nose than MEE,
but still above the teeth; warms up your sinus cavities
“MAH” Inside your mouth, sound comes from your lips and tongue
“MOE” From your throat, in the area around your Adam’s apple. Tip: Don’t force the sound to be loud; just the vibration will do it.
“MOO” You should feel the vibration in your chest cavity
Enunciation & Articulation
We tend to be lazy with our speech, at minimum under-articulating the ends of words, and at worst, mumbling or slurring. A few simple and quick exercises can greatly improve your diction and ensure that everyone understands what you are saying.
Repeat the sounds of the letters in each pair below 5 or 6 times. Really exaggerate the movement of your jaw, lips, and tongue.
• B / P (buh/puh) Place your open palm a few inches from your mouth and notice the puff of air you feel with the “puh” sound.
• C / G (kuh/guh) Notice how the position of your jaw changes.
• D / T (duh/tuh) Your jaw position should change for each of these.
• F / V Do you place your teeth on your lips differently for these two?
• M / N Your mouth should be closed with lips together on “M” and open with your tongue against the back of your teeth on “N”.
• S / Z Notice the different vibration for these two.
To avoid tripping over words when you speak, combine the Consonant exercise above with a few of the following. Again, the idea is to completely exaggerate and over-enunciate the words during the warm up.
Repeat each, increasing your speed, until you cannot go any faster.
• Red Leather. Yellow Leather.
• Unique New York
• Toy Boat
• Lovely Lemon Liniment
• Irish Wristwatch
• Strange Strategic Statistics
• Three Free Throws
• A proper cup of coffee in a copper coffee cup
• Inexplicably mimicking him hiccupping
Of course, you will rarely have time to go through all of the exercises above right before you have to speak, so here are a few quick tips to consider before you make your next presentation.
• Hum (loudly) for at least five minutes before a speech or presentation.
• Practice a few quick enunciation and articulation exercises.
• Avoid dairy and syrupy beverages like soft drinks right before you speak
• Keep a glass of water easily accessible (room temperature, not ice water which can constrict your vocal chords).
Have fun with these exercises. They aren’t supposed to feel like “work.” Plan 5 or 10 minutes in your day for a little stretching and warming up (physically and vocally) and you’ll be amazed how much better you feel – and sound!
"Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall."
~Oliver Wendell Holmes
Trainer, Facilitator, & Spare Tire