From Michael Silhavy…



I was initially hesitant to take a contrarian opinion on the typically held view concerning the importance of vocal warm-ups in the choral setting. But I was heartened to see my colleague Alan Hommerding express many of my same concerns. Let me share my thoughts and practices.

To be clear, I have used vocal warm-ups with certain choirs. When I was conducting a diocesan choir, I found myself standing before a large group of singers from multiple parishes, many of whom would travel half an hour or more to come to rehearsal. Members found themselves in a different acoustic from their parish’s rehearsal space and were standing among singers they would see and hear only two nights a month. Some hardly had time to come home from work, greet the family, have a bite to eat, and head off to rehearsal. For this group, the warm-up served as a moment of individual focus and collective gathering. It was more of a mental warm-up than physical. Additionally, singers were asked to vocalize on their way to rehearsal.

While singers were put through a pace of gentle humming, oohing, and stretching, I would invite them to relax, or leave behind the problems of the day, or delight in how good it feels to be together. I would ask them to listen to the singers around them and to be aware of the space they are in. I’d also ask them to vocalize on an ah vowel sound, typically a five-note descending scalar pattern (major or minor), and then five notes up and four notes down. I might then take a five-note phrase comfortable for all voice types – Bb down to Eb – and repeat it while asking singers to sing louder, softer, warmer, darker, fuller, brighter, richer, thinner, and so on. My hope was that singers would become increasingly aware of the flexibility of their voices and the need to become vocal chameleons, adapting their voice to the type of music being sung. (Echoing Alan, I shy away from words or phrases like more beautiful, or in the style of a 17thcentury North German Baroque choir, phrases which are either subjective or arrogant!) During the warm-ups – maybe no more than 5-7 minutes, singers were invited to “assess” themselves: were the higher notes a challenge, could they feel resonance, did they feel “stuffed up” or have a sore throat? The warm up-part of the evening ended with the singing of a gentle hymn. All of these vocalizations were intended to build an awareness of each singer’s preparedness to sing that night.

I generally forego warm-ups with my parish choir at weeknight rehearsals. The issues of travel and familiarity mentioned above are not factors. Connecting with one another happens in a much easier way with this group. While my choir members most likely not have been singing earlier in the day, they have been speaking and to some degree, they are partially (not completely) warmed up. I know that the physiology of singing is not the same as speaking. With limited rehearsal time, I have to choose what to do with them.

Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of choral warm-ups centers around vowel sounds. Some directors will faithfully put their choirs through a warm-up of mah-meh-mee-moh-moo, while paying no attention to whether or not the vowel sound is correct! Rarely does the director discern questions like Is the mah“tall” enough? Is the meh tending toward may? Is the mee to clenched? Other directors may carefully shape these vowel sounds in the warm-up, and indeed achieve a level of choral blend, only to have these well-formed vowel sounds disappear once words, ranges, consonants, and diphthongs are encountered in the repertoire. I use the piece itself to work on vowel sounds.

Mornings pose a different challenge. Here, the first sound that day made by a singer may very well be in the context of a warm-up before the liturgy. More than appropriate, warm-ups may be necessary. But if one only has 20-30 minutes with a choir before the liturgy, there simply may not be enough time for vocalization. If the most “exposed” choir moment isn’t until the choral selection at the preparation of the altar, the choir will have had a hymn, Gloria, psalm refrain, and alleluia, if not more, to warm-up. After all, the congregation – the principal choir of the parish –doesn’t warm-up for the opening hymn.

In those very rare places, choirs may begin Sunday morning with extended sung prayer, e.g. Morning Prayer at 9:00 and Mass at 10:00. What a remarkable way to fully prepare body, mind, and soul for singing.

Circling back to Alan’s comments, I agree that stretching needs to be done very carefully if it is being done at all. The group massage – gently rub your neighbor’s back…. now turn the other way – should not be done. It is a violation of space; some people do not like to be touched by strangers, and some should not be touching.

Are warm-ups justified and should choirs spend time doing them? Yes. My concern has to do with warm-ups that seem to do little – if not contradict – solid vocal pedagogy and the reality of the liturgical choir. 

Michael Silhavy is GIA’s Senior Project Editor. He serves as the music director of St. Mary’s Church in Riverside, Illinois, and the co-director of the American Pilgrimage Choir. Michael is also a prolific composer and arranger.