Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Warming Up

Just as an athlete needs to warm up properly before more serious exertion, a musician needs to warm up before playing or singing all-out. Players of different instruments utilize different types of warm-ups and can learn a great deal from the way they are structured. For example:
  • String players tend to play scales at the beginning of a practice session not only to build technique, but to build intonation and the process of deep listening that will improve quality of sound.
  • Unlike instrumentalists, singers need to build their own instrument inside their own body, and their warmups tend to emphasize breath management and tone production, which help to guide the breath mechanism and its component parts into a workable whole over time.
  • Pianists need to develop a great deal of fluency and play more notes per work than any other instrument. For this reason, traditional piano technique consists of scales, chords, and arpeggios played in all keys in a variety of ways, not to mention finger dexterity exercises in order to build finger strength and independence.
I have always felt that changing up the types of warmups you use when beginning your practice time can greatly improve your approach to the rest of the practice session, since it is after all the mind that is being warmed up in addition to the playing mechanism. Here are some suggestions for interesting warm-up routines:

  • Play standard technique before playing repertoire. This is by far the most common warm-up. Play a wide variety of scales, chords, and arpeggios appropriate to your instrument and level, repeating them not mechanically, but really listening for accuracy, quality of sound, intonation (if you're playing an intonation-sensitive instrument). The goal of technical exercises is awareness as much as dexterity.
  • Play various technical exercises or studies before playing repertoire. I've always been a fan of Hanon exercises (especially the first 20) and there are a limitless number of ways you can practice them, such as with various articulations, in all 12 keys, or with rhythms. I like the sense of contact with the instrument that I discover when warming up with Hanon exercises, as well as the fact that they exercise my fifth fingers, unlike traditional piano technique where the fifth finger hits rarely, if at all.
  • Do a physical warm-up such as yoga or tai chi. Many have talked about the benefits of stretching exercises before practice and if you can incorporate it into your routine, you can drastically cut down on the chance of physical injury from playing.
  • Problem solving time. Jump to the most problematic areas of your current repertoire and fix the spots that are giving you the most grief. Take them apart and practice them in new and interesting ways.
  • Play something entirely enjoyable with the most beautiful sound you are capable of. Then launch into your regular work.
  • Sight read as a warm-up. Done over the course of weeks or months, you can improve your reading skills to an incredible extent by setting aside time to sight read every day. And what better time to do it than at the beginning of your session.
  • Slow practice. Just as athletes take is slow at the beginning of a training session, so should we. Work on a short section of a piece, whether problematic or not. Practicing slowly can allow you to be in total command of your instrument and develop greater awareness of what there is in the music and your approach to it.
  • Change things from time to time. There are some pianists who brag that they have a set warm-up that they have been following for years. What a dull way to start your practice day. The more interesting you can make your first minutes at the instrument, the better off you will be for the rest of it.
  • No warm-up. If none of the above resonate with you, it may be worthwhile to reconsider the validity of warming up at all. Why be burdened by the need to do a fixed activity at the beginning of a practice session when it feels better to jump right in and get work done.

What's your method of warming up?

Next: Short Term Goals


  1. Chris,
    You have good intentions, and you expressed the belief that almost all piano-players used to share. Unfortunately, things do not look that way anymore. Research done by dr. Comeau, in the Piano Pedagogy Research Lab at the University of Ottawa, produced convincing proof that our warming-up by playing scales and arpeggios is actually dangerous to our hands. In his conclusions dr. Comeau compared this traditional practice to having the fast runners warm-up by runnig their fastest (or high jumpers to jump their highest, PR). This approach is bound to bring considerable, unhealthy consequences to those using (abusing) the body this way; one could argue that the whole further work of the pianist continues to follow this path, affecting the body further. (Actually, we were informed that that's how it's been, and that this poor outcome affects piano-players on a massive scale, we just can't make ourselves see this information for real, yet.)
    In the light of the numbers of affected piano-players we should be scrambling to take a harder look at the tradition we inherited. But we can't find the motivation to do that.
    One day, perhaps. Children would be grateful...

  2. Thanks for the info, Paul. My intention was to list a grab-bag of possible warmups that pianists (and other musicians) could use, including scales. Personally, I don't agree with the scale/arpeggio warmup for a different reason--it doesn't activate all the fingers equally. My opinion is that pianists should try a variety of approaches until they find what works for them.

  3. When RSI started to flare up from working on the computer at workstations in the corporate world that were for people much taller than I am, I went in for physiotherapy. When the physiotherapist asked what I did for warm-ups, I replied, "Scales, chords and arpeggios."

    She said, "Yes, but what you do to warm-up?"

    "What do you mean?" I asked. "That IS what I do."

    She explained the importance of stretching like athletes do. She gave me a bunch of boring exercises to strengthen my flexors and extensors.

    One day, I walked into Fitter First and told them my plight. I walked out with a Power Web and a Dynaflex. I have several Power Webs around my studio, which my students also use to stretch and keep my Dynaflex in the office.

    Now, I do some arm, neck and shoulder stretches before practicing and then either play scales, chords and arpeggios, sight-read or improvise to warm-up. I'll take stretch breaks as well.

    Yes, there's a lot to be said for doing a physical activity before practicing. I have been studying Iaido for two years. I find that practicing sword cuts is an excellent way to loosen my muscles!

  4. Perhaps I should clarify things a little after being asked whether I meant that you need to have strong hands before you take up an instrument. To me, the act of physical preparation before playing is a matter of flexibility, not strength.

    The physiotherapist was assessing all my keyboard activities at the time - the computer and the piano. She said that if the muscles around my tendons are maintained, then they can support my tendons better. That would prevent my weakened tendons from having to overexert themselves.

    However, I'd much rather stretch than bulk up those flexors and extensors. I've done the gym thing and although I bulked up in my larger muscles, my finer muscles got weaker. So it's stretching all the way for me, it' must, with me being a person with small hands, small stature and tight shoulders.

    My students and I do a combination of some Feldenkrais exercises, yoga stretches and gentle stretches they've learned either at school or dance class before they play. I usually get them to do a few stretches as I review their practice journal. They love the PowerWeb®.

    My beginners giggle as they do their warm-ups ("finger wiggles", "water flicks", "making O's" and "reach for the sky". My older students know to do shoulder shrugs, the prayer stretch as well as shoulder and neck stretches, since they don't have the luxury of having a PowerWeb® at home.

    I especially make them stretch if they've been out in the cold or before playing anything with big chords (and then stretch after they run through such a passage). I've learned the hard way with ragtime music and octave scales - my petite hands need lots of rest and stretching for these passages or else I will suffer another flare up of RSI.

    Yoga and Iaido have taught me much about proper posture, listening to your body and working with it - stretching your body but striving not to overextend. Getting the movement done while exerting as little power/effort as possible seems to be their mantra.

    The main thing to take from my missive is when warming up and when practicing - don't overextend or overexert your muscles.

  5. Anonymous12:48 AM

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  6. Please, please, anonymous commenter. This blog is not a place to insult piano pedagogy professors.