8 Theater Vocal Warmups for New and Old Actors

Leeann Dearing

Oh, hey new or old actor. 

Today we’re going to talk about vocal warm-ups.

Vocal warm ups, or acting warm ups, have a bad reputation sometimes. I can understand why.

Some actors see them as a waste of time. These actors roll their eyes (when they should be rolling their r’s) and dismiss them as time wasters. Let’s get signed with an agent and get moving already. 

I get it. If you’ve never been given a vocal warm up that really makes a difference in your work, why would you be excited to take 10 minutes to do it?

8 of The Best Vocal Warmups

There’s an inescapable reality for the actor, friends: Your vocal instrument and emotional instrument are connected. Intimately, permanently, like it or not. They have to work together in a skilled (but relaxed) way for the artist to express themselves. That means even if you don’t do musical theater, you have to get to know your voice better. 

Furthermore, actors who chose not to explore their voice to its fullest potential will find themselves very limited in what they’re able to do

Here’s an example. Let’s discuss an archetype that’s been seen a few times in the reality television sphere.

Remember Paris Hilton’s baby voice of the early aughts and her signature catch phrase “That’s hot”? You can hear it now; rhaspy, child-like, full of vocal fry. She made a character choice to only express herself in a particular set of sounds. 

Now imagine Paris Hilton trying to play Lady MacBeth. “Out damned spot! Out. I say!” It would make good comedy, I suppose. But the point is illustrated clearly.

A voice that can only do one thing… can only do one thing. If you want to be an actor ready to explore myriad auditions and opportunities, you need a voice ready to take the journey with you. 

So let’s get you warmed up.

1) Lip Trills

If you do nothing else for your vocal warm ups, do lip trills. 

If you stop reading this article right here and now, do lip trills. You’ll still walk away with a significant net gain if you do that and nothing else. 

They are the most perfect vocal warm up for singers and actors alike. They are among what is known as the Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract Exercises, along with humming and straw therapy. (Plus, isn’t that just a fun phrase that you can throw around now?)

What it means practically is that your vocal tube is partially blocked or narrowed if you like. This helps the conditions inside your throat. It allows the vocal tract and resonators to vibrate well. (Maybe more on this in another blog post for another day.)

Side note: If you cannot do lip trills today, it’s worth it to keep working at this skill. In the meantime if you can roll your r’s, that’s a great exercises as well.

Humming or blowing into a straw into a cup of water and trying to make gentle bubbles can serve as another stand in. However, I really do advise that you keep working being able to do a proper lip trill.

Don’t worry about tone or pitch, just keep rehearsing the movement. You can also gently push up on the apples of your cheeks with your index fingers to take the “cheek weight” off your lips as they learn the muscle coordinations.

First, just do some free vocalizing. Do a lip trill on any note you can comfortably sustain. It doesn’t matter which.

Then begin doing a simple five note scale going up or down. Work your way up to the Fibonacci scale for an ever more advanced challenge in breath support. 

2) Tongue Twisters

These are considered a classic vocal warm up, and they really are worth your time. The voice (and it’s various coordinations) are no different than any other muscle in the body.

They can be strengthened and made more agile. If you were training for a marathon, you don’t train for half the length you plan to run.

You do everything you can to make it harder for yourself so that the actual event is feasible. Maybe even enjoyable. Tongue twisters are exactly this principle applied to your speech. 

Commercial writing is famously clunky. (“Drive your dream car with rates as low as 2.8% APR for qualified buyers!”So natural.) But if you get yourself used to difficult phrases and you perfect the art of making them sound smooth and clear, you won’t be rattled. 

You can start with “She sells seashells” if you like, but some of those have become so familiar that their usefulness is somewhat diminished. Try some you haven’t heard or done. 

“Red lorry, yellow lorry.”

“I like New York unique, Unique New York I like.”

“How can a clam cram in in a clean cream can?”’

“Scissors sizzle, thistles sizzle.” 

If you come to one that’s really hard for you, that’s wonderful! It’s great to discover a vocal vulnerability.

Lean into it. Do it only as fast as you can go correctly. Increase the speed slowly over time. 

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3) Breathing

There are books written on this subject (that you should read, incidentally) but for now let’s address something foundational. “Breath is preparation for the idea.” – Larry Moss. Any idea you send on stage or on camera begins with inspiration, a word whose two beautiful meanings reveal the deep significance that breath has on our being and creative capacity.

What that means practically for you is that you must be aware of and connected to your breath. You must also have the skills necessary to control your exhalation and not surrender all your air too quickly. 

Here’s an exercise to get you going. Take a deep breath in (lay on the floor if this helps) and notice how your sides softly push out and your diaphragm moves down as you fill your lungs with air. Now do it again, but this time try to give a controlled exhale for 10 seconds as you breathe out. Now see if you can go longer.

Here’s another exercise I love. With your feet planted below your shoulders, take a full breath. Swing one arm up over your head as you do.

Now lower your arm back to your side as you empty yourself of air. When you are halfway out of air, your arm should be parallel to the ground, like a gas gauge.

When you are fully out of air, your arms should be laying back at your side. Then do it again and try to gently expand your lung capacity by prolonging the exhalation. 

4) Pitch Glides

This one is simple but very effective. Start by making a low sound at the very bottom of your vocal range and gradually slide up to a high note and back down again.

This should not hurt or create any pain and tension in the voice. If you feel yourself “pulling” to reach a higher pitch, stop.

(That’s really a good note for all vocal work. It’s not worth it to hurt yourself to reach one note higher. Just go as high or low as you can today.)

5) Projection/ Power

How does a Broadway singer belt loud enough to fill a cavernous theater? How can a skilled preacher reach the last pew in a large church? 

It has to do with breath, sure. But it also has to do with sound placement.

Did you know that you can tell your sound where to go? It’s true! This was a new concept for me but I found it immediately useful.

Using an “oo” sound, pick any note you want to sing and see where you naturally feel the sound going. Is it the roof of your mouth? Backward toward the throat? Just notice.

Now I want you to think about sending your sound toward your teeth as opposed to the back of your body. Immediately I feel the sound vibrating behind my teeth and moving toward the front of my body. This allows my sound to be projected with less effort! 

Here’s a wonderful video resource that taught me how to place my sound more effectively. 

6) Tongue/Jaw Relaxation

Tension in your tongue and jaw will definitely impede your vocal performance.

Here’s a few ways to help relax the muscles in your resonators. Start by gently massaging your jaw from the “hinge” working your way down to the chin. Open your mouth as wide as you can and stick out your tongue as far as you can. Do this several times.

Now, to test your jaw’s state of relaxation, try gently grasping your chin with both hands and try to surrender control of your jaw completely. Can you move your chin up and down using ONLY your hand?

You’ll notice your mind wants to take control back and “help” you manipulate the jaw. Try not to let it. Let it go completely slack. This is harder than it sounds, but if you can do it, you’ve really gotten yourself to a relaxed state. 

7) Sirens

Similar to the Pitch Glides described above, sirens are a great way to work on your “head voice” or higher register of speech/singing. Go ahead and make a siren sound right now. “Wee Ohh Wee Ohh Wee Ohh Wee”. Don’t assign a pitch to it, just make the sounds. 

Now try the siren sounds on a five note descending scale. You might find yourself feeling vibrations in the top of your head, your temple or in your nasal cavity. This is great!

That means you’re vibrating in the right area. If you don’t feel those sensations, that’s okay too. Keep playing with it. 

8) Vocal Fry

Vocal fry gets a bad reputation, but its actually a great way to signal to your vocal chords that you want them to relax! This absolutely should not hurt, and it if it does, back off the exercise immediately. Fry is also known as that low, crazy sound that helps you warm up and can improve your range when used appropriately. 

To get started make a low, gentle grumbling sound. Think about someone trying to wake you up in the morning when you just can’t get out of bed yet. It’s a soft, gravely mumble.

The sound should feel easy leaving the body. It shouldn’t hurt in the least. Gradually move up the scale if you like with the sound. 

These exercises can be completed in 10-15 minutes a day, and can be done every day! 


A final thought that we get asked sometimes: What do I do if I have a cold and need to perform? Will these vocal warm ups still work?

First of all, if you’re sick you’re feeling vocal pain because of inflammation. The feeling is pretty terrible and if there is any way to delay or post-pone the performance, that’s always ideal. Sometimes that isn’t possible, so let’s talk about a few remedies that will help.

Moist air is your friend. Get a humidifier or a vocal steamer and use it well.

Vocal rest is absolutely essential. Don’t talk more than you have to and aim for full vocal rest.

Drink water. Drink more water. Then, when you think you’ve had enough, have a little more.

Get some raw ginger root, scrape off the outer layer and simmer it in some hot water. Add some lemon and honey too. 

The best vocal exercises for recovery are what we call reverse phonation exercises. This means making a sound on an inhale instead of an exhale. You can try this exercise on an “ah” or an “ooo”. Whatever is most comfortable.

Look for a note that is easy to sustain and try to sing the note on an inhale. You can also try plugging your nose and singing three to five notes up and down on an inhale. It almost has the sound of talking underwater when done correctly.

Lastly, you may want to consider working through some of these concepts with a vocal coach either for singing or speech. If you need private instruction, reach out to the studio and we can get you connected to the right resource for you. 

That’s it for today actors! Begin incorporating these eight clever vocal warmup techniques into your routine, to make the most of your vocal abilities and deliver a top-notch performance every single time!