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Warming Up

One of the joyous things that greet you as a band teacher when you have students filter in for your class is the multiplicity of honks, squeaks, and blats that indicate your students have figured out that they should be warming up for practice. Of course, they’re also doing it wrong.

You see this problem quite often with a new practitioner of any complex performance task: warming up is where they rush immediately to the hard things that they know they have to work on. The thought process goes something like this: “I know we’re going to be working on <that thing> that I  find difficult, so I’ll just practice it ahead of time right now and be ready when we get there!” The inevitable result is that they still struggle to get it, and will probably continue to for a while. And they are also bound to wonder why that is.

Experienced musicians and athletes will understand this instinctively, of course, but it’s counter-intuitive. In order to perform the complex components of your art well, it is necessary to practice the most basic of techniques when you begin each day. It doesn’t matter if you have been playing for 3 days or 3 years: warming up with the very basics is always the correct choice.

In music, for example, some of the necessary components to your warm-up will probably include long tones for wind players, major or minor scales, slow to fast tonguing exercises, and gentle flexibility shifts that cover the whole playable range of the instrument that you possess currently. Each of these components can influence the performance of the most complex musical pieces in profound ways. For example, if you can’t play your scales (even slowly) as a warm-up, you probably will never truly master the impressive fast passages that are incorporated into so many cadenzas and flourishes.

As an even more direct example, here’s my general condensed warm-up routine:

1. ‘Six Notes’ Exercise: the link here is to an excellent article written about the originator of this exercise that any musician (in particular, obviously, trombone players) should take a look at. The idea of this exercise is to slowly refine the articulation and breath attacks of your notes so that you always start notes correctly and with proper breath support. You play a series of chromatic pitches, from F3-Bb4, and then descending from F3-C3, using hard, soft, and finally no tongue attacks on each note. This is done slowly so as to give the brain time to perceive the time and accuracy of beginning the pitch.

2. Flexibility/long tones: there are a couple of choices here. It’s good to have slight variations from day to day so that the brain is kept active. Here I generally play either slow ascending lip slurs or a series of staggered rising and lowering pitches for long durations at slow speeds. This works simulaneously on breath control and extremes of range at either end of the pitch spectrum. It’s vital to do this slowly so you can maximize your breath.

3. Lip slurs: These I do in a middle register to avoid range difficulties, and practice slurring in fourths (for example, from Bb 4 down to F3, then descending chromatically) in first eighth-notes, then triplets, then sixteenths, then triplet-sixteenths, and if I am feeling good, all the way down to thirty-second notes.

4. Scales: I do all major AND all minor scales (melodic) through at least 2 octaves; this can obviously change as you have time. The important thing is to do these at a moderate speed so that you are letting muscle memory direct you and play it smoothly, without hitching or misplacing a note. This can be done in one or two octaves OR even throughout the full range of the instrument for ambitious people.

5. Tonguing: very simple sixteenth and triplet-sixteenth double and triple tonguing exercises are the norm here. I don’t make it complex: a scale with repeated notes followed by fast scales in that tonguing mode is usually enough to make me feel prepared.

6. Excerpts: as a semi-professional musician, there are a number of standard orchestral excerpts that you simply HAVE to know, in case of auditions. Trombone players must master the ‘Bolero’ and ‘Requiem’ solos, for example. I usually finish off my warm-up with two or three of these to test whether or not my facial muscles and breathing are aligned and in working order.

This is a cycle that I repeat whenever I practice, the goal of which, you may have noticed, is not to stress the limits of my range in and of itself. Neither is it to practice the difficult in advance. The main goal here is to get the mind and body so comfortable with the fundamentals of ALL good playing that when something more difficult comes along, I just breeze through it because of the excellent basic technique I’m already using.

It also has the secondary effect of creating a calm, serene, and prepared mental space for me. Trying to warm up with complex and challenging repertoire generates this expectation of difficulty that infringes on your ability to play even the easy material. In fact, since I do this every day, I can even condense this further and play only two of the exercises and still feel prepared, because my brain associates them with comfort.

For students this is especially valuable. If they can learn to warm up as a class with a long, extended routine that lets them all be prepared, they can then trim it down to two very short routines to begin the day and be ready to go. Part of my job is to try and model that with directed warm-ups at the beginning of class, but the temptation is still to play the cool, hard stuff to begin. Beginners just fail to realize that if you can’t play the easy basic stuff, there’s no way the hard stuff will be of good quality.

It’s a lot like teaching, actually. If they can’t write a sentence correctly, there’s no way you’re getting a quality essay out of the student. Teach the fundamentals first, and worry about complex beauty later.

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