Warming Up

Cynthia Ellis | January 2014


    The purpose of a warm-up is to prepare the body and mind for optimum readiness for the larger task at hand. The major muscle groups are stretched and primed for readiness although the specifics of the warm-up might change depending on the sport, as tennis players use muscles differently than weight lifters or dancers. Musicians also should find warm-ups suited to their instruments. Woodwind players should have different warm-up routines than percussionists, brass players, and string players.
    A warm-up should prepare musicians physically to play but also mentally. Before starting, decide your intention for the practice session. I determine exactly what I want to accomplish while I put the flute and piccolo together. There is a saying “where intention goes, energy flows.” Decide what you will get done in the overall practice session. This simple mental exercise sets the stage for success and can be quite motivating.
    Jeanne Baxtresser calls musicians “athletes of the small muscles.” I believe she is comparing our drive for excellence as well as the repetitive use of the body to any other athletic endeavor. Wind players should be especially attentive to their physical shape as their lungs are vital to playing. There are two breathing exercises from yoga, the Breath of Joy and Hara Breathing, that are terrific for getting the lungs to expand freely. I begin every day with a long walk with my dogs and have always felt this has become the physical foundation for my musical warm-up as well. The brisk pace of the walk gets my heart rate and respiration rate higher, and I am able to loosen up my whole body because walking involves all the major muscle groups.
    Once I return home, I do a few neck and shoulder rolls, as well as some gentle stretches for my arms and hands. A wonderful exercise for the hands is to simply rotate each finger individually clockwise and counterclockwise. Try to incorporate some kind of physical movement and dynamic stretching into your pre-practice routine. I always feel more awake after doing this kind of short physical warm-up. If you don’t have a pet to remind you to take a walk, just get out there even if it is just a short walk around the block. For college students the walk from the dorms to the practice room may accomplish the same sense of physical readiness.
    Most musicians have a short little warm-up noodle that they play when they first begin playing to get the ball rolling. It is almost the same exact pattern of notes for each player and I can recognize my colleagues’ warm-up patterns without even looking to see who is playing.
    Try to develop a little something you can play which will allow you to see if the instrument is aligned properly and that everything is in good working order mechanically. Remember that your embouchure is sensitive enough to tell if the headjoint is out of alignment by just a millimeter. I have noticed countless students starting a lesson and then sensing that their tone is off only to realize they have not taken that extra step to double check alignment. For flute players, check the footjoint alignment as well. I enjoy using a case that allows me to keep my piccolo fully assembled so that I do not have to worry about headjoint alignment problems since I rarely take my instrument fully apart. I use a little longer warm-up routine before practice than I do before a concert, or before a second practice session of the day. The objective of warming up is to get the mind and body working optimally, so put your focus on readiness.
    I enjoy warming up on the piccolo by playing #1 from Taffanel/Gaubert, thus warming up the instrument from the bottom of the range first. This seems to set the embouchure in the most comfortable way. I also vary this exercise by playing the first half of each line, and then playing tonic, fifth, tonic an octave higher, adding a fermata to the last note. This way I am engaging a keen sense of pitch by tuning the fifths and working on stamina by holding out the last note as long as possible with a rich tone and vibrato that follows the diminuendo and final release.

   I often work on arpeggio patterns, which involve the intervals of the third and fourth instead of step-wise motion. This works the fingers a little differently than step-wise motion, and also is a good exercise for embouchure flexibility and control. Keeping the tuner handy during these exercises is helpful. There are many fine examples of arpeggio patterns in many of the daily studies books such as those by Towarnicki, Moyse, Wye, etc.
    The final step in a warm-up might be some long tones, concentrating on color, vibrato and beauty in sound. If you are warming up before a concert, an effective exercise is to practice a few of the technical passages at half speed to remind your fingers of the patterns. Do not run through all of the most prominent solos on stage prior to a concert, however, as it is considered poor form to play through them while the audience enters the hall. If you want to practice the solos in the hall, do it prior to the audiences’ arrival.
    Be considerate of colleagues on stage as they might want to try a few passages as well. A piccolo neighbor blasting away at full volume can obliterate their warm-up attempts. If you want to check something at full volume, try to find an unobtrusive spot backstage where you will cause the least distraction. Your colleagues will appreciate the discretion.
    A warm-up routine should be flexible and assist with the task at hand. It is a necessary part of practicing that paves the way for larger goals to transpire. A routine of intention, physical readiness, and preparation on the instrument is a good warm-up formula to follow.