Lucky underwear’s got nothing on people’s piano warm-up routines. I’ve seen musicians develop some unique wind-ups, from running through all major and minor scales at top speed to playing the opening of the same piece every time. The top prize for novelty goes to a violist I saw before a competition drop suddenly to the floor, do 20 pushups, and then chug coffee out of his travel mug, which he informed me was spiked with “the right amount” of alcohol. He played surprisingly well.
Piano warm-up routines can seem like talismanic magic.
Warm up wisely, and you’ll play great! Warm up poorly, and you’ll play terribly, or worse, hurt yourself (cue that scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). With so much riding on the warm up routine, what’s a pianist to do?
First, let’s take the pressure off. Your body does not stop functioning because you didn’t do the right incantations.
Over the years, I’ve seen pianists plop down and play compellingly from the very first note. At the same time, however, it is unreasonable to expect your body to perform at its peak without preparation or exercise. This is true of any physical activity. Track athletes do not tie their shoes and then run a marathon. Gymnasts do not skip stretching and then launch into their floor routine. If it’s peak performance you’re after, your body will need to work up to it.
Based on what your body needs, your warm up can and perhaps should be a dynamic piano exercise, rather than a fixed routine. It all depends on what you want to accomplish when you start playing.
To help you optimize, I’ll suggest three tips when considering a piano warm-up.
1. Make sure your core is warm.
I used to anxiously rub my hands together until my fingers were toasty-oasty warm before playing. However, one day a teacher said to just make sure that my core was warm, and over the years, I came to agree.
Think about it: when you come in from a winter day and your hands are a little cold, are you unable to pour a cup of tea? To grab a donut? (If the answer is yes, you might need better gloves or to find your way out of the tundra). We can do all kinds of things when our hands are cold, just not finely-tuned things. I wouldn’t advocate performing microsurgery with stiff fingers, personally.
This means that warm-ups should start with the biggest muscles in your body because, so long as your core is warm, those will work just fine. Instead of fast scales, how about some meaty chords, sinking your arm weight slowly into the keys? Instead of intricate fingerwork, how about an exercise that includes leaping patterns that help move your torso and arms across the keyboard? As you exercise the big muscles, the little ones will warm up.
2. Power up like an athlete.
Despite my utter lack of athletic ability, I played lots of sports growing up, from lacrosse to soccer to an ill-fated stint in gymnastics. The one thing I remember from all of those years was that we never did anything strenuous to start. Pretty much every practice started with a jog and some stretches before the power exercise began.
Remember what I said about preparing the body for peak performance? If your peak includes any element of speed or endurance, you best start with slower and easier body movements to safely exercise and stretch your physical limits. If I’m short on time and need to work out a technically challenging passage, I don’t hesitate to do that as soon as I sit down — so long as I do it slowly and deliberately at first.
3. Get your mind in gear.
I once heard a story, likely apocryphal, that nevertheless inspired me, and that was of a famous pianist sightreading a piece beautifully in one take for a recording. I want to say it was James Levine accompanying some art song, but who knows. Regardless, after hearing that story, my life goal became to transcend the physicality of the piano so fully that I could sit down and immediately communicate the essence of the music. Isn’t that the point of playing, after all?
To reach that goal, preparing your mind is as important as preparing your fingers. This is why mindless warm-ups and exercises often fail us. What good are toasty hands if your brain is on holiday? As you’re warming up your body, start gearing up your brain for the challenge ahead.
This doesn’t mean that your warm up needs to be mentally taxing. You could simply be aware of your physical intentions, for instance, which big muscles you’re loosening up at the moment. You could play a particular chord progression and focus on voicing certain inner voices. Over time you may discover that the more attuned you are to good technique and what makes it happen, the less fiddling around you need to achieve it. You can actually think your way to better playing right off the bat!
Warming up need not be a do-or-die situation. Nor need it be exactly the same every day. The goal is to prepare your body and mind for what you’re about to do, and to exercise your way up to peak performance slowly and safely. Beyond that, the rest is up to you!
Just don’t tell me what’s in that mug, okay?