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Rethinking warming-up

January 13, 2010 at 10:29 PM


Last year I used biking as my main form of exercise and managed to push myself to quite a high level of fitness.  However, I had this vague feeling after a certain time that I was sustaining rather than advancing past a certain point.   I noticed that although I could run up a lot of stairs I was still slightly winded at the top.   After switching to Aikido as my main form of exercise I was slightly amazed to find that this windedness (?) disappeared.  Of course Aikido is an energetic form of exercise but as a beginner I was only practicing six basic stances which involved shifting weight distribution and turning the body.   I asked my doctor/healer friend why this should have such a powerful stimulus on the cardio system and he told me that it the effect of mildly stressing aforesaid system while stressing the body in a variety of positions can be much more powerful than continuous motion in only one position.   I find this notion intriguing and to my mind it does relate to a lovely little story Mr. Haslop told against himself in one of his blogs. Having traveled a long way to study with Milstein he was always concerned with warming up until Milstein said to him `Why do you have to warm up? The violin is played with the mind.` (I think I have that about right…)
This is interesting because even if one is not in an utterly freezing room or has just parachuted in from the Arctic it is still widely assumed that some kind of warm up is necessary. Indeed I have written a much longer blog about the various aspects of warm up that are quite extensive.   So was Milstein just in a crazy minority or making some kind of deeper point?   To answer this question one might ask what the man himself did first and actually this is a matter of record.  In his `Way They Play` interview Applebaum notes that the great man uses a series of chords/chordal exercises to warm up.  So in fact he does (warm up) so where do we take this thread?
Well, someone said to me the other day `I thought warming up was basically playing some fast stuff,` IE scale type exercises or Kreutzer 11 or whatever.   On the surface this seems quite sensible but actually I have found as I get older that I can run through these kind of routines and yes, my fingers do get faster and looser but they don’t really –warm up.- Whereas, if I use an exercise like the Geminiani chord positions (aflat, f, d,f and the reverse) without bow in various rhythms and more importantly with various fingers raising or lowering in opposition my hands become remarkably warm within seconds.  And the crucial thing is I am not actually using very fast finger action. On the contrary, I am working with incredible mental intensity to guide my fingers at somewhat slow speeds , feeling the degree the string is being depressed or is raising the fingers.   I am so focused I do not allow any tension, small twitches or slightly off place fingertips to occur. It has t be perfect technique from the beginning.
What the difference is between the two is that I have been playing scales and fast studies for so many years they are essentially automatic.  This does not mean they are no value. On the contrary they are essential, but they are of –less- value for warming up than one might think.  What Milstein was, in my opinion, trying to tell Mr. Haslop was that where the mind goes the blood and energy will quickly follow, something that  becomes increasingly obvious as one gets older and sheer mechanical work becomes les sand less relevant, although it has its place.
The parallel with Aikido is obvious to me.  One is creating an on of pumping action with changes in weight distribution and just maybe for some people this is a more useful way of warming up than desperately running through scales with bow arm largely unprepared in a freezing room 3 minutes and 27 seconds before you have to play the Tchaikovsky concerto for a third chair audition with the Miami Philharmonic.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on January 14, 2010 at 1:21 AM

I've gotten into the habit of warming up with a scale, any key, starting very slowly, getting my hand to go from keyboard (of the computer type) position to fingerboard position.  I never do end up playing the scale more than 4-6 notes per bow in my warm-up.  It is more a matter of letting the stresses of the day fall away and getting into music-mode.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on January 14, 2010 at 1:40 AM

Very true, so I'm not this crazy with my slow bows listening to the ring of my violin.    With my chronic cold hands, I can't start with fast scales contrarely to many many violinists anyway. It is surely not for nothing people like Oistrakh used to warm up with Mozart at a slow speed with no vibratos...

But I might not be the good one to talk about this, just had a 1:30 lesson with fast things and my hands were still freezing at the end despite any attempt to warm them up!!!   I would be better as an arctic therapist of some sort ; ) I could bring back the dead...


"Why do you have to warm up? The violin is played with the mind"  I agree "in theory", but "in practice" just a few can really play well with no warm up. those who have naturally warm and flexible hands...   Toscha Siebel still aknowledge that the "good god" must give good hands to an aspiring violinist...

From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 14, 2010 at 4:21 AM

Galamian acceleration scales work great for me, but I start them quite slow, half notes on every note, letting it all ring through me, then the succession, up to 24 to a bow.

From John Cadd
Posted on January 14, 2010 at 10:31 AM

I will guess that not many players on this site have worked in the cold store in a chicken factory. So stand by for for some solid advice. I found that if you go into the cold store and get yourself cold for five minutes then come out again for a short break, your circulation will kick in very quickly .  After that you will be nice and warm for the rest of the 8 hours work.     Don`t forget the mittens.      There was occasional light relief when we playfully cling filmed the laziest worker to a stationary conveyor belt while we went for a teabreak.  Chilly!

If you read the Ivan Denisovitch story by Solzienitzin (?) , the guard in the Soviet labour camp tells you the same thing. Nice to know I`m on the same wavelength as a Soviet Labour camp guard.  So ----Cold down ---then ---Warm up.

From Bart Meijer
Posted on January 14, 2010 at 12:36 PM


Buri, it has been many times that I read your contributions and thought "Yes! Yes! Yes!" without posting anything. So: Yes! Yes! Yes!

And, John, clearing up snow near one's house is a good way to warm up, too. I can try that, now, because it is cold in the Netherlands: minus 5 Centigrade (Emily, don't laugh!)



From Márcio Brunelli
Posted on January 14, 2010 at 1:00 PM


Buri, thank you for posting but I would like to ask you something that may not be related to this discussion. Do you think aikido is a good physical exercise for violinists ? I am only asking because I am very interested in this martial art, however I have a cousin who practises aikido and he is always with some physical problem (broken arm,..) because of the aikido.


From Christopher Ciampoli
Posted on January 14, 2010 at 4:13 PM

Well, I may have the strangest opinion of anyone here so I'll present it for sake of contrast.

I just don't believe in warming up. It started when people say they use scales to warm-up, but I couldn't do that because scales require too much concentration for me to effectively play well at the beginning of practicing - and then I realized my ego became too involved in trying to micro-manage things and it was just downhill. And then there are the people who say we have to physically warm-up. I;m not actually totally sold on this idea. You don't warm up your ankle and calf to drive a car, or warm-up your hand to write an essay. You don't see a cheetah warming up before he chases the gazelle. Your body knows what to do with these things, because you've been exposed to them for so long. This leads me to believe we as animals have the intention of being able to start without much preparation.  I believe it is the same way with an instrument. You don't consciously think of every aspect of playing once you are at an advanced level - your body just knows. So, "warming-up" involves too much of the ego for me. I prefer to feel my way around with what my mind says it can focus on and wants to work on. Someone who writes calligraphy is able to write beautiful calligraphy at the drop of a hat. Likewise I believe someone who plays beautiful violin is also able to do so at the drop of a hat. As far as integrating the mental process, I use my intuition and "jus tknow" when I'm able to start practicing and when I have to stop. This results in me practicing for - generally - no more than half an hour at a time, because I soon as I know I lose focus, I stop.

There is the argument of evidence that muscles get warmer, and increased bloodflow. Yes it's true, but you still don't need to warm up your ankle to do the fine control of the gas pedal, do you?

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on January 14, 2010 at 6:44 PM

Buri, I think I remember that you once wrote that one of the purposes of warming up should be to start connecting with your current feelings.  At the beginning of each lesson, I tell my students to start with something relatively easy that they like.  In part, this should reduce the stress inherent in playing for a teacher.  William Starr, one of Suzuki's disciples who spent years in Japan, advocated the use of some deep relaxation technique before starting to play.  My yoga teacher often starts the class by having us make the transition from the hustle-bustle of the day to the state of mindful relaxation.  I think there are strong parallels in starting a violin practice session.  I generally start my practice sessions with scales partly to get my body warmed up, like stretching and moving slowly before beginning to run.  However, there is some degree of mental warming up, entering a music-focussed state, involved, too.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on January 15, 2010 at 4:16 AM



>but I would like to ask you something that may not be related to this discussion. Do you think aikido is a good physical exercise for violinists ? I am only asking because I am very interested in this martial art, however I have a cousin who practises aikido and he is always with some physical problem (broken arm,..) because of the aikido.

It`s a good question.   I thinkk it depends very much on the dojo and the people who run it.  For example,  I started at a dojo 15 years ago and a selfish black belt (shodan only) threw me in my second lesosn so I broke my thumb and collar bone.   That ended my confidenc ein this art for many years.   Where I am training now is one of teh most highly rated clubs in Japan, but it is done unpaid  for sheer love (honestly).   The level is incredibly high and as a beginner I have been taught one on one by a 5th dan for a long time.  Basically they would not let me out onto the mats with other people until I was sufficiently competent in basic techniques to not hurt myself or other people.   This is also related to the style in question (Yoshinkan) which is much more sytematic and structured than other styles (not saying better).  There is a very clear syllabus and although the training is extremely rigorous and for me,  often complete agony, ther eis no pressure to do anything you can`T and they are very strict about holding people back so they don`t get hurt.  Other styles of Aikido tend to teach more top down i approach and , just in my opinion this may increase the risk beyond what is acceptable for someone who plays the violin for a living in spite of the awesome benifits of practicing this art.  One the whole I would say it is approached with caution and circumspection. On the other hand,  if your cousin is frequentloy injured then Aikido is not the problem- the dojo is.

If you wnat a really safe and health benificla martial art then do T`ai Chi Chuan. This is fairly standard for musicians.  Having done it seriously for many years I can tell you that close rto its origins it is actually much more a -very- hard core fighting art and one can get hurt but this is not the case in western countires.

Karate is a perfectly good option and Midori Goto has a black belkt although I don`t know what rank. It really annoys me when a western writer states `such and such a person has a black belt.`  The first level black belt is essentially meaningless. It is just an opening in what understanding the art involves, nothing more.   However Karate is a good one.  Judo is a no-no.



From Márcio Brunelli
Posted on January 15, 2010 at 11:09 AM



Thank you for your suggestions. I will search if there are Tai Chi Chuan classes here in my city.





From Mendy Smith
Posted on January 16, 2010 at 1:41 AM


Buri - is it my imagination or is your spelling/typing getting better?


From Ronald Mutchnik
Posted on January 16, 2010 at 2:22 AM

I have yet a different warm-up routine based partially on exercises I was taught by an Alexander Technique teacher. Starting with the back on the floor we rocked the body gently forward towards the feet to create the characteristic curve in the small of the back then backwards toward the head to flatten the back so it was basically against the floor. There was also a pelvic lift that was done, and a way of getting up off the floor from the side and using the leg muscles to come to a standing position. From there, we rotated around our hips, did circles with the arms, shoulder taps with crisscrossed arms, and gradually worked our way up to our head and neck. We would use the part of the neck just at the base of the brain to move left and right or up and down. There was no thrusting of the head back or pushing the head down such that the neckline lost its curve. In addition, there were finger flicks, and tapping exercises and rubbing of knuckles which quickly got the hands and fingers feeling quick, light, and full of energy. Once used to the routine it only takes a few minutes and I've used it with my students to salutary effect before recitals.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 16, 2010 at 1:52 PM

 I usually have to literally warm up my fingers by running them under warm water or putting them on the back of my neck or wearing velvet gloves or something because I am prone to cold hands. But playing fast passages, or fast scales, starting with cold fingers, to "warm up" has never worked for me. My fingers just remain cold and clumsy and then I play poorly--worse than I know I can--and get discouraged. 

Once my hands are literally warm (or while I'm warming them), what I need to do is warm up the mind and ear--think about the "landscape" of the piece I'm going to play, remind myself of the key, and key changes, of where the hard parts are so that I'm not surprised (again) when I come upon them later.  

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