Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Establishing a Daily Warm-Up Routine

Most people have a specific morning routine they use daily to get the day started. One of the first things in my daily routine is a trip to the refrigerator for the first Coca-Cola of the day. Afterwards, I'm ready to continue getting ready for the day ahead. Just as we establish a routine before venturing out the door, it is essential that we establish a daily routine to prepare our hands, ears, and mind for the day ahead at the piano. I firmly believe that the time we spend at the piano at the beginning of the day is among the most important -- and most commonly neglected -- part of our preparation as pianists.

Why is the warm-up session necessary?

  • It activates muscles that have been at rest during the night. An athlete would never consider beginning intense training without first stretching the muscles that were going to be involved. For far too long, pianists have ignored the fact that our daily regime of practice and performance places a similar amount of strain on the hands, arms, fingers, shoulders, and back as the exercises of world-class athletes.
  • Warm-ups provide an opportunity to have a heightened awareness about issues related to technique. In my present playing situation, much of my day is devoted to addressing issues of collaboration and musical shaping of the line. It is very easy in those times to shove thoughts of technique and facility to the back of my mind. The morning warm-up allows me to bring this important element of my playing to the forefront of my mind and make it my primary concern. This leads to my next point.....
  • The warm-up is an opportunity to notice unusual sensations. Pianists sometimes find themselves keeping insane rehearsal and performance schedules. For many years, I viewed these busy seasons as times that I was consistently ready to play with very little stretching needed. While I am able to get things moving with very little effort on most mornings, I am learning more and more just how important the morning session is, especially in these busy times. The warm-up is a time to confirm that everything is moving efficiently and smoothly in my hands and arms. It is also a chance to take note of any soreness or pain that may be present. In the safety of the warm-up session, I can begin to assess the source of the discomfort and initiate the appropriate response -- whether it's cancelling rehearsals to rest, playing only certain repertoire, or making a visit to my doctor.
  • The warm-up session also awakens the ears to quality sound production. Because much of the morning routine is played at a slow tempo (more on that later), it provides our ears a chance to intensely listen to the progressions we are creating as well as the quality of the tone we are producing. The best pianists realize that clean technical playing alone is not the goal of our labor; technique is a means to the end of producing the best sound possible.

How long should the warm-up be?

  • The answer to this question varies greatly among pianists. It depends upon how much time is available, the demands of the day, and how much playing you have been doing recently. On a typical day, I like to allow at least 30 minutes of relaxed warm-up before beginning any substantial work. I refuse to play at all without a minimum of 15 minutes alone at the piano.
  • Here are a few contributing factors that I have discovered in my personal playing that determine the length of my warm-up.
    • The longer I can spend gradually warming up my hands, the better the day will go because my hands just seem to work better.
    • However, I also find that less time is required to adequately warm-up if I have been playing daily in a healthy way. In other words, if I have rehearsed for no more than 3-5 hours the previous day (with adequate breaks), I find that my hands quickly return to a performance level. The same is not true the day after a performance!
    • Different types of playing require different types of warm-ups. I approach my morning routine differently when I am performing a recital than I do when the day is devoted to practice and ensemble rehearsals. I'm simply aware of the physical demands of the various situations and adjust the degree of warm-up accordingly.

What does a typical warm-up session look like?

  • The session as a whole progresses gradually from slow to fast movements. This ensures that muscles are appropriately stretched before demanding too much strain on them and greatly reduces the risk of injury.
  • Rather than having a full routine that I complete each day, I have an arsenal of tools that I use. This keeps me from getting bored and I find that I actually look forward to this initial bit of playing each day.
  • Regardless of what else is planned, every warm-up session begins with a series of scales. I normally play through most of the major scales -- 3 octaves ascending and descending -- just to get the fingers moving. When I feel that my fingers have begun to function, I move into some of the following areas.
  • Exercises/etudes. Throughout my training, the works of Czerny and Hanon have been an integral part of my technical development. I find that I return to these works on a regular basis because of their familiarity and my awareness of how my hands should feel while playing them.
  • Arpeggios. These exercises most commonly appear early in the week. Since I generally do limited playing on the weekend, I find that the long, sweeping gestures of arpeggios are a good way to get my shoulders and forearms moving as they should.
  • Sight Reading. I find that sight reading can be a positive part of the warm-up process. I intentionally play repertoire under tempo and pay close attention to the gestures demanded and my approach to them. I especially enjoy playing intermediate pedagogical material as well as the early sonatas of Haydn, Clementi, and Mozart.
  • Bach. Rarely do I program the works of J.S. Bach for public performance, but I tend to play at least one of his compositions each day. I find that his works are a wonderful way to start the day and awaken the hands, eyes, and ears. Right now, I am slowly working my way through the Preludes of the WTC. Other favorites are the Inventions and Notebooks as well as the Suites.
That's my daily routine. I would love to hear your thoughts about the importance of the warm-up session as well as what you typically play each day. I want to learn from your experiences as well, so share your thoughts in the comment section below.