A couple of days ago, I was discussing ‘warm-ups’ with a colleague. We talked for well over an hour, not all about warming up admittedly, but it is possible to chat about this subject endlessly. After all, everybody’s regime is different. If you’re just starting to learn the piano (or any instrument for that matter) you may not have even considered this area of your practice session as yet. Some musicians don’t believe in warming up before they start practising; they just launch straight into their work. However, if you are cold or stiff and your arms, wrists and hands aren’t ‘in gear’ as such, then running your hands across the keys, albeit quickly, can do wonders for your joints and muscles.
I have to admit that I haven’t always warmed-up. I’ve often (especially when I was a student) launched straight into my practice session not really thinking or using my brain at all sadly. Warm-ups can be just as essential for your mind as for your body. Many of us dash to do our daily practice and our minds are not focused. We start working and not only are we not really thinking about our fingers, but we haven’t engaged our minds either. So a short regime consisting of a few exercises can be very useful.
You don’t need to do anything complex either. Some prefer playing scales, others will charge through a few studies and there are those (like my colleague) who enjoy stretching exercises, reminiscent of Pilates, or Yoga (or simply using elements of the Alexander Technique) away from the keyboard which they find very beneficial. I have yet to employ this method although I am keen to try. I’m not a real Yoga enthusiast but I will admit to feeling very relaxed when I recently attended a Piano-Yoga session.
My own warm-ups have always been a mixture of piano exercises and movement. I start by playing diminished chords (I have no idea way I choose these particular chords but it must be something to do with their convenient shape) from the bottom to the top of the keyboard. This seems to encourage my torso to move freely from one side of the keyboard to the other, allowing my arms and wrists to start working flexibly. The shoulders also like the feeling of ‘opening-up’ too. After doing this (for a very short time incidentally), I will play a few Hanon exercises. I haven’t always been a Hanon fan at all but more recently I have found them useful if practised in a certain way, they really can help to loosen up the joints.
Here’s the opening of a typical exercise taken from The Virtuoso Pianist:
I find it beneficial to work at these slowly and in a very focused way; using full weight from the arms behind each finger especially on the fourth and fifth fingers, building up their strength. So in the above exercise, I would concentrate specifically on the first and second note at the beginning of each bar in the left hand, making a special effort to put my weight on the fourth and fifth fingers as they appear each time. I would also play extra accents on the fourth (and probably on the fifth) finger every time in the right hand too, encouraging the fingers to work properly. The more arm weight you use then the more your finger will spring into action (it’s best to make sure your finger is really playing on its tip and your knuckles are engaged properly too), you will also produce a much fuller richer tone as well when you practice in this way. I like to add extra accents when playing these exercises, almost displacing the rhythmic pulse; this can help with coordination as well.
It’s not necessary to do many of these exercises and you don’t need to play them for very long either, maybe five or ten minutes, but I find that it’s a surprisingly helpful way to begin a practice session. What is your warm-up regime? If you don’t yet have one perhaps it’s time to introduce one in to your daily practice session.