interview with Simon Fischer: Warming Up

December 8, 2011, 10:03 AM · Once again, the British violinist and pedagogue Simon Fischer is offering us violinists -- and violists -- a gem of a book to help our playing. This one, called Warming Up, basically offers a comprehensive warm up for both hands that takes about a half-hour.

Neither a scale book or etude book, this book contains exercises designed to help increase rapidity in fingers, widen their reach, improve left-finger accuracy, increase right-hand flexibility, straighten the bow, get a better sense of bowing soundpoints, improve coordination between the two hands, improve vibrato and improve double-stop intonation. Some exercises are for the right hand and others for the left; some involve playing and others do not. Unlike Fischer's other pedagogy books, Basics and Practice, which encourage leafing around and picking your exercise, this one leads the player through a routine -- one could simply read through the 23-page book, front-to-back, every day, and count on strengthening the hands and improving their abilities.

Simon Fischer and student

Simon was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule, teaching at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Guildhall School of Music; writing his regular column for The Strad magazine and giving recitals, to answer some questions from editor Laurie Niles about "Warming Up."

Laurie: I've enjoyed playing all the way through your "Warming Up" book, and even only doing it once, I can see how it would help promote a springiness in the fingers. Tell me, why is it important to warm up, in general? What happens if you don't warm up?

Simon: I think most people find that they play better after at least a few minutes of re-sensitizing themselves to the instrument, and getting the muscles moving and the blood flowing and so on. A simple example is when you play something like Schradieck from cold, as opposed to five or ten minutes later, when your fingers then work much faster and with less effort.

But everything finally comes back to how refined and efficient your technique is, and how in shape you are in general. When everything is working well, and you are on form and ‘in the groove’ with your playing, you may easily not need to warm up at all. You can simply pick up the instrument for the first time in a day and immediately feel as good as when you played your last notes on it the day before. Or like Glenn Gould, you may need merely to soak your hands in hot water for five minutes to quickly get back to 100 percent.

But if your technique is still developing, or if you often need to get back into shape, what’s great is to be able to get your sound back, your intonation, your vibrato, your accurate shifting and so on, as quickly as possible. As the years have gone by, I have been able to refine the process of boosting all the different areas of playing, so that I have been able to get it all done in less and less time. And the "Warming Up" book is the natural end result of the stripping-down process, so that in just 30-40 minutes you can cover all the essential areas, feel all of your playing powered up, and then be in fantastic shape to get on with whatever else it is you want to play.

By the way, I know perfectly well that there are plenty who turn their nose up at ‘exercises,’ and even scoff at the thought of doing them; and they will often cite Pablo Casals and hold him up as an example of a pure musician rather than a mere cellist; and yet Casals himself stated that he worked on sound – on open strings – for hours each day! (I don’t like practicing open strings because they ring too easily, but that’s another matter.)

Laurie: Here you present many exercises, why not just warm up with my current piece? Or Bach? Or Kreutzer?

Simon: Well, you can, but the point about the "Warming Up" book is that it touches on all the important areas all at once, in the shortest space of time. Any study is probably going to focus on a particular aspect. But the simple exercises in "Warming Up" sort of get into the innards of your contact with the instrument. Exact degrees of left finger pressure, flexibility exercises for the right fingers, and so on. This is a different order of things to actually playing anything properly.
I use all kinds of different materials, and would urge anyone else to do the same. For example, I love playing the first few pages of Schradieck (you can even make them sound like a good piece of music when you play them without stopping and with musical shaping), I love the Key Bowing Patterns in Basics, which cover every bowing pattern you can expect to meet, without needing to drown in the ocean of Sevcik. I love exercises by Dancla, little miniatures which one plays at different speeds with the metronome and try to play perfectly, and so on.

But as I mentioned earlier, there is a direct correlation between how good and ‘efficient’ your technique is, and how much you need to warm up. I use that word ‘efficient’ because Dorothy DeLay once said to me, ‘Don’t think in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in violin technique (I was forever asking questions along those lines); better to think more of ‘more efficient’ or ‘less efficient’ ways of doing things.’

What she meant was, for example, if you drop your left fingers partly with a movement of the entire hand, this is not ‘bad’ as such, but a less efficient way of getting the fingers down on the string than if you move only the fingers from the base joint, the rest of the hand keeping still.
The crucial point is that warming-up exercises, and technique-building exercises, are really one and the same thing. Every time you do an exercise to warm up you are actually working on your basic technique – making it ever more focussed, refined and efficient. For example, the first exercise in "Warming Up" consists of tapping exercises designed to force the fingers to move from the base joints.

Then, the more you do such things, the less you need to do them because your starting point is higher and higher all the time. Finally you reach the stage where you really don’t have to warm up – you have so much ‘money in the bank’ that you need to do the technical work-out in "Warming Up" only occasionally.

Laurie: How long does your warm up take?

Simon: Timings for the exercises are given throughout the book, most coming in at 30 seconds to a couple of minutes. Even I can open the book at the two pages of trill exercises and think, ‘Oh no, do I really have to do this?!’, but then when I see that each one takes only 30 seconds I immediately have a feeling of ‘Okay, well I can handle that!’. And then another 30 seconds: okay, I can do that! And so on.

The total, if you play straight through from beginning to end – so that you cover all the essential areas and feel ready to tackle anything at the end of it – is 36 minutes. When I was first playing it from cover to cover I couldn’t do it in less than 40 minutes. The last time I did it, about a month ago, I was pleased to find that I completed it in exactly 30 minutes (all timed with a stop-watch).
But you can take less time over it, if time is limited, by doing only a few bars of each exercise, and get through the whole lot in 10 minutes or less.

Laurie: What gave you the idea to do this book?

Simon: I had the idea for this book one day while I was warming up after a week in which I had not had much chance to play. It occurred to me that whenever I practiced like this – i.e. a full-blown work-out – I usually covered the same areas of technique, and used the same types of exercises or approaches, in basically the same sorts of ways.

I realized that over the years, I had settled into a routine for thorough warming up where I had filtered out, from all the things I knew I could do, everything except just these particular things that I actually did do. So the "Warming Up" book needed only to be written down, since in effect I had already been using it for years but without having printed it out.

But I never used to do the soundpoint practice as it is presented in "Warming Up," and in the first draft of the book I simply wrote out the five chief tone exercises in their basic format (which was what I played myself). But then I was curious to see if there was a way of combining them so that you could get the same result but in less time.

As it turns out, I love the tone sequence in "Warming Up" – you get to play all the tone exercises, on all soundpoints, and including martelé, spiccato and double stops, on all strings, in just six minutes from start to finish! I wish I had worked that one out years ago.

Laurie: Are any of the exercises from Dounis, or other oldies but goodies?

Simon: Flesch and Dounis, and others, have written out tapping exercises, although the ones in "Warming Up" are slightly different, since they are an amalgamation of different exercises. Lots of the exercises are completely my own, even if based on age-old principles and practices so that it is not possible to really call them your own invention. And many really are completely new.
When it comes to Dounis, I have always recommended the trilly shifting exercises that are in The Artists Technique. I have said to an uncountable number of students over the years that it is worth paying for the whole book just to have that one section, and maybe some of the other shifting exercises in it.

But I have always thought that great care must be taken doing the stretchy left-hand Dounis exercises, lest they become ‘the fast lane on the freeway to Tendonitis City’. They are very clever, and if you are careful and have expert guidance, and have the patience to master them, I am sure they are very effective. But in contrast, all the exercises in "Warming Up" are extremely user-friendly yet they still very much do the trick.

The ‘widening at the base joints’ exercises are the only ones that come close to being strenuous; but compared to Dounis they are nothing, and anyway they take only 30 seconds and you are done.

Laurie: For what level player is this book of warm-ups intended?

Simon: Anyone from sub-intermediate level up to concert soloist. At the less advanced levels, so long as you can basically sort of bow parallel to the bridge, you could do most if not all of the book. Perhaps the little intonation exercises go a bit high if you have not gone up there before, but you can always miss out the ones you don’t like the look of.

The vibrato exercises are strikingly effective. One professional chamber music player friend of mine who has been doing these exercises said recently that his vibrato had so changed that colleagues who knew his playing had commented on the change and improvement. So the exercises are great for the top end; but for players who want to develop their vibrato I can’t recommend anything better than this short, five-minute sequence.

Laurie: We've all heard about Schumann damaging his finger from over-exercise, in attempt to strengthen it. How do you prevent injury, when doing exercises?

Simon: I can only think of it as a matter of being aware and sensitive to your body, and being sensible. Never force. Never overdo. If one dose of medicine is good for you, it doesn’t mean that if you drink the whole bottle it’ll cure you. It might even finish you off forever.

Laurie: How much does this book cost and what is the proper link to buy it?

Simon: £14 from You can also buy it in other currencies, such as U.S. dollars, from my website.

Laurie: There was only one exercise I did not feel like I fully understood, and it was "Feeling the give of the hair and the wood." The concept makes sense, but I wasn't sure whether this was something I was to impose, or if I was to just feel the way the wood-hair balance is at those areas in the bow. Can you clarify that one thing for me?

Simon: This is a really great thing to apply, and it completely changes your use of the bow in the upper half.

The whole thing is that when you play near to the frog, the hair gives, and you can find a feeling of playing into the hair. But when you play near to the point, the hair remains rigid and the give is in the wood in the middle of the bow – so playing in the upper half, rather than gauging the feel of the hair of the bow in the string, instead you sink into the wood of the bow. It changes everything when you do that, and you can find these different sensations of give in the hair and the wood in everything you play.

This exercise is a good example of the difference between merely playing a study to warm up, and using the exercises in "Warming Up." Dorothy DeLay used to call the tone exercises ‘sensitization exercises’ – they sensitize you to the feeling of the bow in the string, and the fingers on the bow, and so on. In the same way, most of the exercises in "Warming Up" are sensitization exercises, and this one – ‘Feeling the give of the hair and the wood’ – is a prime example. It takes only seconds to do, and immediately restores your awareness of, and sensitivity to, this feature of tone production and bowing.

Poor cellists can feel almost none of this give in their thick bows, and as for bass players – forget it. We violinists (and violists, though to an ever-so-slightly lesser extent) have the best bows in the business, when it comes to these sensitive differences between playing in one part of the bow or another.

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December 10, 2011 at 01:45 AM · how does Simon Fischer's book compares to

Agopian Edmond's - The No Time To Practice Technique Companion: Technique Essentials in About 30 Min?

December 12, 2011 at 12:07 AM · Excellent interview. Sometimes I feel like the warm up is the most beneficial part of my practice time.

December 13, 2011 at 04:18 AM · When does this book come to the United States? So no one has to pay as much for shipping?

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