A few years ago, I was invited by a friend to play on his dodge ball team. I have no problem admitting that I am likely the least sportiest person in the world and was shocked, to say the least, that my friend even thought of me. I should probably mention that up until this point I had never even heard of dodge ball (no, I never saw the Ben Stiller movie), but the concept intrigued me enough to give it a go.
What was promised of being a harmless, “friendly” social game turned into a vicious, snarling, competitive sport that consisted of physical assault by ball and resulted in me nursing bruises for the better part of the week. Not one to give up so easily, I continued playing for several more weeks until I realised I was slowly being sidelined to the roles of Ball Collector and Solo Cheering Squad.
It was then that I decided I had better call it quits. The reason for this was not to do with the fact that I was clearly terrible at the game, but rather because I was given absolutely no training or guidance on what I was supposed to do. I knew that getting hit by the ball was a bad thing and that hitting someone on the other team with a ball led to cheers and happy back-slapping. However, no one actually spent the time to teach me what to do with the ball once I had it, or how to avoid it when it was making a bee-line for my face. There were no pre-game drills or warm ups, and we never met as a team outside of game times to practice or strategise. Although I was assured that I would “pick it up as I went along”, I didn’t have the faintest clue where to even begin and I knew that without training and guidance, there was no way I was going to improve.
My singing students will know that my fellow vocal coaches and I place extreme value on the vocal training part of every singing lesson. In fact, it is not uncommon for us to dedicate more than half of the class time on vocal exercises (or “vocalises” – pronounced “vo-kah-lee-zuz”) if we feel the student needs them.
I am often asked the question, “Why do we need to keep making these weird vocal sounds anyway? Is this just to warm up or do these exercises actually do anything for me??”
Students who are new to singing will often confuse vocal training with “warming up” and it’s important to know that there is indeed a difference.
When a singer “warms up”, the goal is similar to that of an athlete or dancer when they warm up before a game or performance:
“Warm-ups not only help the voice function more efficiently, but also can encourage a feeling of relaxation and focus before a performance…The function of the warm-up is to increase blood flow to the working muscles and increase the muscle temperature, decrease the number of injuries to the working muscles, and increase muscle tissue temperature…” (Heywood, V.H., cited by Saxon and Schneider, 1995, p. 69).
In other words, warm-ups help to prepare the singing voice for an extended period of active use. Vocalises, however, serve a deeper, more long-term function.
Going back to my dodge ball experience, although I knew basically how the game worked, my muscles had no clue how to react quickly enough for me to be an effective player. No matter how much I tried to dodge a ball that was hurled in my direction, I was never quick enough to move out of harm’s way. On the rare occasion that I actually had the ball, my instincts were not sharp enough for me to know if I should pass it to my team mate or hurl it towards someone on the opposing team. On the rare occasion when I DID make a decision, my body did not know how to properly coordinate itself to make an effective and powerful enough throw.
Vocal exercises enable a singer to train their vocal instrument to behave in the most effective and efficient manner possible. This way, a singer can enjoy the experience of performing live because they know they can rely on their voice to “do its job”.
Of course, all this is easier said than done. A beginner singer (and sometimes even an advanced singer who has been singing incorrectly for a long period of time) will often require months, or even years, of repetitive training before they can get to a point where vocal exercising become less about fixing vocal issues as they are about maintaining proper vocal function.
To put it another way, vocal exercises pave the way towards building good vocal technique and teach you how to stay on the right track. Vocal warm-ups merely remind you of the vocal skills and techniques that you already know.
Singing a song without having the proper training in place beforehand is equivalent to me jumping into a dodge ball game with limited knowledge and crossing my fingers that I won’t end up with too many bumps and bruises by the end of the session.
Believing that one can learn how to sing correctly just by singing songs alone is like me believing I could become a good dodge ball player just by blindly throwing myself into a game.
Sure, with time, I could probably figure it out as I went along. But without proper training, I’d probably make far more mistakes and sustain far more injuries as a result. Plus, no matter how proficient of a player I ultimately became, I would always know deep down inside that I could have been so much better.
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