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Before You Speak: Warming Up

Insights from professional performers

March 2020

Performing at a consistently high level, day in and day out, requires intense focus and regimen. Daily peak performance is a job requirement for professional opera singers, actors, and Broadway performers – and for corporate CEOs. There is much to be learned from professional performers about preparing daily for the rigors of being on the public stage. The first thing to suffer when fatigue or illness sets in is the voice. Before they even open their mouths to make one sound, the best performers ground themselves in vocal and physical technique. Solid, rehearsed technique elevates presentations, and as importantly, carries presenters through challenging moments.

Finding your neutral

Three foundational techniques are key to warming up the body and the voice: low breath, grounded posture, and facial stretches.

Take a deep breath
Focusing on one’s breath for a few minutes allows for quiet mental focus – thinking simply about the sensations of breathing or envisioning upcoming goals and successful outcomes. A low breath also directly engages the lower intercostal muscles and the diaphragm, and this is what supports healthy vocal production. There should be no chest heaving or shoulder movement when breathing deeply. There is only the sensation of the lower ribs, lower back, and abdomen expanding and releasing. A simple way to access low breath is by breathing only through the nose. And a good way to feel the lower back expansion is by bending forward at the waist, and letting the arms and head hang loosely towards the ground.

Head, shoulders, knees, and toes
Placing awareness on posture and staying grounded while presenting or performing is another way to support healthy vocal production. Avoid slumping the shoulders or, conversely, forcing shoulders back and pushing the chest forward. Instead, aim for a neutral stance following the natural curves of the skeletal structure, especially the back, and balance weight equally on legs and feet.

A simple exercise to find this posture follows on naturally from the low-breath, leaning-over exercise mentioned above. From the bent position, raise the body slowly, continuing to let the shoulders and head hang loosely forward. Feel and visualize the vertebrae aligning themselves on top of each other one at a time. The shoulders will find their natural place as the upper vertebrae align. Once fully upright, lift the head lightly envisioning a string gently tugging upward at the crown of the head.

Big yawns & eyebrow scrunches
Performers, like athletes, must stretch their muscles before they work if they want their instruments (aka bodies, voices) to endure the intensive demands placed upon them during performance. The face is often overlooked as something to warm up, and it’s a missed opportunity. There are more than 40 different muscles in the face and neck. Warming up facial musculature not only supports healthy vocal production, but it also gives the speaker opportunity to experiment with expression.

Our faces are capable of conveying many different messages. Working with a mirror for just a few minutes each day to see facial expressions helps a professional find a comfortable neutral face with energetic eyes and a warm smile. Facial energy and warmth is a subtle but powerful tool for engaging audiences and communicating meaningful messages. Simple movements such as yawning and expanding the jaw, puckering and stretching the lips, furrowing and releasing the eyebrows are easily built into a warm-up regimen.

These exercises – which can be accomplished in 10-15 minutes each day – add up to a strong voice and purposeful presence. Both are foundational elements of compelling presentation delivery.

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