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Practice and another take on warming up

A girl playing piccolo

The best way of warming up

One of the most frequent questions I am asked as a teacher is ‘Can you show me a good warm up?’. When I then ask them to tell me what they think is a good warm up, I always receive something in the form of scales, exercises and sometimes studies. All totally valid, but what exactly is a warm up? What are we ‘warming’ and how is this going to benefit us playing our instrument?

When we practise, whatever instrument we play, we need to prepare both the body and the mind. We need to wake up the body and more particularly, our awareness of our body. We need to be free in our movements with everything in alignment. Our back, neck and shoulders need to be free and alert, our feet planted securely on the ground, giving our arms the space to hang freely at our sides ready for action. Our lungs need to be reminded about the importance of breathing fully, not just in the creation of sound (woodwind, brass and singers) but to support us whatever instrument we play, in keeping our structure and our muscles free, and for creating spaciousness and phrasing in the music we are to play.

In order to practise efficiently, we need to wake up our observational mind, learning to observe and not judge. With observation, we are able to spot our mistakes and find solutions for them but without it, we can easily be our own worst enemy, making slips and condemning ourselves internally for what we perceive to be a ‘crime.’ Mistakes are our biggest resource and it’s through the making of mistakes and observing why and what we can do about them, that we learn and make progress. Condemning ourselves for our mistakes restricts our own mental and emotional freedom and that in turn restricts us physically, often the first step down the path towards playing related injuries.

Just as important as waking up the body and the mind, is waking up the body-mind connection. Our body and mind can ever be separated: our mental and emotional approach impacts the way we use our body to play, and how we are physically has an equal bearing on our mental and emotional approach. We need our body and mind to work together with openness, curiosity, an enthusiasm to learn, fully engaged in the process of preparing for a performance. This then allows us to express ourselves through the music.

A girl playing French horn

How then does conventional approach of performing scales and exercises measure up? The answer is that it would depend on how they are executed. Anything we do repetitively without engaging our mind, our interest, our awareness of our body is not helpful and is wearing ourselves down rather than warming ourselves up. Let’s play the scales and feel the contact of our fingers on the keys, lips on the mouthpiece, bow on the string, sense where the tensions are in our shoulders, our arms or fingers, immediately creating the change that is needed. Let’s hear the colour of the key of the scale, judge what we need to do to create a ringing, pure sound and turn the corner at the top of the scale as if it were the most beautiful passage of Mozart. Let’s cultivate our awareness of both body and mind, to remind ourselves that our principal role is to warm ourselves up, so we can create and express through the instrument. It is less about what we do and more about how we do it.

When we are fully warmed up, we will feel freer in our bodies, mentally and emotionally calm, ready on all levels for the practice session or concert ahead. A good warm up is a fuller and more considered preparation for playing and can save hours of inefficient practice, preparing us to perform to our optimum.


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