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Warming up at the instrument: an alternative take

One of the most frequent questions I am asked 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. There is definitely validity in all of these, but before we go down that direction, I think it is important to ask what exactly a warm up is.

Cello and bow being played

What does a warm up mean? What are we ‘warming’ and how? And how is this warming going to benefit our way of playing of our instrument?

When we approach our instrument for a practice session, 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 both to support us in keeping our structure and our muscles free and for creating spaciousness and phrasing in music we are to play.

We then need to wake up our observational mind. In order to practise efficiently, we need to learn to observe and not to judge. With observation, we are able to see what mistakes we are making and find solutions for them. Very often, we can be our own worst enemy. We make a slip and we condemn ourselves internally for what we perceive to be a ‘crime’. We don’t allow ourselves to make mistakes and yet mistakes are our biggest resource. It is through the making of mistakes and observing why and what we can do about it, that we learn and make progress. If we condemn ourselves for these mistakes, we restrict our own mental and emotional freedom and that in turn restricts us physically. This can often be the first step down the path towards playing related injuries.

Just as important as waking up the body and waking up the mind is waking up the body-mind connection. We wake up the body so that it is working in a fluid way ready to express; likewise, it is important to view our practice through a non-judgemental mind. But neither our body and our mind, can ever be separated. The approach we have mentally (and emotionally) has a large bearing on the way we use our fingers, our hands, our arms. 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. Our whole being needs to be engaged in the process of preparing for a performance. We need to be ready and prepared to connect with the inner self, the self that wants to express through music and through the music of our instrument.

If these are my criteria for a warm up, how would the 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. Of course we can play scales and exercises but let’s play the scales and feel the contact of our fingers on the keys, our bow on the string, the fullness of our breath, sense where the tensions are in our body, immediately creating the change that is needed; we can hear the colour of the key of the scale, we can judge what we need to do to create a ringing, pure sound, we can turn the corner at the top of the scale as if it were the most beautiful passage in a Mozart sonata. We need to cultivate our awareness of both body and mind, to remind ourselves of what we are here to do as musicians – to create and express -and ‘warm’ ourselves up to do it. It is less about what we do and more about how we do it.

Hands playing a flute

With this in mind, scales, arpeggios and any form of exercises, assuming it is clear exactly how to play them, are very valuable as a warm up routine. Another approach is to bring our warm up away from the instrument entirely, by lying on the floor in a similar position to that used in the Alexander Technique, head on a book, but with our knees directly facing the ceiling and our lower legs and feet hanging and supported over the seat of a hard-backed chair at a precise 90-degree angle. This in its own right is superb for freeing the spine, lower back and legs but it is also valuable to use as a means of checking in to the body. How does my back feel? Am I breathing fully? Where am I holding my tension? How do I feel emotionally? How are those feelings translating into my body and its physical expression? The length of time we can spend doing this is entirely individual. As little as a few minutes can be hugely beneficial and we can really feel a greater sense of ourselves as a result of this quiet, reflective time.

A female French horn player

So how do we know that we are sufficiently warmed up? We might feel considerably freer in our bodies, calm mentally and emotionally, ready on all levels for the practice session or the concert ahead. And how is this measurable? What would someone else see if they observed us after a warm up? They would most likely see someone with a long spine, free neck and shoulders leading to free arms; the muscles round the eyes would be softer and looser; the breath would be free and not held, there would be a spaciousness in the playing and the sound would be free and rich. Overall, there would be an optimal minimum of muscular activity.

Perhaps we need to think more about our warm up so that it becomes a much fuller and more considered preparation for playing, so that it can save us hours of inefficient practice and can prepare us for performing to our optimum.


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