Humming is a great vocal warm-up! In fact, it is one of the best all-around vocal exercises. Humming can be done almost anytime and anywhere because it’s quieter and does not project like open mouth singing. The tone is emerging from the nasal passages and not the mouth. The basic principle is to resonate the voice with gently closed, but not tight, lips. Everything should be relaxed – no tightness of lips, jaw, tongue, facial muscles, neck, or shoulders. The only thing that you should feel is the abdominal support muscles gently coming into play as should happen in any singing.
Humming is a wonderful way of assessing how easily the voice is to produce on a given day. I often hum a little first thing in the morning to find out how my voice is functioning. It helps me to determine how much warm up may be needed that day. It’s often a good gauge for the health of the voice. If the hum is immediately “buzzy,” forward in the mask, feels easy to produce, and can be taken up and down through most of the range with little effort, then your voice is already placed well and primed for optimal singing. You may expect to sing very well that day, after a few more vocalizations.
If, however, the hum is unresponsive, a focused hum is hard to produce, it requires effort, and the range is limited, then this may be an indication that you need more thorough warm ups that day, or it could even mean your voice is needing rest that day due to some other factors.
Modal (regular voice) humming and falsetto humming are both useful. Creak humming can be done too, in fact. One of the good things about humming is that the tongue and other vowel/consonant articulators are resting, or should be. You can focus entirely on the buzz sensation and on the relaxation of any unnecessary tensions.
I do find that gentle chewing while humming – as if you have gum in your mouth – can be useful for loosening up any tensions. The idea is to get the easiest buzzy resonance sensation with as little effort as possible. If you’re new to humming, this may be a wonderful discovery. If you’ve tried humming and find it’s not easy to do, then you may have to experiment to find your optimal humming sensation. Remember, the sensation of optimal humming is individual – you don’t have to feel it in a certain place, and it’s not always a loud sound. In fact, it usually isn’t. Sometimes, thinking of bees buzzing in the mask or imagining different places in the face where the buzz is “placing” will help activate more buzz, as will chewing.
It has been said that humming activates both sides of the brain – wonderful! Well, it sounds great, and it may be true, but more research needs to be done. Certainly, humming is a way of gently but firmly activating the vocal folds while feeling forward resonance sensation (in the mask). I think of hums as the “engine starter” for the voice, kind of like starting your car and letting it run a bit before putting it in gear.
I do find that some singers don’t like to hum or find that humming does not suit them. I’m okay with that if humming is not something you feel natural doing, although often I find, like with so many other things, focused practice can lead to good results. People often give up too soon. There are other great vocalizes. Humming is not an absolute prerequisite for fine singing. However, I do try to find each student’s humming “core” in lessons.
In fact, I can think of three exercises that I work with every student on to try and build their vocal virtuosity: humming, lip trills, and rolled Rs. Humming is one of the best “placers” of the voice, and lip trills is one of the best “breath flow” regulators and natural phonation/breath support activators. Rolled Rs allow for breath flow and support activation, and they activate the tip of the tongue for necessary singing in various languages that require flips and rolls of the tongue.
How to hum and how not to hum: First of all, never force a hum. Humming should be as effortless as an easy lip trill. In fact, a good way to gauge it is to go back and forth between lip trills and hums to find equal ease in both. People usually have one or the other that they prefer, although equal ease in both is the goal. Pursed or tight lips are a no-no.
Anything that is tense, other than the abdominal/diaphragmatic muscle set, is unnecessary and can impede a free hum. If the hum is not resonating well, feels stiff, unfocused, raspy, or hard to produce, then try chewing gently while humming, moving the range around (lower, especially), doing slides on hums, lip trilling, or resting and coming back to it later. Forcing a hum is never a good idea.
Humming is a wonderful “feeling” exercise. Almost everyone who hums feels something happening in the mask (face). The sensations go to the front of the face (often around the nose and cheek bones), and if not, then usually the hum is not functioning optimally.
So try humming on short scales, slides up and down, whatever is easy and creates an easy buzzing sensation in the mask. Make it a part of your usual voice-warming routine. Your voice will thank you for it!