When I teach workshops on chanting, or on chanting in context of trancework, energy building in ritual, or other logistics, I talk a lot about how important it is to sing a lot and keep your voice warmed up. In short, our voices are a muscle. Don’t expect to roll out of bed and have a good singing voice, or to have a strong singing voice to lead chants if the only time you sing is 8 times a year for sabbats (or less). While I don’t sing every day, I do sing at least a few times a week. One of the things I suggest to folks instead of singing scales (which, for my part, is pretty boring) is to find songs to sing along with.
I thought I’d include my current voice warm up playlist for when I’m in my car singing. I don’t always play them in this order, and I have other songs that I listen to in between singing to give my voice a rest (and keep me energized for the next round of singing), but this is a fair approximation of the progression.
The first three songs are the ones I sing the most commonly. I often warm up singing along to Above and Beyond – Tri-State for at least 10-15 minutes before I move on to anything else. I sing Gaeta’s Lament a lot as well, but usually not until I’ve worked out any phlegm or funk in my throat. I often can’t hit the high/sustained note at the end of the song til I’ve been singing for 20-30 minutes.
It’s worth noting that I’m doing different things with these songs when I’m doing my voice warmups. Tri-State is a really simple song as far as the melody goes, and what I’m generally doing is just singing harmonic drones along with it. Songs with long, sustained notes are easier to pick up a harmony line for, and that’s why I like this song, because I can come up with my own harmonies and even some melodic progressions that complement the song just to develop my “ear” for what sounds good. I also use that song to keep my lung capacity strong. I sing droned (long sustained tones) for as long as I can. Sometimes I can sustain a note for 30-40 seconds, which is a pretty long time.
Another piece of the warmup is that by singing long sustained notes I can get a good feel for where my voice is. At first it might be gravelly or rough. I might be congested, there might be phlegm, my throat might be scratchy. I’ll go back and forth and sing other songs and come back to Tri-State because my voice can’t really hide from those long notes. Any roughness is going to come out. When I can sing that song smoothly, my voice is getting into good shape.
I sing Ubi Caritas and Ben Pode Santa Maria to work out my mouth muscles. There are lots of percussive words, lots of mouth shapes. Usually after I sing one of those my mouth/cheeks/jaw ache just a little, so I give it a rest and go back to Tri-State, or just listen to music for a bit. It’s like stretches before heavier exercise; I don’t want to tax the muscles too much at first, I want to warm them up.
I’m also playing with harmonies with Ubi Caritas, and with Ben Pode Santa Maria I actually sing a completely separate vocal percussion piece that overlays as a harmony line. Again–I’m playing with harmonies to develop my ear to hear what sounds good, and in my case, singing things that are far lower than the original vocalists because my voice is an octave or two lower than theirs.
With Bluetech – Worthy, sometimes I just sing along to the vocals, because I love the song. Sometimes I sing one of my cantillation pieces that I composed against it. By singing totally different words and listening to the words of the song, I’m putting myself into a state of trance, but I’m also stretching my ability to handle multiple things at the same time. I sometimes do this exercise while completing a third simple task like texting someone or writing down a to do list. It helps me to sink the cantillation songs I’ve composed into my muscle memory so I can be singing that in a ritual while attending to other logistics and not lose my place.
Sound of Silence by Disturbed is one of my newer warmup songs, and I’m not great at it just yet. It’s a tricky fit for my vocal range to sing the melody, though I can sustain plenty of harmonies. It’s a good test of my voice, though, when I’m really warmed up. If I can belt out some of the high notes I’m doing well. Same thing for the Star Spangled Banner. I sing the version in a minor key (because hey, I love me some minor key) and usually the first time I’ll sing a low harmony to it. However, when my voice is good and warmed up, I’ll sing the melody, and if I can hit those high notes and sustain them, my voice is pretty well warmed up for any chant I want to lead in ritual.
I’m working up a new playlist of songs to practice against to expand my musical skills, so once I have that together and have been using it I’ll post an update.
If there’s any interest at all, I could try and record myself singing along to these so you can get a sense of the kinds of vocal percussion and harmonies that I’m doing.
Ultimately, what helps is to sing along to 1. music you enjoy, and 2. music you can sing to. That means music that works with your vocal range, or that you can adapt and sing harmony to. It also means that you want to choose music that isn’t so complicated that you’ll get frustrated. The Sound of Silence is, for me, at the upper limit of how complicated a song I can sing along to. It’s more complicated than the others in terms of melodies and words. My vocal “stretch” song used to be Enya – May it Be from Lord of the Rings, which I didn’t include here because that song didn’t actually work so well for me to practice with. Even if I sing that one a lot lower, it’s not in a good spot for my vocal range, and I’m either singing it down at the bottom of my range, or way up at the top. The only way I can really sing along is if I sing harmony to it.
I update my sing along playlist all the time, and sometimes I just sing along to my road-trip techno for a change of pace.
The best thing you can do for your voice is to sing, to practice singing, to get your voice warmed up in a gentle way, to practice singing specific songs and chants until you know them and have them in your muscle memory. And then learning to add in harmonies, vocal percussion, or other pieces to the music…to expand your breath control and lung capacity…if you keep at it you’ll learn a lot of stuff about your own voice and be better able to sustain chanting in ritual.
And truly–music in ritual, particularly chanting, is pretty much one of the most potent magical and spiritual technique that I’ve experienced, so it’s worth doing. Almost everyone can sing, and even if you don’t think your voice sounds good, probably a lot of that is because you aren’t singing. Give it a shot; you’d be surprised how good you can sound if you’re regularly singing. I know I was; I used to be the tone deaf girl encouraged to sing quietly in grade school.
PS, if you like any of these songs, go on and pick up their works! It’s easy to find places you can buy their CDs or mp3s with a Google search.