What would you say is the most important aspect of exceling in music? Daily practice? Is it mastering technique? Developing artistry and musicality? Becoming experienced in live performance? These are all admirable elements of becoming a well-rounded musician, however, long-term success is built on a solid foundation. That foundation is built on Warm-ups!
Look at any athlete worth their weight as they prepare to compete and you will see one common thread across all sport categories and classes: these athletes incorporate warm-ups to condition and prepare their bodies to respond at peak level in practice and competition! Similarly, musicians need to prime and prepare their mind and bodies to move and create sound! Music is just as much physical as it is mental – physical preparation and mental focus in both areas are essential for success. One of the most vital, albeit important, things every musician should do before diving into rehearsing or performing is starting with warm-ups! A solid warm-up lays down a solid foundation for everything that happens afterwards in music. 1) Warm up the Body: Physical stretching not only promotes flexibility and blood flow and a calm nervous system, it also helps us pay attention and listen to our muscles and movement. For all musicians, whether playing an instrument or singing, having dexterity and engaging the correct muscles used with healthy posture is vital. Every musician can benefit from starting with light neck stretching. This translates into more flexibility and easier range of motion with our neck and head as we look at our music.
Moving on to the shoulders and arms, these muscles obviously allow instrumentalists to hold their instruments and hands in correct position. Rolling the shoulders and light bicep/tricep stretches help prepare the arms for motion. For singers, relaxed shoulders and loose arms allow for successful breath engagement and support.
Gently twisting the upper body and core (stomach/back) gently helps alleviate tension built up from sitting or desk work. Singers and Wind players understand the core area (which encompasses the diaphragm) as the central place in their body to ground their breath. Breathing from the core/diaphragm while avoiding clavicular breathing from the shoulders, allows for a deeper, more controlled and lasting breath. Proper breathing lays the foundation for tone and sound! For Strings players, Percussionists and Pianists, a relaxed/engaged core allows for deeper breathing which translates into less tension elsewhere in the body and more fluid motion and playing.
Finally, do not forget about the hands! Nearly all instrumentalists use the hands and fingers and gently stretching each digit on each hand can help keep the fingers limber and loose, allowing for more controlled and seamless technique. Gently rolling the wrists clockwise and counter-clockwise can help maintain flexibility. This also helps in preventing overuse injuries that result from tension in the tendons, muscles and ligaments (avoiding repetitive strain injuries, i.e., carpal tunnel).
Check out this awesome quick guide from Musicnotes.com on stretches for musicians: https://www.musicnotes.com/blog/2014/06/17/stretches-for-musicians/
2) Technical Warm-Ups: After stretching the large muscle groups used for playing and breathing, it is important that warm-ups involve some sort of technical challenge and skill work. For instrumentalists, this of course includes scales, arpeggios, and etude exercises. For vocalists, this includes sirens, vowel/consonant vocalises, and breath control/sustain exercises. Etudes and exercises that incorporate fingerings, movements, melodic patterns can be the key to developing faster playing and dexterity, no matter the style of music studied.
It may seem obvious to many that these kinds of warm-ups should be reviewed daily, however, it is shocking how many musicians of all ages and experience levels struggle to actually include the daily discipline of technique warm-ups in their daily practice or even before performance! It doesn’t require hours and hours of time each day to review a few scales! Use tools like the Circle of Fifths and simply pick one major/relative minor key to review and move along the circle, one set per day. This not only gives you a new “challenge” to review each day, but it also ensures that you are familiarized and eventually comfortable with any key that might be encountered in your music! Whether studying Rock or Bach, Jazz or Pop, musicians who have a firm grasp on their keys, notation and fingerings/vocalises tend to have the greatest success! When practicing a scale or etude, many of the techniques or patterns from these warm-up are often found in many “real” pieces! I share with students the perspective that when they practice one scale, they are essentially familiarizing and partially learning “every piece” that is written in that key! They are doing the initial legwork of learning the key of thousands of songs! Spend five minutes of technique in one key and start the learning process for thousands of pieces familiar and undiscovered – now that sounds like a worthwhile tradeoff!
3) Warm-up the Mind: Stretching and warming up the physical muscles involved with movement and breathing are vital in encouraging the body to be “in tune”. Listening to your body allows you to work with it avoiding/healing from injury and strengthening muscles. The mind is at play and the practice of “tuning out” distraction and “tuning in” is just as vital! Practicing taking a moment each time you sit to play or stand to sing, breath in, and clear your mind from the day’s distractions. Think about the task at hand, whether it a new warm-up or piece you are about to rehearse. Sometimes we are so trained to move from task to task that we neglect giving our minds a moment to pause, clear other thoughts and reflect on the music. Before and after playing, we should take a moment to think about what will be/was played. Think about the key or tonality of a piece. What mood or emotion does the piece evoke? Are there any technical passages or spots require laser focus and attention? Start painting the picture of the piece you are about to perform in your mind, “draw in the lines” by looking and reflecting at the music, then begin to “fill in the colors” you’ve taken a moment to reflect on as you perform. Sound obvious to you as a musician? Perhaps. However, have you honestly made mental focus exercises a habit in your daily warm-ups or do you simply “rush” from one etude or technique drill to another mindlessly playing/singing without thinking? It can be easy to turn warm-ups into a mundane physical drills and technical “chores” with little thought. Perhaps it’s time to pause for just a moment each time. Reflect. Focus. Engage. We need to warm-up the mind! Warm-ups are often the most neglected aspect of music making for many musicians of all stages, yet it is the most vital to success in music! The few minutes spend warming-up in comparison to the relatively longer stretches devoted to playing or singing songs make it seem like less important, yet those few minutes can reap rewards tenfold if done with disciplined intention. The next time you sit down to practice or perform, remember your warm-ups and put it into practice! If you are faithful and disciplined in warming-up regularly, those first simple 5-10 minutes of warm-ups can give you a profound boost in your musical progress!
Robert Fisher Music Teacher: Piano, Voice, & French Horn Web & Digital Media The Catoctin School of Music