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Singing is Athletic: The Importance of Warming Up the Body

I coach a liturgical sports team. Sounds bizarre, right? When we think about it, though, singers really are athletes. Singing (when done correctly) is a whole-body activity — especially in Eastern Orthodox churches, because we stand for hours per service, singing practically the whole time through. The importance of vocal warmups is obvious, but I find that many singers ignore the rest of the body (to their own detriment). A backache, sore neck, stiff shoulders and lower back pain by the end of a service are urgent signals that the body hasn't been sufficiently prepared beforehand. Fortunately, doing some simple stretches before a service can greatly increase comfort and stamina for everyone. This includes directors, by the way!

Anyway, let's get right to it. Here are some of the exercises I've found helpful with the choir at my parish:

  1. Gentle neck rolls. Hang your head down so your chin touches your chest (or comes close to it. Don't force it.). Slowly roll your head to one side, so your ear almost touches your shoulder, then roll it to the other side. Note: tilting the head back and making full circles with it can be dangerous for some people with preexisting neck injuries. I personally do this exercise that way, but don't recommend it to others for this reason.

  2. Release the shoulders. Shrug your shoulders until they're as close to your earlobes as they can get. Tense them up, then relax and let them drop down. If you carry a lot of tension in your shoulders, you may wish to repeat this several times. For an even greater effect, clench your hands into fists when you tense up your shoulders, and then release all the muscles in your shoulders, arms and hands.

  3. Stretching the ribcage. Stand comfortably with your feet shoulder-width apart. Clasp your hands and raise both arms over your head. Relax your ribcage, abdomen, sides and back muscles. Take several slow, deep breaths, feeling the stretch in the muscles between your ribs. Keeping your hands clasped above your head, lean over to one side as far as you can comfortably bend, and take several more slow, deep breaths. Return to the middle position, and repeat on the opposite side. Slowly unclasp your hands and return your arms to the side.

  4. Side twists. Place your hands on your hips and take several slow, deep breaths. As you breathe, swivel your head and upper body to the left until you feel a stretching sensation in your sides. Pause at the deepest point of the stretch and take a few more nice, deep breaths. Return to the center, and repeat on the other side.

  5. Stretching the spine. Sit comfortably on the edge of a chair, with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands on your knees. Let your head hang down between your shoulders, and round your back into a C shape. It may help to think of staring at your navel through your clothes. Take a few deep breaths in this position, and then straighten your back. Now, try the other direction: keeping your hands on your knees, arch your back as much as you can. Hold the stretch while breathing slowly and deeply, and then return to the starting position.

  6. Releasing the knees and ankles. Stay seated, but scootch back so your thighs are on the seat. Stretch your legs out in front of you and slowly roll your ankles around; both at once, or one at a time. If you can lift your feet off the floor as you do this, great! — but if you need to keep your heels on the ground, that works too. Next, pull your heels back so your knees are fully bent; then lift your heels so only the balls of your feet are touching the floor, and straighten your legs back out. If you are able to raise your feet fully off the floor as you straighten your legs, you'll get an even better stretch.

You can do all of these in just a few minutes before any service, and I think they can provide a huge increase in comfort and stamina. (And of course, I probably don't even need to say this, but please don't do anything that causes you pain.)

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