When you’re learning or creating music, and you have that feeling that everything is working, it’s usually because your musical intentions are aligning with your thinking, your emotions, and your physical actions. Your body and mind react with each other with fluency because your muscles are working at peak efficiency, and you are operating at a higher level of thinking. Having an efficient way of warming up, is one of the best ways to get your mind and body into this state of flow for music creation. Warming up prepares your body to work efficiently, right from the beginning of a practice session, and allows your mind to gradually achieve deeper modes of critical thinking and awareness.
The most important aspect of warming up for a musician, is literally implied in the word warming—increasing the temperature of the muscles to ensure the body is sharp, agile, and ready to respond to an upcoming activity. In physiological terms, warming up increases circulation and blood flow to the parts of the body that will be used in various ways on an instrument. It also increases the sensitivity of the muscles, while speeding up the connection between brain and motor activities.
Enhancing circulation in the body and the hands, is an important first step to take before a successful practice session. Musicians who struggle with cold hands, already know how difficult it is to immediately start creating or rehearsing on their instrument. This is especially true in colder seasons, when many musicians find that their hands are so cold, applying any kind of pressure into their instrument, can be extremely uncomfortable, and can even cause pain in the fingertips. This normally happens when there is poor circulation in the body and decreased blood flow to the hands.
By having a short warm up routine in place, musicians can safely warm the muscles of the hands, so that the body is ready to meet the demands of the music they are working on. They can safely apply levels of pressure to their instruments and direct their focus towards their musical goals, rather than on the precarious technical actions of their hands.
Turning on your rhythmic intuition
There are also psychological aspects to warming up as well. Since music making requires a combination of emotional, spiritual, physical, and intellectual functions, warming up can ensure a gradual preparation of musical thinking, so the body can respond and act in response to abstract musical-rhythmic ideas. Part of the psychological aspect of warming up, is getting the entire body engaged in a rhythm state, right from the beginning of a practice session.
One of the main problems that is highly prevalent in the music world, is that instrumentalists tend to stick with traditional practice habits—which sometimes do more harm than good. For instance, it is somewhat common practice for beginner instrumentalists to use scale and arpeggio patterns (often in the basic major and minor harmonic forms), as a way to gain broader spatial and kinesthetic awareness of an instrument, and to develop technical facility of the hands. However, when rhythmic variety isn't introduced, and the musician tends to stick to the same harmonic modes, these types of exercises become rigid and monotonous over time, which may lead to poor practice habits.
Furthermore, if instrumentalists are not taught what purpose their warm up exercises have, or how to manipulate them in stimulating ways to benefit their physicality, a musician may maintain these bad playing habits for the length of their musical careers, whereby always playing scales, arpeggios, and similar types of exercises, in conservative ways—mostly with limited dynamic range, with little to no rhythmic diversity, and as fast as possible.
If your goal is to go to your instrument and maintain a high level of focus, and creativity, then a really easy way to slow that process, is by starting off a practice session with uninteresting exercises on your instrument. These are exercises that not only feel uninteresting, but also sound uninteresting—which tend to tire the ear and the mind. Instead, musicians can set themselves up for success, by creating a learning environment that is engaging, both to the mind, and to the ears. This increases energy, is engaging, and prepares the body for high level creating.
Not unlike high level athletes, many musicians may at some point in their careers, find themselves with injuries related to playing their instruments. Injuries such as tendonitis, carpal tunnel, or repetitive strain injury, result from overworking the muscles in stressful ways. From poor practice habits and posture, over-stressing the body in response to the demands of virtuosic music, or from extended practice sessions on an instrument for which the body is not prepared. This is especially true if a musician, from the very outset, does not have the muscular strength to meet the demands of the music they are striving to learn.
While many musicians have the desire to immediately go to their instrument and dive right into playing complex music without warming up, many of the complexities of music can be compounded, which can contribute to tightness, frustration, and injury. It’s important to keep in mind, most of what we do as musicians in practice and rehearsal requires physical repetition. This is especially true for instrumentalists who prepare virtuosic music for performance. In rehearsal, the muscles are constantly working overtime in very fine movements, and in addition there is the added emotional intensity of the music. This sometimes causes other muscle groups to kick in, which can in turn create tightness of the body, while limiting freedom of movement necessary to play an instrument.
Implementing a dynamic warm up routine can assist musicians by enhancing circulation, strengthening the hands, and increasing flexibility. Maintaining a high level of strength and dexterity can also help prevent common injuries from tightness or rigid practice habits.
Implementing a dynamic warm up routine
One approach to implementing a dynamic warm up routine, is to use a conditioning surface to prepare the hands and mind for the more creative work done on an instrument. For musicians who use their hands as their main way to play their instrument, engaging the hands with intricate rhythms, challenges the coordination of the fingers, and strengthens the hands. It is one of the best ways to increase energy and circulation, and get the mind into a musical state of flow—right from the beginning of a practice session.
A training surface like the Rhythmic Dexterity Pad®, uses active rebound properties and soft-touch materials, on which you can exert added force and pressure. This allows you to intensely activate, exercise, and strengthen all parts of the hands. This in turn makes pressing and manipulating keys, pads, buttons, levers, valves, and other mechanical devices on an instrument—easy in comparison. By training this way, you can develop an abundance of reflexive control and coordination, making even the most complex pieces of music easier to play.
This is a great alternative for instrumentalists who are used to traditional warm up routines, like commonplace scale and arpeggio formulas, which end up being used to develop technique, but are generally extremely monotonous and uncreative. When using a conditioning surface, a musician can sit comfortably in an upright position with a straight spine, and train the hands via isometric rhythmic exercises on their lap. It’s a very easy setup with minimal excess equipment, and it creates the perfect posture for the upper body. When you are sitting with a straight spine, the shoulders are relaxed, which allows the arms to hang freely. Pressure can be adjusted and applied to the surface of the pad in various ways, to exercise the hands with different levels of intensity.
A conditioning surface can help you become aware all of the subtleties of rhythm, nuance, tempo, and musical phrasing and how that information transfers over into athletic and choreographic movements of the fingers. This gives you enormous reflexive control that is conditioned before approaching the deeper creative work done on an instrument. By taking at least 10-15 minutes to warm up before creating on your main instrument, you can ensure that your physicality is ready, your body has a facility that is prepared to meet the technical demands of complex music, and your mind will achieve an optimal cognitive workflow.
Some drawbacks of not having a warm up routine
There are a few drawbacks to not having a warm up routine, and these will certainly differ from person to person. The following examples highlight a few of the habits that can have detrimental effects for musicians:
Leaving out warming up altogether. By leaving out warming up altogether, musicians may find that their practice sessions are uncomfortable or frustrating. Their body is unnecessarily tight, which limits freedom of mobility, and does not adapt to the complex music they are trying to learn.
Sticking to certain types of resources, exercise books, or etudes, in which the skills gained from the exercises don’t correlate to the actual kinds of music they really want to make.
Putting too much emphasis into a warm up for more than 30 min, using resources that are opposed to the music that a musician really desires to learn. This consequently diminishes energy for the actual music session. Furthermore, beginning a practice session with resources that are uninteresting, consequently turns critical thinking off, and keeps the artist from achieving higher states of learning and creating.
Creating elaborate warm up rituals that have an uncertainty about them, but which a musician is habitually attached to (whether or not the routine gives them the desired outcome). If a person becomes attached to using a certain resource to help them achieve a better technical facility, but they haven’t been precise in clarifying the reasons why they use that resource, then chances are they might be using up a lot of their time, but not seeing very concrete results in return.
Ideally, a dynamic warm up would integrate both physiological and psychological functions, in the most stimulating way possible. These processes working together, can enable musicians to achieve flow states more easily when making music, and maintain those states over longer periods of time. When a warm up routine is not in place, this may contribute to some negative circumstances in both the short term, and over one’s long term musical development.