Boot Camp for the Voice?
Are you familiar with fitness boot camps?
The Mayo Clinic Fitness blog describes a boot camp workout as “a type of interval training – bursts of intense activity alternated with intervals of lighter activity. … [T]his type of workout is great for improving overall strength and conditioning.” The workouts involve a strength and cardio training circuit that engages the entire body; upper-body, lower-body, and core. Every boot camp starts with a warm-up that entails running the room, stretching muscles, and increasing the heart rate slowly. Most end with a cool-down that consists of again running the room, stretching muscles, and slowly bringing the heart rate back down. And in between the warm-up and the cool-down - when you’re doing the exercises – is when all the real change begins.
Fitness boot camp exercises are progressive, taking us from the weaknesses we’ve got to the strength we want.
But what does a boot camp for the voice look like?
Just like fitness boot camps, vocal boot camps are designed to improve overall vocal strength and conditioning. The objective of vocal boot camps, however, is not to learn techniques specific to one musical genre. Just as we don’t do fitness boot camp workouts to learn tennis or rowing, we don’t do a vocal boot camp workout to learn to sing in a specific vocal style (.e.g., indie rock or opera).
Let me take you through a unique vocal boot camp that I’ve created. Below is a description of the workout that serves as a companion to the free audio tracks that you can access at any time. You can follow the progression of this post alongside the vocal exercises in the audio tracks.
Vocal workouts start with warm-ups, just like workouts at the gym.
In Phase 1, we warm up the whole body. We stretch up, out, and down. We twist at the core, march in place, roll the neck, and loosen the muscles of the face and jaw.
Phase 2 targets the large breathing muscles. We begin with the sustained hiss (Exercise 4) or other breathing exercises.
But here is where a vocal boot camp diverges from the warmups of physical athletes. Now, it gets specific to the muscles of the throat and mouth. Phase 3 begins with humming or buzzing our lips, starting in the middle of the range and sliding up, down, and all around. Sometimes we may open our mouths to sing a little, but then we go back to humming and buzzing. In all, about five minutes of warming up should suffice.
Next, we head into the workout itself.
Vocal Exercises: Targeting the Whole Voice
It is essential for a vocal workout to touch base with all parts of your range. For most people, this range is about three octaves. Since we’re just entering the vocal exercises phase - Phase 4 - we’re 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. We go all the way to the highest pitches, beyond where it’s pretty and comes out as a mere squeak. We spend several seconds up there and then work our way back down.
The voice is run on muscles. There are muscle 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. The muscles of the neck, jaw, tongue, and upper back also need to be considered. You might not want to build the engagement of these muscles for some musical 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 other muscles should be.
The vocal exercises in Phase 4 hit the muscle building hard. To create your own muscle building exercises, focus on what skills you want to develop. Be sure to balance strength building with flexibility development 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 singing heard in the demonstration. You’ll feel your abs and intercostals engage as you quickly hop through the tricky intervals. Freedom in the face and neck combined with 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 risks creating tensions.
What can a singer do to avoid adopting bad or even terrible habits? The singer can do for the voice exactly what I do for my gym workout. Once a week, I attend 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 workout 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. Take one-on-ones if you can afford them, or participate in group classes. A half-hour with a teacher focusing on vocal exercises that specifically target the areas of your voice that could use attention can do wonders for your singing.
Not every aspect of vocal exercise is about building muscle. Just like in a fitness boot camp, the opportunity to build coordination is a big part of the vocal boot camp. 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, but it also improves your intonation and pitch sensitivity for everything you sing.
You can add a cool-down at the end of your vocal workout. 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.me 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, we benefit from using a variety of vocal exercise options. Here are a few that I recommend:
Voxercise, an app for Android and iPhone created 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’re 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. Thanks to Karen’s deep understanding of the voice, you can’t go wrong with these tracks.
The Vocal Exercises* book by the publishing company Hal Leonard is available in audio form through their 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 and vocal exercises. I’m 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 for yourself if they are good in quality.
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