The Perfect Vocal Exercise

There’s no such thing, silly.  Well, maybe.

You know I take extreme joy in looking across genres, to see how the various tribes deal with voice and performance issues. Sometimes it means crossing a tribal war zone, but there’s one particular vocal warm-up exercise that shows up in pretty much every single vocal discipline that I’ve studied.

Most often we call them lip and tongue trills, sometimes lip rolls, or bilabial or alveolar trills, sometimes blowing bubbles, or the motorboat sounds, or the purring sound, or the horsey sound, or the rolling R sound.  Some add in a raspberry blow sound, or they do it while physicalizing or stretching, some vary the pitches like sirens, some hold the pitch, some use scales.

But this little exercise shows up in genres from classical to country, rock, jazz, gospel, pop and everywhere else.  It shows up with Shakespearean actors, Method actors, voiceover actors, concert tour backup vocalists, worship leaders, corporate motivational speakers, studio jingle singers, Indian classical vocalists, medieval chant groups, college a capella teams, Toastmaster clubs, Ukrainian hymn singers, and every other obscure form I’ve encountered.

4 Reasons:

1) Delays engagement of inner critic

2) Activates steady breath

3) Brings blood into the face and head; moves head/neck fluids

4) Employs a semi-occluded vocal tract – SOVT


1) Inner critic.
Say you’re in a hotel, and you wake up and go into the bathroom, turn on the light, and WHAM you’re assaulted by a giant mirror image of your morning face, under very bright light.  Only hotel light is this brutal. If you’re lucky, maybe you’re bleary-eyed and can’t see yourself that well, and if you’re really lucky, someone has already steamed up the glass and you can’t see anything but a pleasant suggestion of faceness.   Ah.

Lip and tongue trills and rolls are like that steamy mirror.  The percussion obscures the sound of your first warm up phonations, so your inner critic can’t easily jump on you for not being perfectly clear, perky, plump and gorgeous straight out of bed.

This is a crucial idea:   do not begin your workout with self-judgement; begin with a gentle habit.


2) Steady Breath.

The vibration of the lips or tongue is only possible if the breath support is relatively steady.  If the support is too weak or too unstable, the vibration sputters and stops.  Getting started again requires an extra kick start push, but if the support isn’t steady, it’ll sputter out again right away.

Some people are genetically incapable of trilling or rolling rr’s, so we use raspberries instead. But many who say they can’t do the lip or tongue trills, actually can, but just not very well.  Even one week of solid daily practice will radically improve these folks, and we’ll start to see that steady, strong breath habit become available for their speech and singing, too.


3) Fluid Flow.

It’s warming up and getting the juices flowing – literally. Vibration stimulates increased blood flow and lowers mechanical viscosity of mucous. Increased blood flow allows for greater flexibility, responsiveness, and better recovery from injury.  Juicier, more free-flowing mucous has many health benefits, but also I just enjoy a clear head when I sing, and I don’t want to have to avoid gluten, dairy, meat, dust, pollen, pets, children, soy, nuts, and naughty thoughts in order to deal with mucous.

Try this fun one:   on one big breath, move back and forth from lip to tongue trill, and then do them at the same time.  It’s like a lawnmower running inside your head. Serious vibes.  All natural, organic and responsibly sourced.  Also free.


4) Semi-occluded … whatever the hell…

It’s a thing, okay?  SOVT – semi occluded vocal tract.   It’s a super trendy thing in voice training, though the core of it has been around for a long time.  I’ll try to explain it cuz it’s not magic.

Occluded means blocked, so exercises that aren’t mouth-wide-open can be considered to be semi-occluded.  If that blockage is strong enough, like let’s say your lips are closed into an “oooh” shape, that closure actually starts to balance the pressure from the air coming from the lungs.

You know how when you change your showerhead, that can really change the effect of the water pressure?  It’s like that.

Physiologically, if you sing a big wide “AHHHH” and then close into an ooh shape, your vocal cords tend to get better closure on that ooh, and your laryngeal muscles don’t work as hard. Good closure means breathy voices may sound less breathy, and you might be able to sing for longer without feeling as tired.

The main proponent of Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract exercises is vocal researcher Ingo Titze. He’s a superstar in academic voice pedagogy, and if you see people using straws in voice pedagogy, they’re probably Titze fans.*  Straws work okay, but I like trills better because they incorporate the steadiness of the breath.  Students who use straws have to be reminded not to let the air slip out through the nose, whereas trillers don’t have to be told.  Also straws cost money and my lips are free.

Maybe the only perfect warm-up exercise is the one that you actually DO on a regular basis.  But lip and tongue trills are pretty perfect. They’re like the Swiss Army Knife of vocal warm-ups.  I’d totally take them camping.


rollin my rrrs

*Dr. Titze is also brilliant and sweet, too, I just saw him at the Art and Science of the Performing Voice conference, and he’s all that, for real.  I just don’t need the straw.