We often hear that classical music is a sport, and it’s true that there are many parallels. Playing an instrument, like playing a sport, requires body awareness, efficient muscle movement, and endurance. To satisfy my own curiosity about what other people do at the beginning of their practice sessions, this brief series will feature several individuals’ warmup routines. Some people do very little, and some people do a lot. Some people are very structured, while others approach warming up from an exploratory and improvisational angle. Below are my friend Cobi’s thoughts about the warmup process!
To paraphrase Juilliard piano faculty member Julian Martin, we should not need a warm-up period in order to feel technically comfortable at the instrument. Instead, the musician’s physical understanding should be so intimate and familiar that calling upon facility and ease is instantaneous. This makes sense to me; if a pianist cannot achieve a sense of technical freedom every day without a warm-up, how does he or she expect to maintain that freedom in a performance, when one’s physical awareness is blurred by nerves and adrenaline?
One caveat to Martin’s view is the fact that not all musicians have already developed such an indelible and prompt connection to the operation of their technique. Accordingly, it can still be beneficial for many musicians to warm up before practicing, as long as it is done with the proper goals in mind. In other words, as long as we use a warm-up period to improve our understanding of how to call upon the sensation of effortlessness both in general and for a variety of particular technical challenges (rather than becoming reliant upon warm-ups as the only path to that sensation), I see no reason not to warm-up before practicing.
I have never followed any particular routine at the beginning of my daily practice, instead preferring to start with any kind of exercise that suits my current physical state. That’s because I have not found any one exercise or piece that unfalteringly vitalizes my body, arms, and hands. I am still recovering from an injury that resulted from many years of practicing without developing feelings of ease and comfort, and as such, my grasp on technical facility is fickle.
Because of this, I like to warm up with things that feel easy, searching for confidence and effortlessness before tackling repertoire that will inevitably strain those sensations. Due to my inconstant grasp on technique, I never force myself to struggle with something difficult in a warm-up, instead postponing those challenges until my whole body feels prepared and invigorated by facile exercises. I often find myself reaching for Chopin’s “Ocean” Etude, Op. 25 no. 12 , at the beginning of a practice session. I frequently sightread as a warm-up, choosing light Classical era sonatas of Mozart or Haydn in an attempt coax out the physical coordination requisite of the fluffy tapping feeling in leggiero scales and arpeggios. Other times, I improvise, playing interlocking octave scales, arpeggios, or scales in the most bombastic manner that I can manage. It’s incredible how simple certain things become when they’re improvised, and it has to do with the lack of restrictions on improvisation— when there are no wrong notes, no unsteady tempi, and no interpretational concerns, it suddenly becomes vastly easier to play all the right notes in a steady tempo and a beautiful sound.
I think that the pianists with the best technique feel that same kind of improvisatory freedom when performing actual repertoire. Some pianists have so much control over the instrument that they can toss off blistering passages from a Liszt paraphrase and achieve the same casual panache with which they might improvise. Of course, interpretational concerns prohibit them from complete abandon, but superb technical control includes skill at interpretational manipulation as well; the act of controlling changing dynamics, articulations, voicing, and tone is inseparable from the act of playing a scale or a chord. Really, it is only the imperfect potential of the human mind and body that seems to limit such musicians, and it is to this that we all ought to aspire.