Warm ups, what is it and what can we possibly make of it?

I remember being a young musician, constantly getting nagged over and over to remember my warm up and use looong gooood time, for the looongest notes by teachers and adults….and my questions inside kept turning up; why? All it does is making my saxophone warm, and I have to use so much time on it when I have all of this other more important stuff that I need to practice..
Practice is an art, its underestimated considering so many people talk about “talent”, and “it must be so much fun, and you must feel privileged to have your hobby as your work.” So if its just talent, why do we have to practice to get better, and why on earth should we warm up? Most students answers to what warm up is and why we do it; is to get the instruments warm, however, I think its way more to it than that that could be explored so much fun!
As teacher I am awfully considerate regarding what language I use and observe the students reaction to the words. They might combine the words with something else than what I do, which makes my message floating over their heads instead of efficient. However, what is extremely important is to underline that to become a musician and live of it, it is a full time job, hard work and very constantly good habits regarding to practice is a big part of it. One day of missing practice and you can get three steps back from the day before. (Reading tip: The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle) Of course there is a lot more elements to being a musician, this is just one small part.

Here is where warm up is genius and is absolutely something you can use to your advantage. Every warm up exercise has a target and goal, every exercise has something, a technique, that it can help you with – it is your personal trainer and very very good friend if you get to know it and are curious to what this exercise actually can do for & with you. The question is, how awake are you during your warmup-session?? Are you wearing your active ears, to detail your improvement? You are always doing something good and you can always improve on something when you play.. where do your daily exercises need improvement?

If you warm up without the goal in mind, what are you getting better at? One of my favorite teacher quotes is “What we practice is what we are improving..” So are you practicing long notes without air, support and sound improvement? Are you practicing etudes without proper phrasing like notated, are you running through technique scales without paying attention to correcting rhythms, making every not as important with same sound- and tongue-quality as the one before? If you are 100% certain that there is NOTHING to improve in one of your warming up exercises, is there then a new way you can practice the technique? Is there someone out there that have a different skill with the technique than you, and most importantly how can you learn that? Are this person doing something else than you when practicing?

One of the many things this world of musicians and music has teached me its that there is always someone out there to learn from, always someone who will try to make you feel like a failure and way to few people backing each other up, helping each other on their ways and learning different skills from each other when studying. Of course, its “Fight, flight, freeze” out there, of course you have to bury everyone ells to make sure you get on top…!! How about: “Wow you played that flutter tongue amazing, I’ve been practicing it for such a long time now..how did you learn it? Can you tell me in the utmost detail what you are doing to do that technique so beautifully?”
The result..? Then you have a new warming up exercise, a new way to learn a technique and a great new happy colleague that might ask for your help at some point..! Worst case scenario, knowing we all are different people in various bodys, you have learned that what worked for this students is not something that worked for you.. (considering you’ve layed down enough hours to the exercise to actually be able to say that you have tried it properly.)

Photo: Martin Baltser

Warming up is an underestimated term, and something that is maybe a little mystified. What we practice is what we’ll become experts on, so if you practice without your ears, and goals you will be an expert in not knowing how you learned stuff, and how not to be able to control when to turn your techniques on for bigger pieces, or under pressure. What often limits our warming up practice in my opinion, is our own box of knowledge, our own library and therefor it limits how great we will accomplish the ability to improve the technique. With exploring and keeping the curiosity for new solutions for the warming up exercises we keep improving our margins and archives.
One of the humongous misunderstandings regarding warming up in my opinion is that you have to practice it ALL, every day. How on earth are you planning to do that??  Are you a superperson?? There is so many great and fun exercises, but as I wrote before, the most important point in warming up and practicing is – where is your focus?? Are you learning or just doing? And if you’re “just doing”, is it consciously or without purpose? Therefor if you are warming up with EVERYTHING every day then there might be no time for anything else, and you will have no focus or energy to actually learn something from the warming up or be able to use it for the future. Which might result in starting from scratch every day. Now that doesn’t sound very inspiring, efficient or motivating to me? I don’t know about you, but I am not the biggest fan regarding wasting my time on bad practice.
Here is a couple of pinpointers to how you can check if you’re actually paying attention to your warm up sessions:

  • What in your pieces of music, performances, lessons or practice sessions seems to keep being “difficult”? When you figured it out, ask yourself: How often do you practice to improve this challenge, and do you keep practicing it the same way and in the same order during your practice?
    Let me explain with an example..: You keep practicing your long notes for your practice, long daily notes – same order of tones and exercises during your practice everyday. You will most likely to loose your focus on the same place every practice, and loose the quality of the tones going on during the exercises. Now the ability to have great intonation keeps getting in your way during your performances, how can that be? You are practicing your long notes…
    It’s something you’ve heard that people hear or don’t hear, have or don’t have. However, practicing intonation is never in your practicing schedule; with tuner and by ear with drones. How can you magically expect to improve something, that is never on the schedule of practicing? (What we practice is what we are improving…) Scientist are indicating that we are loosing our focus after 15-20 sec, that means if you are always starting your sessions with the same exercise/pieces, the same focus and techniques you will keep making the same mistakes, the same techniques will fail and without attention to it you will never be able to exercise the length of your focus and concentration. No wonder you are an expert on the first exercises and keep meeting ballpoints towards the end..
  • Ask yourself this, after a performed or practiced passage: What would my teacher say? Would she/he be satisfied or not? What would be the improvement suggestions? How can I practice this, is there a new way to keep med interested? Do I know anyone who could help me with this?
  • Checkpoint to see if your focus is lost or at place, could be: Do I know what I just played, did I hear every detail in sound and technique on what needs to be improved or am I doubting? If you’re doubting, make it a rule to ALWAYS repeat the passage, now notate a couple of improvement points because you are sure where your loopholes are. Repeat practicing it, in small parts, when you have it correct repeat it correctly three times and always come back to it for storage and affirming. What we practice is what we improve, so if you practice it wrong 10 times and 1 time right without repetition, the statistically chance of your brain remembering that one time and choosing that connection instead of the other 10 with the same mistakes are low…
  • What scares me in the technically world? What big stars playing my instruments is amazingly good at something and I “Know” that I’m “never” going to be able to do that? THIS is something you can practice!!! Research the technique ex: Slap-tongue, and find three new practicing methods for it. practice it regularly for 3-4 min, and repeat.
  • If you keep falling out, dozing off and cannot seem to find yourself take 5-15 minutes break. You’re human and its very normal! Breaks is actually brainfood, this is when our brain physically stores and saves the information. My best tip is not to practice longer than 45 min, then 15 min break. Its the best practicing interval I’ve ever tried, and I use it every day. I’m guaranteed that my head isn’t exploding before I have to stop practicing. Breaks are vital and very efficient, and it’s important to listen to our bodies!

My best and funniest tip about warming up is to choose maybe 3-4 different exercises every day at the maximum with different goals to keep your mind occupied and interested. When we perform, practice and play we (of course) need our body. What I love to do is vary in between physical exercises and my warmup exercises to guarantee that my body is working together with me & and the instrument. Playing while sitting on the floor, sitting in squat, lying down, standing on a balance cushion or using Timani exercises (an amazing exercising method for musicians to get in touch with stabilizing muscles, for video push this link..)
The point is that when you switch and keep your focus on the goals you achieve something for every practice session. You keep receiving the “good-feeling” every time you “just” have warmed up, and its with a mission and a point. If it helps you can write down all of the exercises that you know in a little notebook, linked to different skills and see how many you can get through during a week or two. Maybe even see if you can add a pair? Keep the curiousness of a child and see if maybe someone you know have something they can learn you. You are unique, there is no one else but you in the world that are like you. It might sound cliche however it means that you have something that no one else got, find it and enrich the world with it – and open your eyes and ears for others – what do they got that is their uniqueness?

This just a tiny passage of what enormous topic warming up is. Use it and share it. What new can you add to your warming up session today, and do you have any exercises that I might not know off? I’m very curious so don’t be shy to share them!

Enjoy your warming up – its like carrots and broccoli, not always first choice however its always healthy for your progress and development!!


Photo: Martin Baltser

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