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Musical Warm – ups

Matthew Temple | December 2009

    A rehearsal will only be as productive as the warm-up that precedes it. If a teacher’s ultimate goal is to develop thoughtful musicians, the warm-up period should serve this same purpose. The conductor should get students to think independently about their contribution to the ensemble. While it is important to use appropriate warm-up materials, the way they are used has far more effect on students’ progress.

Establish Communication

    The musical materials used for warm-ups are usually simple, so directors should rarely, if ever, look down at the podium during this time. It is easy for a conductor to look in the general direction of the players while avoiding looking at specific people. I make an effort to look directly into they eyes of every player during warm-ups. In time, players come to expect this visual greeting at the beginning of rehearsals and genuinely appreciate it. The difficulty for directors then becomes maintaining eye contact during the rest of the rehearsal.
    As my eyes sweep across the room, I will often pause if a student is not looking back at me and wait until they do so. With a younger band, I may even cut off the ensemble and ask them what happened. The students who watch regularly can usually identify the reason quickly. I often compare playing in an ensemble to driving a car. Just as we are taught to watch the road, check the rearview mirror, and monitor the speedometer, so must the performers keep their eyes moving systematically between the music, conductor, and other performers around them.

A Starting Point
    I typically begin with a B flat concert scale in three groups. Students are assigned to three instrument groups based on low, middle, and high voices. Low voices begin playing half notes, and the middle and high groups enter every four beats.
    Early in the year I establish default parameters: a mezzo-forte dynamic and a legato style with a du articulation. This way the warm-up period can begin with no talking as soon as I step on the podium. I vary the tempo to make sure students are watching closely. There are many variations to this exercise. My favorites include changing the entrance order of the groups or dividing students into four groups so a few seventh chords are produced. As students become accustomed to this exercise, I add fermatas on various chords to emphasize the harmonic intonation. Often I pause on the last major second just before the entire group is playing unison B flat.
At other times I designate a single low wind player to be in charge of the pulse for the entire exercise. Students are instructed to listen carefully for this player and follow any tempo changes he makes. The B-flat scale in groups is the starting point for each warm-up period; from there I vary the order and type of exercises daily.

Improving Listening

    During warm-ups, I ask students to consider whether they are producing a characteristic sound on their instruments and if they are beginning to establish a pitch center in relation to others. The relationship between playing with good tone and playing in tune should be monitored by both performer and conductor. I encourage students to spend more time listening to the players around them than to themselves. This is an exaggerated request, but students inherently listen more to themselves than to others, when ideally they should be listening to themselves and those around them with equal intensity. Some directors like to say, “Listen louder and play softer.” The natural outgrowth of these listening skills is proper blend and balance. If needed, I will ask students to close their eyes. Eliminating the visual can temporarily increase listening ability.
    Singing should be a regular part of the warm-up period. Unison pitches can be used to help students get started. Students should use the same syllable and sing at the same volume with good blend, just like they would on their instruments. Alternating between singing and playing will improve students’ ability to sing well and their ability to play with better intonation. When students are accustomed to singing, I will often ask them to hear a pitch in their heads before they play it.
    Occasionally, if I give other instructions before students play, I will ask if they can still hear the pitch. H. Robert Reynolds, retired director of bands at the University of Michigan, believes that 90% of intonation has to do with the performer’s ability to predict accurately the next note. As students become more comfortable and confident in their ability to sing, they should start singing four-part chorales in harmony. I usually have students sing the part for their instrument rather than divide them into their natural voice ranges. The improvement this will have on harmonic intonation when students play the same passage is extraordinary.

Monitoring Progress

    Independent musicianship can only be developed by holding each student responsible for his progress. I use a wide variety of questions to get students thinking about this. After performing a warm-up exercise, I might ask them to rate their playing on a scale of 1-10. Sometimes I permit students to volunteer a response, but other times I call on specific students. I often ask other students whether they agree with a rating and have them explain why. I also have students close their eyes and ask them all to respond to a question by raising their hands or using their fingers to indicate a scale of 1-5. With their eyes closed, students are not influenced by the responses of others. By frequently asking students questions about their performance, they learn to pay attention to and be responsible for their sound and the ensemble’s sound.

Hand Signals

    The warm-up period can run more efficiently through the use of hand signals. This keeps students engaged, because everyone has to watch closely. It also permits students to listen and react to musical sounds instead of spoken instructions. During the first few exercises, I cup my left hand and place it on my diaphragm to remind students to support their sound.
    Similarly, I will point across my body with my left hand and slowly push it in an arc to remind students to keep air moving fast so they can produce a vibrant sound.
    I use the analogy of an air conditioning system in which the fan never shuts off. The air must continue to move or the music will become stale.
If the band is struggling to tune a unison pitch, then I will use a hand signal to indicate pitch bending. I visually alert students by placing my fists out with my thumbs pointing toward the center.

    As I turn my thumbs down, students use their embouchures to make the pitch go flat.

I then turn my thumbs slowly back up to the center while students similarly bring the pitch back up to the center of their sound. This exercise improves both the overall pitch center as well as ensemble sound.
    When tuning chords, we often use dissonance to contrast the stability of the consonance that we are working for. I place my hands together on top of one another with my palms flat to the floor and then spread them apart.

Warm-Up Exercises

Four Quarters Per Pitch
    Students play four quarter notes on each pitch of a major scale ascending and descending. The conductor varies the tempo, style, and dynamics using gestures. The exercise forces students to keep their eyes on the conductor during the entire exercise so they can react to frequently changing gestures. Over time, this improves responsiveness to the conductor’s visual cues. This exercise is also helpful when students are learning a new scale. By playing four quarters on each pitch, students have time to think ahead to each new pitch. Possible variations include inserting a measure of rest between each pitch or varying the time signature for each note of the scale. Frequently changing the time signature teaches players to recognize various beat patterns.

Remington Exercises
    These were developed by Emory Remington, who taught trombone at the Eastman School of Music. Most commonly, band members play a concert F in the middle range of their instruments. On the conductor’s cue, students descend a half step and then return to F on a second cue. The band descends again, each time adding a half step to the descending interval until the band reaches B flat.

    If the band struggles to lock the intonation of any given note, I use the hand signal for bending unison pitches. We also frequently sing the next pitch before playing it. The exercise can be expanded into a B-flat chord Remington.

Chord Detuning

    I learned this exercise from Dennis Glocke, director of bands at Penn State University. Each student selects the root, third, or fifth of a B-flat major chord. Low winds should always play the root; all other players should vary the note they play on any given day. The exercise begins by playing the major chord in tuning order: root, fifth, third. Each note should sound steady and beatless before adding the next tone.
    When the major chord is tuned, the director uses hand signals to detune the triad. The left hand indicates which note will move next, and the right hand signals when to move. The third is lowered a half step first to produce a minor triad, then the fifth is lowered to make it diminished. Finally, the root is lowered to return to a major triad. It is important to give each chord time to lock in tune before changing to the next.

Bach Chorales
 The 16 Bach Chorales arranged by Mayhew Lake are still a favorite of many directors. I use Chorale 12 frequently because it is largely diatonic and scored in a comfortable range for all players. Early in the year I isolate each respective voice part so players can hear their line separately. Next, we combine two voices to create simple intervals. I use the players not performing to evaluate the other players. When the pitch center of each line is secure, we focus on overall harmonic integrity, especially at cadences. We tune major and minor triads in many different ways, such as using hand signals for dissonance or by having students sing and then play their notes. I look forward to the point in the year at which the entire ensemble can sing full phrases in four-part harmony.

    Students can select any note up to a whole step above or beneath their respective chord tone, which produces an extremely dissonant cluster chord. It is important that students play with the same tone and dynamic as the original chord. I then bring my hands back together to indicate a return to the original chord tones. Students’ ears are instantly drawn to the consonance of the pure intervals, and the harmonic intonation usually locks in quickly.
    The warm-up period must reestablish the musical, mental, and social-emotional connections between performers and conductor. It is similar to a diagnostic test in that the conductor and performers have to check all of the connections to make sure they are working properly. A warm-up routine that is simply repeated on a daily basis may prepare players physically for rehearsal, but it is unlikely to prepare them mentally or musically. The warm-up period should focus on teaching students to think independently and play musically as well as establish the standards for the rehearsal that follows.