“You cannot rush warming up.”
My high-school baseball coach glared at me as I hurriedly prepared to take the mound on a Saturday morning game. I had overslept and made it to the field just minutes before my coach would have assigned someone else to the mound. Now, I had less than thirty minutes before the game began and was only just beginning to play catch.
I was a starkly skinny kid — not particularly flexible or strong by conventional standards, but by my senior year, I was one of the best pitchers in Humboldt county. I could hurl a baseball upwards of 80mph with accuracy, and had a curveball that would fool our catchers just as often as it would fool the batters (which was often). It wasn’t uncommon for me to pitch complete games.
As I tossed around my first few throws of the day, my arm felt stiff and my legs felt uncoordinated. I could hardly throw a ball 50 feet, and if I attempted an 80mph fastball now, there was a tangible chance I would lose the arm. But this was how I felt for the first few throws of any day, and it was never a problem. After around an hour of playing catch with gradually increasing intensity, I would be ready to run a pain train through the opposing team’s lineup.
My coach’s words echoed in my skull. He was right, of course…if I continued to hurry through the process of warming up, my performance throughout the entire game would be negatively impacted. Fighting the hurried mood I had been in from the moment I awoke that morning, I took a few deep breaths and slowed my roll. I relaxed and slowed my movements, which I found would help me to become more aware of and improve my muscular coordination. I slowed and expanded my breathing, which helped slow my heart rate and therefore conserved energy that I would need later in the game (as well as giving my brain lots of delicious O2). I relaxed my mind, which helped encourage my body to relax and become more fluid in its motion.
I was still not properly warmed up when the game started, and my opponents scored once off of two hits in the first inning. By the second inning however, I was properly warmed up, and by the end of the game, my opponents still had only one run and two hits on the scorecard.
After my baseball career ended and my music career began, I discovered how much this same concept applies to playing an instrument. By taking the time to slowly and gradually warm up, you will be able to achieve significantly more on your instrument than if you had rushed or skipped the process. If you are a guitarist for instance, and step on stage without having taken the time warm up, you cannot and will not perform at your fullest potential. Your fingers may be slow and stiff because blood is not flowing through them at an optimal rate, or shaky because you’ve lost a bit of coordination since you last picked up your instrument. In order to play in time, you may use bad technique to compensate for your stiff fingers and shaky coordination. Your posture may be poor and your breathing shallow because your body is cold and tense. Your risk of injury goes through the roof too (how can you expect to throw an 80mph fastball without warming up??). Your strings might even go out of tune because the sudden friction and heat from your fingers relaxes the metal and change its pitch. But most importantly, if you had warmed up, you would be able to play much more strongly and confidently and would be able to enjoy the experience much more.
I truly believe that it’s worth it to take the time to properly warm up before your rehearsals, gigs, recording sessions, and practice sessions. Since I adopted this philosophy, my skills, career, and personal enjoyment have all greatly benefited. I know yours will too.
So then my strong young padawan, how do you effectively and efficiently warm up to play your instrument? Is it as simple as practicing a few rudiments or singing a few scales? This is what most people think and teach, but I would like to invite you to greatly expand your definition of what it means to warm up.
Warming up the body
Firstly, the “warm” part of warming up is no joke. When your body is cold, its muscles function with significantly less elasticity, strength, and dexterity (stick your hands in a bucket of ice water for twenty minutes and then try to tie your shoes if you don’t believe me). The reason for this decrease in muscular function is decreased blood flow. When your body is exposed to colder temperatures than you are accustomed to, blood retreats to the center of your body to preserve vital organs. When this happens, extremities such as the hands and lips lose blood and therefore lose functionality. This is especially detrimental to guitarists and woodwind players, but problematic for all musicians. Thus, by simple logic, if we increase blood flow, we will increase muscular function, which will naturally boost our ability to play our instrument. In a very literal sense, this is what it means to warm up.
“Okay great, so all I have to do is hit the sauna before a gig and I’ll be good to go!”
WOULDN’T IT BE NICE TO HAVE A SAUNA NEXT TO ALL YOUR GIGS.
It certainly would…because a sauna heats up and loosens up your whole body, not just the few little groups of muscles involved with playing your instrument.
This is a bit of a tangent, but an idea I really believe in and want to share with you. If you are a pianist, you play your instrument predominantly with your fingers, but would your fingers not be stronger and more dexterous if your shoulders were looser and could allow in more blood flow? If you are a singer, your vocal cords take most of the stress, but would your voice not be more resonant and powerful if you had a stronger core and a more flexible neck? As musicians, the muscular functionality of our entire bodies will affect our musical ability. Most people do not consider this, and doing so will put you miles ahead of other musicians.
Okay let’s get back on track. If you’re anything like me and don’t have 24/7 access to a sauna, the same body-warming effect is achievable anywhere, anytime through comfortable, relaxed physical exercise. Exercise boosts circulation: this is a stone-cold fact. If you warm up your body through relaxed exercise prior to playing your instrument, you will find immediate improvement. Jogging, bike-riding, yoga, or any similar aerobic exercise seems to be the most effective for this purpose. The key is to take my coach’s words to heart and don’t rush it. You will see wildly better results if you take it slow, consciously try to relax your mind and body, and gradually increase intensity as you go.
So, go out on a little jog (or a long one) before you sit down to play! Seriously, try it out. It feels excellent. Then, once you have boosted your body’s circulation, give special attention to those muscles involved with playing your specific instrument. If you are a drummer, these are your wrists and arms. If you’re a bassist, it is your wrists and fingers. Massage these muscles. Stretch them out and experiment with their movement. Do some exercises that specifically target these muscles (like arm circles and forearm curls) to further encourage blood flow. Now pick up your instrument and begin with slow, controlled exercises. The same concept applies again here - don’t rush it. Take your time and go through your scales or rudiments with relaxed and deliberate motions, gradually increasing in intensity.
If you follow this process (or a similar one adapted to your own needs/lifestyle) and properly warm up before your next gig, rehearsal, etc., you will become and be regarded as a better musician, no questions asked.
Warming up the mind
Just as the body can be warmed up, so can the mind.
I LOVE THAT THIS IS A THING. It’s so cool. More and more, scientists are discovering that the brain behaves like a muscle. It can be strengthened through exercise and will deteriorate in the absence of exercise. Why else did we struggle so much while first learning to play our instruments, but can play with so much more complexity and ease now? Our brains have become stronger. So if our brain is a muscle, then it is in our best interest to warm up our musical minds before taking the stage just like we would our body.
A fun and productive way I’ve found to do this is to learn something new on your instrument. I played a gig on drums with a latin band a while back, and in preparation, I spent a half hour learning how to play a groove called the “songo”, which is a freaky, highly syncopated groove with almost no practical application whatsoever. I didn’t use it once in the entire 4 hour gig, but found that my brain could more easily execute just about everything I did play during that time.
I encourage you to give this a try as well! Warming up the brain is a bit more abstract than warming up the body, simply because we as a species don’t understand the brain nearly as well as we do the body, but your brain will work faster, stronger, and more efficiently if it is warm.
One more point of interest before I let you go: when you warm up the body, it increases circulation to the brain! That means more brain power.
Now go, my friends. Stay warm and play with passion.