A good practice routine will include warm ups of some sort, but sometimes this initial part of the practice can seem boring and disconnected from the central aims of the session. In this post I will suggest some ways to connect the two so that your warm ups are relevant to the rest of the practice rather than an unrelated intro to your main work.
What are warm ups for?
Warm ups have a few purposes and benefits. Here are a few:
To get your body warmed up and your brain focused. The start of the practice is also a good opportunity to check on your posture, hand positioning, breathing, embouchure for wind players, and to relax so that you get the most from the session.
To help you prepare and plan for the rest of the session. This will help you use your time efficiently so you can practise with purpose and avoid aimless play-throughs.
To work on important elements of technique. You might choose warm ups that exercise a certain technique, or that help remedy a particular issue you might be having. I will often write these kinds of specific exercises out in students’ lesson notes.
To draw your attention to any issues that may affect the practice. If you warm up rather than jumping straight into your first piece, you are more likely to notice potential pitfalls. For example, if you notice that you are quite tense today for whatever reason, you can take steps to loosen up in your warm up before the tightness gets a chance to hinder your progress later on.
To get your mind in the right mode for what’s coming next. This is the benefit of thoughtfully pairing your warm ups with your focus piece, and involves applying your theory knowledge and general musical understanding to your practical work. The suggestions below will help with ticking this box.
Ideas for piece-supporting warm ups
Pick scales that match the key of your focus piece. Scales and arpeggios are probably most people’s go-to warm up as they have so many benefits. Although it is good to practice many different scales, try to make sure you include the ones that are most relevant to your piece and play them directly before you move onto it. For example, if your main piece is in G major, you could play the G major scale beforehand so that your mind and fingers are prepared for the F# that will undoubtedly pop up in that key. You can also play the relative minor (E minor in this case), and the scales of any keys that the piece modulates to, if any. (Modulation in music means moving to a different key.) If your piece starts in C but modulates to D major near the end, warm up with both scales and their relative minors (A minor and B minor in this example). This way, your scales directly aid what follows, and you’re more likely to remember what sharps or flats they contain if you associate keys with actual pieces in your mind.
Pick out rhythms that appear in your piece and play them on each note of a scale. This could be a particularly tricky rhythm that needs a little extra attention, or a commonly occurring rhythm, or a new rhythm you haven’t encountered before. For example, if the rhythm you’ve picked is a quaver followed by a crotchet and another quaver (short long short) and you’re using a C major scale, play the full rhythm on C, then again on D, then on E, and so on. You get the benefits of practising a scale while repeating and familiarising yourself with the rhythm. It’s also a great tonguing warm up for wind players!
Select exercises or studies that focus on an element of the main piece. This could be articulation (e.g. lots of staccato and accented notes, or long legato phrases), dynamics (big contrasts or gradual changes), the use of a particular key or scale, a technique (e.g. trills or grace notes), the same time signature or rhythmic feel, large jumps between particular notes, etc. I point my students towards complementary studies in their lesson notes when appropriate.
Try long note variations that incorporate features from your focus piece. Long notes (also known as long tones) are a staple warm up for wind players as they help improve tone, breath control, dynamic control, embouchure, intonation (tuning) and listening skills. Vary your long notes by adding in features from your pieces: for example, if your main piece features a crescendo or diminuendo and you want to improve your control, practice getting gradually louder or softer on a long note, listening out for evenness in tone and pitch as your volume changes. If your piece has a lot of staccato playing or separated notes that require good diaphragm support, warm up with ‘pulsing’ long notes where you pulse the air flow along to a metronome beat without letting the note cut out (the volume will increase on the beat as you let more air go, then decrease back to a soft base level in between).
Extract a tricky motif or phrase from the main piece to warm up with. By doing this, you get to tackle the hardest parts first, meaning they’ll hopefully slot into their proper context more easily later on. Keep the extract small (just a bar or short sequence of notes will do), and play it slowly on a loop until your fingers and brain are familiar with it. You can play it at its original pitch, or for an extra challenge you can try transposing it into different keys.
Choose just one or two of these options at the start of your session (it doesn’t necessarily need to take very long) and then move on to the main piece you are learning straight away afterwards. Hopefully the two will merge together more seamlessly and feel like they’re working together in the same direction. You can then follow the hard work by playing through your older repertoire (I have a post about my ‘Learned-It Lucky Dip’ idea here), and any creative freestyle play or noodling.
I hope this gives you some ideas to try out next time you pick up or sit down at your instrument. You may even think of some of your own ideas too – there are lots of possibilities!