Even though I know that warming-up improves my finger and ear accuracy, and helps build flexibility, strength and agility, I still fall into a trap of perceiving it as using too much of my practice time. Especially when I would prefer to believe that diving straight into my piece could accomplish the same thing.
After several times in physical therapy and decades of cello lessons, however, I've learned the body is not invincible and if I'm not building it up properly, then I'm letting it fall apart. Playing, just like any other physical activity, is calling on muscles to perform and, therefore, these muscles need strength and agility training and stretching to be in working condition.
Over the years, I've put together a warm-up routine that, to be honest, is a bit time consuming but I still aim to do it, in full, at least three times a week. That's because even just 20 minutes of focused warm-up activity can decrease gradual-onset injuries by up to 65%!
The following is a break down of my routine:
This is for large muscle groups. They're the kinds of stretches you likely did in middle school PE or kiddie soccer league. Bending down and touching your toes while counting to 30 might seem like it has nothing to do with playing the bassoon (or any other instrument) but it loosens the shoulders by letting the neck hang heavy and opens up the ham strings which shorten during extend periods of sitting.
All static stretches help diminish the build up of myofascial trigger points and improve mobility. Other favorite stretches of mine include shoulder openers, chest openers, side bends and back bends. When performing these stretches, never muscle or strain your way into them. Instead, focus on using the breath to ease your way into extensions.
I utilize slow scales primarily for ear training although, especially in cold weather climates, the slow process of warming up the fingers is extremely beneficial.
Each scale is played to a drone set on "Do" and each interval is tuned to the root. It's easy to see where eastern religions developed the concept of sound healing since tuning the intervals requires matching the sound waves from my instrument to the sound waves from the drone. The process becomes not only musically and physically beneficial but an incredibly meditative experience with focus going entirely to sound production and quality. This gives me time to train my fingers, my core, my ear, my bow stroke and my brain and usually takes about 40 minutes of uninterrupted focus.
If you still don't own a foam roller, get one immediately! In fact, I may start selling them right through this blog because they are the most beneficial tool you can own outside of your music equipment. (Actually, I now believe they are music equipment.)
After 40 minutes of uninterrupted focus in my slow scales, my shoulders have started to round in and my arm muscles are fatigued. I take out my foam roller, place it under my shoulder blades with my hips on the floor and my hands behind my ears, elbows open and lean back.
After opening the shoulders back up I tuck the elbows in front of my body, lift my hips up and, with a neutral spine and neck, I roll out my upper back. This loosens up muscles that have been working non-stop and helps restore mobility and circulation to my shoulders, something that is necessary for speed work.
Now that I'm warmed up and loosened up, it's time to build agility, speed and endurance. I play 36 scales in three octaves at a steady pace as fast as I can. This means turning on the metronome to challenge my stamina. When I hit the 2/3 mark, where I usually begin to slow down, I now push myself to be faster and more accurate then the last time I played. It's similar to a runner practicing interval sprints.
An added value to fast scales is that I have time to focus on my breath. There is inevitably a moment where I hit a wall and begin to hold my breath and try to muscle through. This only increases tension and slows me down. Because I've already warmed up and focused my ears and mind, I'm better able to increase the breath and focus on relaxing while performing intense muscle movement and speed work. By prepping myself this way with scales, I carry effective habits into stressful recording sessions or solo work.
When I finish fast scales, I should be tired. If I'm not, I haven't pushed myself hard enough and I know to increase my speed the next time.
This is different than static stretching and should be performed cautiously to prevent injury. Dynamic stretching is essentially an exercise that is dependent on mobility. Since I've been using my arms and keeping my body relatively stagnant during my fast scales I begin with two to three static stretches for my forearms, hip flexors and hamstrings. Then I perform shoulder circles, lying hip circles and slow trunk rotations.
From here, depending on the day and my time frame, I either complete my exercise routine by heading out for a run or hitting the gym. Or I complete my practice routine by sitting back down for a couple more hours of playing.
If you're still slightly confused on static vs. dynamic stretching, I suggest checking out this article for more information and examples. I'll be posting more frequent examples of these stretches and warm-ups to the Instagram page or stories so please make sure you're following along on the social media platforms.
This week on the podcast I have an interview with Los Angeles Philharmonic Violinist, Ingrid Chun. She points out that stretching alone is not warming up but should be incorporated into every players routine. Be sure to check out the rest of our conversation this Thursday when the podcast posts.
Remember, our bodies should never limit our art! So learn how to train like an athlete to play like a musician.
Health and happiness,