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The First 30 Minutes of Practice: Warming Up

Mary Stolper | November 2019

    This topic should be an easy one to describe, but as I found myself writing about ten different 30-minute warm-ups, I realized that the warm-ups I used as a student are nothing like what I do now. Since I have gained better time management skills through the years, I design a precise warm-up that fits the time I have each day. However, no matter what I always include certain elements.

Basic Ingredients
  A student of any level or a non-professional adult should address the following with a warm-up:
    •    good posture
    •    breath control
    •    strengthening overall muscle tone (including the embouchure)
    •    hand/eye coordination
    When you are learning, you must spend a great deal of time practicing and understanding why your teachers encourage and guide you through certain exercises, etudes and repertoire.

Getting Started
    Practicing and warm-ups are two different things, so awakening the body to deal with the day’s tasks is never a substitute for lengthy detailed practice. Most musicians try to do some stretching in the morning as it gets the muscles back into play after sleeping. Your job is to wake up and get all the functions of playing moving forward. If you rush or ignore this, chances are you will be tight, stressed and not feel comfortable. Ordering the body to be on or forcing it to play a tough passage with no warm-up, usually ends in defeat. I have found time and time again from watching others that this forcing causes tightness, lack of focus, and negative thoughts that you are not playing well.

Body and Mindfulness: 1-2 Minutes
    Body: Ease into it and calmly quiet brain activity so you can focus completely on the flute.
    Stretch and Breathe: Put your arms straight up overhead and then bend at the elbows to make a box over your head. Moving at the shoulder and a bit at the waist, stretch 4-5 inches left as you breath in for 5-6 seconds. Then move back to the top as you exhale out through the mouth for about 12-13 seconds. Once back at the top, keep your arms in that box position, but lower your shoulders and do a full inhale for 8-10 seconds. Then exhale for 14-15 seconds. Repeat on the right side. You should do it at least twice per side. Put a metronome on at 60 if you like.
    Mindfulness: You will naturally want to cram too much into this short warm-up. Do not try to run through everything on your schedule for that day. This will leave you feeling totally defeated. Instead, focus on the core objectives. Pinpoint a couple of issues, or passages you want to address. This is key, and you will get better at it in time. Stop any negative mental chatter and start looking at what you need to do and how you are going to get positive results accomplished in the remaining time.

Standing and Sitting: 10 seconds
    Make sure your posture is correct and you are able to play comfortably whether standing or sitting. I change this aspect all the time, as I perform a lot in both positions. When students say they can do some things better standing or sitting, I totally disagree. One can play well either way with practice, so practice both and pick which position to work on today.

Short Version Long Tones: 3 minutes
    I start with short long tones in the middle range, (15-20 seconds), with no vibrato, and mezzoforte. Allow the embouchure to be relaxed and accept the tone of a raw note. Keep your volume just medium. Stop the voice in your mind and just allow your embouchure to wake up. Don’t force it. As your embouchure awakens, you will hear the tone become more refined. Just Listen. Make sure to start the note with a clean attack, and if you want, add in simple dynamics. Let the air flow from the body. Check your posture, and get those shoulders down. In a variation of this, I will work on four or five notes, with no vibrato for about 20 seconds apiece.
    After a minute or so, I add vibrato. Frequently, I move from the note into a harmonic and return to the first note to develop embouchure flexibility. Variations come as you decide if these tones are to be very low, middle or very high. You can vary the dynamic levels and play with or without vibrato. At this point I select something from beginning of the De La Sonorite by Marcel Moyse.

Favorite Books: 10-12 Minutes
    Like many flutists I love etude books. My library is huge, and I welcome the challenges found in each one. I am not in any way pushing one book over another, but I have consistently used two through the years. First is Vingt Exercices et Etudes sur les Grandes Liaisons by Marcel Moyse. The large jumps and arpeggios allow you to do what he says or create your own variations. It is also harder and more challenging to play the exercise backwards – note by note. If you play a lot of contemporary music and want better control of extreme dynamics, you can use this book accordingly to conquer this issue. If this book is new to you, I suggest working on one or two lines separately, starting in the middle register.
    My second go-to book is Andre Reichert’s Seven Daily Exercises. I play numbers one through three from memory. As I progress through the keys, I play them in different ways, including tempos from very slow to very fast, loud and soft, and double- and triple-tongued or slurred. I review what I will need to play for the day in rehearsals or concerts, and then I apply these techniques to the exercises. It might be a tricky rhythm, a quick dynamic change, or a wide leap; be creative as you adapt exercises to your needs.

Technique: One note at a time: 10-12 minutes
    Select one spot in a piece of music you are playing that is really not ready and will most likely fall apart. Look at it closely to figure out where the problem lies. It might be notes, speed, articulation, breath control, or rhythm. Pick one and work solely on that one item. If it is a recurring mess, you probably played it sloppily at first, and it went into your brain incorrectly and now is stuck. It could be something simple such as rushing an interval because you don’t like the notes, sloppy finger and air coordination, or even just a predetermined mindset that these pitches or intervals or rhythms are hard.
    Break it down into small bites and digest them. This way, you are looking at the passage through new eyes. Stop thinking that you cannot play it and create positive mental messages. Demand correct notes so your ears finally hear the correct pitches. Reprogram your fingers to develop the correct pattern, and if you still feel tension as you do this, you are going too fast for your body, brain, and fingers to digest. Make sure you are not tensing up any area of your body, arms, fingers, and take the excerpt way under tempo. Breaking down a spot that has not been consistent or reliable allows it to improve quickly. When you come back to these small spots the  next day, you will find that your brain has digested more than you thought. The key here is to build from ground zero of the real problem and work outward beat by beat on each side.

More Advice
    Very complicated sections will take slow, careful work that is beyond the scope of a 30-minute warm-up, so let them go for now. Instead try to fix just a few beats of the music. Working on even a small section will make you feel more confident when you tackle the larger problem spot later.
    Avoid distractions during your practice sessions. You could have finished, but you looked at your texts. Your phone is not a practicing assistant, but a distraction. 100% of your brain needs to be on the music, so turn it off and get an old-style metronome. One final idea that I do is to sing my parts or do vocal long tones while driving to work.