Updated: Nov 20
How to transform the first minutes of your practice into an appealing and galvanising time
What are warmups and how is my idea different
A typical warmup for practice tends to be an exercise or a few, or perhaps scales and arpeggios. While this definitely works for some people - or for a time - a warmup that engages your body, your mind and your deepest interests is the best preparation to deliberate practice.*
A well-designed, meaningful-to-you routine can improve your playing and musicianship even on days when your 15-minute warmup is all you have time for! However, the primary benefit of my warmup is preparation for practising with focus, enthusiasm, mental strength and resolute discipline.**
My own routine and how it came about
At some point during last August, I realised I needed something out of my current repertoire to get me to the piano for daily practice. With a large number of pieces to practise, I had been feeling overwhelmed and unsure where to begin (hello procrastination!). I wanted to find something that would create a sense of play and discovery, as well as a good level of mental engagement, so I would be fully focused on the warmup, rather than worry about what was to come afterwards.
My first thought went to the music of J S Bach. For as long as I remember, Bach has been my go-to composer after any break from practice, so starting up with his music seemed an obvious choice. I decided on fugues, because of that mental involvement I was after. One fugue a day sounded alluring. Somewhere at the back of my mind, I also had a memory of reading that Mstislav Rostropovich started his daily practice with a Bach fugue at the piano, before moving to his cello practice. That is an excellent recommendation, if ever there was one!
Secondly, however much I love Bach, I had to admit to myself that there had to be something else to follow the fugue: I needed more excitement. Again, the answer seemed rather obvious: I love discovering what can be done with 10 fingers on the 88 keys and have always enjoyed etudes, scales and experimenting with technique. So, my new warmup routine, made up of a fugue and an etude, was born. (I decided to play a new fugue and an etude every day, though I do vary this sometimes and stay on one piece for a few days if I want to explore something for longer than a single play-through. I think being free to explore is important in this routine.)
The benefits - including the unexpected ones
My new routine for starting practice certainly gave me enjoyment and pleasantly stretched my mind and fingers. I was sitting down at the piano every morning and looking forward to it. My first objective - getting down to it - was met. Then, I started realising further benefits of the routine, and this is not even a comprehensive list:
Increased focus and a chance to notice how my brain is working on any given day, the level of concentration there naturally is
A chance to notice my posture that day, the level of physical comfort, and to adjust as needed
The excitement of discovering something new, e.g. taking a book of etudes from a shelf on which it has been lingering without ever being played and delving into new pieces and new ideas
The enjoyment of technical and musical challenges and puzzles contained in the fugues and etudes
A chance to flex my analytical skills as I play (without sweating it, just letting my brain notice and appreciate what it encounters)
Listening with attention: easier to achieve when the warmup has an element of discovery inherent in it
Hand coordination and hand-brain connection
Stretching and flexibility
Stepping out of my comfort zone during my warmup: this warms me up for challenging practice that follows! This is by far my favourite benefit of my routine, this adjustment of the mind to focus on the work without frustration or overwhelm
Clarity over practice goals for the day. By the end of nearly every warmup, I know what I need to be doing next in my practice. I do not really know how this works, apart from the fact that it clearly is the subconscious mind that comes up with the best plan for the day’s practice, and it is evident that my routine enables the subconscious to work on this in the background as I am playing my fugue and grappling with my etude.
How to create a warmup routine that is perfect for you
You are of course most welcome to try my routine, but you can go further, too, by designing one that is just right for you.
Here are some ideas for how to begin:
Be clear about what it is you want to achieve. What are your practice goals? Are there specific areas you want to improve?
Know your strengths and weaknesses as a player - if you have a teacher, discuss this with them and ask for recommendations and ideas
Explore your interests and fascinations, what draws you to play or sing, what keeps the fire burning
Get to know your thinking style. Is your thinking logical and orderly, or perhaps intuitive and often not word-based? Does your mind feel somewhat ‘polyphonic,’ a lot going on there? (I certainly like to think of my own thinking as ‘polyphonic’ rather than ‘scatter-brained’!) Are you a worrier or more laid-back? Do you need to calm your mind or awaken it before practising? Anything you can learn about yourself is valuable knowledge
Most of all, experiment and have fun! I really do believe we do not do this enough: play, in the truest sense of the word. You never know where this will lead you, but you can be sure it will be consequential.
*Briefly, deliberate practice is getting better by analysing what needs improving and designing steps that stretch our abilities, but not beyond the realm of current possibility.
**Pre-performance warmup routines are different, and mine certainly involves plenty of scales and arpeggios (some in my own patterns), which I play until my muscles are completely supple and ready to do whatever I need them to do. (This took well over an hour pre-performance recently, but hey, the weather is cold!)