Warming up without the violin

May 17, 2011 at 04:18 PM ·

Many times I find myself in a situation where I have to perform without physically warming up on the violin.  I may be last in a masterclass, or there might be a different chamber group on stage before my turn to perform and the conditions of the hall may not allow me to warm up on the violin.  How do you warm up your hands before going on stage?

Replies (21)

May 17, 2011 at 05:03 PM ·

Firstly, I recommend you to avoid crearting any dependence on warming up. The problem is just in your mind, not in your hands (provided you are not going to play a concert at 05:30 just after getting up :-)

May 17, 2011 at 07:01 PM ·

I would respectfully disagree.  As an adult who has had arthritis for quite some time, sitting idle for an hour or so and then being expected to suddenly jump up and play at an audition or performance can be one of the worst things (let alone most painful) you can do.  If you watch an orchestra or symphony, they don't just sit for 30 minutes or so before their performance - they warm up.  I know our orchestra does.

I have, in the past, sat with gloves on my hands and moved my fingers a bit while waiting.  But that is still a poor substitute for actually warming up on your instrument.

---Ann Marie

May 17, 2011 at 08:04 PM ·

Hi Marina,

I find that the only times I need to warm up are when my fingertips are dry and/or my muscles are fatigued and tight from too much playing/lack of recovery.

After a long period of tweaking alignment and refining quality of motion (which consists mostly of improving finger independence,  getting rid of excess pressure and learning to balance the fingers, which are interrelated) I discovered that I don't really need any special preparation to play. So you might want to start there.

For dry skin, I've cut refined seed oils (omega-6) from my diet; that seems to have made the biggest difference (if you do eat oils, supplement with omega-3, e.g. from Cod liver oil, to balance omega-6s to 3s; recommended ratio is all over the map, anywhere from 1:1 to 10:1, omega-6:omega-3, so I just cut it out to keep it simple; also taking butter oil from grass fed cows is great for the skin although it can get expensive.) Contrary to received wisdom, I found that washing hands with warm water hurts more than helps as it dries out my finger pads. Instead I've been washing my hands with cold water (I've also tried soaking in ice water) and allowing the hunter's reflex to kick in, a much more effective way to increase circulation, and my skin doesn't dry out. 

If my muscles are fatigued, I'll do a range of motion routine, before and after playing, which is simply moving all relevant joints through their full range of motion, gently and without straining. You could do ROM exercises for your fingers/wrist with your fiddle held like a guitar with silent tapping, chromatic, shifting, double stop, finger independence, and velocity exercises.

Lastly, you might want to read some sports psychology books, such as Charles Garfield's Peak Performance, or Shane Murphy's The Achievement Zone. Don Greene has adapted similar techniques for musicians in Performance Success. Voluntary relaxation has been used in sports psychology for at least 50/60 years, but has been practiced in the East for thousands. Drawing from meditation, sports psychologists teach skills like deep breathing, muscle relaxation, centering, visualization, autogenic training, affirmations and/or cue words, which can help keep your body limber and your mind calm while you wait. 

Some research suggests that imagining (visualizing) is as good as actual practicing, so you might try deep breathing along with detailed visualizing (some call it imaging) of what you're about to perform.

Hope it helps,


May 17, 2011 at 08:19 PM ·

Whether or not I can do as much pre-performance warm-up as I'd like, I make sure of at least one full warm-up earlier in the same day -- and then a chance to really dig into the repertoire itself.

FWIW, my initial basic warm-up for the day takes 20-25 minutes.  Beyond that, I'll do scales, shifts, double-stops, and some repertoire.  Then, in performing, I double-check that the instrument is well tuned and that I have the right conditions -- comfortable outfit and adequate heat and humidity.  Just a few basic left-hand finger exercises right before playing -- maybe only a minute of these, even without the bow if necessary -- this paves the way for me.

I can't emphasize enough the value of low-intensity aerobic exercise.  A 20-minute walk will boost my core temperature and keep it up for a long time.  In winter, this makes a noticeable positive difference for me in starting a practice session or performance.

May 17, 2011 at 09:17 PM ·

I'm a strong believer in  physically warming-up, which does not contradict the helpfulness of also mentally warming-up. I've never seen an olympic athlete not warm-up. We're athletes too, as well as artists. Such greats as Heifetz and Rosand were/are big believers in warming-up.  Before I actually play, if I'm beginning my daily practice or if many hours have intervined, I do some stretching and arm circles, etc.

But what if circumstances militate against regular warming-up on your instrument? If you're back-stage, perhaps you could use a practice mute and practice sotto-voce on top of that. If you have to be in the hall, you could try some silent excersises  - various finger patterns, and indeed your actual piece on the fingerboard, with your bow just above the string. Also various bow motions w.o. the violin.

May 18, 2011 at 01:35 AM ·


since Raphael has introduce dthe sports analogy (quite rightly) I would like to adda caveat of sorts.   The difference between `warming up` and Stretching` is very significant in both arenas.  Warming up is more to od with temeperature and blood circulation.  Stretching is ,  well,  stretching. Thus one can actually be very cold and stretch. This is a bad idea.  One should stretch when one is warm, not cold.   Thus warmoing up suggest some kind of cardio vascular movement,  nothing too energetic,  and stretching is the procedur ethat follows.  There is also quite a lot of evidence suggesting thta stretching after physical activity is more importnat than before although people are divide don this and I would incline to both.

I also find warming up te mind and emotions importnat. many moons ago I wrote a substantial blo0g on this subject.  if you search through `buris ` blogs that are buried deep on this site you might find it. I will look later,  after Ihave warmed up



May 18, 2011 at 03:08 AM ·

Yes, Buri is right. I was just reviewing these concepts in the excellent writings of Janet Horvath. She wrote a wonderful and very extensive book called Playing (less) Hurt. I can't recommend it highly enough. She also wrote a short article in the April issue of The Strad called "Holding Back the Years".

May 18, 2011 at 03:54 AM ·

See these articles by Paul Ingraham:

Quite a Stretch

"Stretching research clearly shows that a stretching habit isn’t good for warmup, injury prevention, preventing or treating muscle soreness, enhancing athletic performance … or even flexibility!" ~P. I. 


Five Ways To Prevent Sports Injuries: Get warm, co-ordinated, relaxed, smart and mobilized!

Here's FIFA's warm up routine. I think it's a bit of a stretch to say that musicians are athletes, but we can certainly infer from their research. 


Anne Marie, if you find wearing gloves helpful, you might also like wearing arm-warmers, since most of the muscles we use to move our fingers are in the forearms. And after the gloves come off, you can keep the arm-warmers on; when you have to sit around or play in a cold room, nothing keeps the hands more toasty :)


May 18, 2011 at 04:30 AM ·

One thing that I find helps me is warmth. Handwarmers, washing my hands in warm water, etc. can substitute somewhat for a warmup. That said, I I try to make certain I also flex or stretch my upper arms and shoulders; when I haven't moved much, I find I hold a lot of tension in that area, which affects my playing quite a bit. Any kind of motion helps dissipate the tension

May 18, 2011 at 11:28 AM ·

Thank you Jeewon for your detailed response.  I hadn't intended the subject to reach such a philosophical debate however I'm not surprised that some dispute has come into play.  Regardless of whether warm up is philosophically needed I find that the older I get the more I need to warm up before I play for 2 reasons:  Firstly because I have an old tendonitis injury I'm keeping at bay and secondly because I play better if I am warmed up.  It's as simple as that.

When I developed tendonitis years ago I sought out a sports medicine md.  He told me I had tennis elbow in my left arm and after recovery I was advised to warm up and stretch before and after playing, something I never took very seriously in the past.  On a daily basis this works well for me but in strenuous circumstances where I am not able to warm up before a performance it is a concern.  I have been doing stretching but never really thought that I should get my circulation moving aerobically before I do so.  It makes perfect sense so thank you for that tip I will use it.

May 18, 2011 at 01:00 PM ·

You're welcome Marina. Actually, I think it was Buri who recommended warming up before stretching. I linked to a site by massage therapist and science writer, Paul Ingraham, who says latest research suggests stretching doesn't do much good for anything (except that it feels good.)

If your tennis elbow is bothering you still, I would highly recommend perusing saveyourself.ca. There are tons of free articles as well as 8 ebooks for sale. Here's an article about unstretchable muscles. 
N.B. the supinator is one of the unstretchables. 
Why it can't be stretched: "This muscle rotates the forearm to turn the palm upward (supinating). Turning the other way (pronating) to stretch, the radius simply collides with the ulna."
Why it's too bad: "Although an obscure muscle, the supinator is nevertheless a key player in lots of wrist pain (often including carpal tunnel syndrome), tennis elbow, and golfer’s elbow." 
Tennis elbow is common for us because we hold our left forearm supinated as we play. I had tennis elbow (from actually playing tennis -- I'm a lefty :) which would flare up on the fiddle years after I stopped playing tennis. A few years ago I read about various treatments and decided on a weight lifting exercise. I can't find the article right now, but if I remember correctly, the author distinguished between tendinitis and tendinosis. Here's an eHow article about the distinction. The exercise prescribed using very light weights starting with a range of motion that used the affected tendon but wasn't painful (with very high reps.: 15-20) and gradually, over time, moving into the ROM that causes pain. You'll probably want to consult an expert if you decide to do this, but I think I did bicep curls, starting with hammer curls and moving into supinated curls. As I understand it, the reason tendons heal so slowly is that there aren't many blood vessels surrounding them. So to speed recovery, you want to increase blood flow in the affected area, i.e. you need to exercise it. Also, tendons degenerate with age, but much more so with lack of exercise and inadequate protein in the diet. Concerning diet, you probably want to avoid foods that cause chronic inflammation as well (refined sugars, HFCS, flour, seed oil.)  
Coming back to Paul Ingraham, another approach to tendon, muscle and fascia problems is trigger point therapy, ROM awareness and mobility exercises. Hope your elbow resolves itself soon!

May 18, 2011 at 01:53 PM ·

 Depending on how literal we want or don't want to be, we can find the musician-as-athlete image useful or not. Obviously we don't throw or hit balls, score goals, etc. But here is a typical definition I found of "athlete" : "a person possesing the natural or acquried traits, such as strength, agility and endurance that are necessary for physical excersise or sports." No wonder Erick Friedman called Heifetz "a great athlete." Here's a book I just came across "THe Musician - a High Level Athlete" by Coralie Cousin And this: 

Did you realize that as a musician you are a professional athlete? Consider how much muscle activity goes into practicing and performing your music. How many hours per day do you use your arms and hands to play music? You must train your body to achieve this high level of activity just as if you were training for the Olympic Games. If you are serious about your profession, then become serious about your body. You can only play as well as your body is able. Many musicians develop painful repetitive strain injuries simply because their bodies were not conditioned enough to put in the many hours of strenuous muscular activity. Begin your exercise program today. You will not only see a change in your health, but also your attitude, your vitality, your happiness, and your music playing. - from The Musician's Guide to health and Wellness by Dr. Tim Jameson

I never did much in sports, but I studied martial arts off and on as a young man for about 8 years. While there were obvious differences, there were analogous aspects as well. If we think more in these terms rather than just as idealized artists who happen to be moving our fingers and then unaccoutably get pain, we are more likely to avail ourselves of the excellent resources cited by Jeewon, myself and others here and elsewhere.

May 18, 2011 at 04:39 PM ·

Hi Raphael,

Point well taken. There certainly are many comparisons to be made, especially pertaining to neuromuscular control.
I guess I hesitate to fully endorse the comparison simply because it implies that being an athlete is something musicians should aspire to -- it's almost as if we find validation by association; but I suppose analogously, athletes are just as much musicians in their need for rhythmic motion, timing, (maybe we can even speak of frequency of individuals' bodies, fine tuned, or 'in tune' -- too much?), and great athletes are certainly described as having turned their skills into an art. I like Bruce Lee's tag line, "The Art of Expressing the Human Body" which can encompass all activities that involve moving.
But for me, the dividing line is intensity and specificity. On the surface it might seem like nit-picking, but I think blurring the line only serves to maintain the status quo. 
It wasn't that long ago when a baseball player did nothing but play baseball; tennis players spent all their training on the court. Even in athletics, weight training and sport-specific high intensity training is a fairly recent phenomenon, based on results and research. But it seems that much of the literature for musicians is based on out-dated research and is sanctioned by calling what we do athletic. It's actually not very athletic if you look at the power output and the heart rates involved. What it is is repetitive and detailed, involving many fine muscles, coordinated with larger ones, possibly without the benefit of an elevated heart rate. I have a suspicion, reading between the lines, that a lot of injury happens because of a lack of coordination, loss of range of motion (e.g. scapular motion and coordination with arms), and overuse related to underuse elsewhere, but I haven't come across any solid research to back it up. I wonder if the lack of specific research is connected to subsuming musical activity under other activities. The fact is that muscles and tendons atrophy if we are sedentary as we age; and yet, while endorsing the nominal association with athletics, the type of exercise that would prevent or at least slow down such atrophy has been traditionally contraindicated.  Just as athletes have benefited from high intensity weight training and specific exercises, I suspect musicians would also.
I look forward to reading the books you recommended. I've been meaning to read Janet Horvath's book for a while now.

May 18, 2011 at 06:44 PM ·

I no longer suffer any pain from my past injury but I do try to be careful not to inflame that old injury again.  If we as musicians are regularly using muscles to play the violin then we should be responsible for maintaining the health and fluidity of those muscles.  It's only common sense.  It's not always possible to spend 30minutes warming up your hands to play, nor should that be necessary, but some thought must be given to warming up the muslces and loosening up the tendons that are about to play the violin.

May 19, 2011 at 11:42 AM ·

Glad to hear you no longer have pain from your old injury, Marina. Hope it has healed for good! I guess I wasn't clear before, but with the light weight training with high reps. regimen I mentioned, my elbow has healed completely. It hasn't bothered me since. I also wanted to add that I'm not against warmups. But I do think that, for violin playing, it's probably more important as a mental exercise than physical, an aspect that Buri introduced earlier. Whereas in soccer, without proper warmup, injury is possible, even likely, I'm not convinced that violinists have a higher chance of injury from lack of physical warmup (I wish there were studies done to verify either way.) 

Now one might wonder, what's the big deal, why be so argumentative. Well on the one hand, in response to your original question, it'd be great to be able to warm up with 10 mins. of deep breathing, visualization and autogenic suggestions and feel just as ready to play as if you'd warmed up for 30 mins. of actual scale and apreggio practice, particularly for the context you described. On the other, if it's actually not very effective at preventing injury, then many of us who've been taught certain warmup routines and rely on them may develop a false sense of security and become complacent about real issues that cause injury. I've seen enough evidence to believe that static stretching is one of those red herrings.


May 19, 2011 at 01:56 PM ·

This post is not intended to Marina, I am going to say it in general to all who have problem with warming up.

The more you need to be warmed up (the longer time you need for warming up) the more urgently you may need to reasses your "technique".

Now I am not sure about the suitability of the English term "technique". I would like to express it rather by "playing approach", "playing style" or so. Recently I spent a lot of time disscussing it by the translator who translated my book and with other friends. In our language a new term appeared recently - "playing apparatus" which is not easy to translate. However it includes not only positions of the arms and their movements but also the feelings of the player. This is why i like it.

Thus I believe you feel what I am going to say. The more relaxed and efficient is your play, the less you need of any warming up. For example, if one learn how to relax ( and lay) the right arm on the string (via the bow), one will be even not able to utilize the whole weight of right arm mostly, thus any additional pressure is our of question. The same applies for the "holding" of violin, neck, and also a left arm "technique". Thus I find any comparison with any athlete not very appropriate.

I have to say, that I grow in such enviroment too. My first teachers was Sevcik believers, I was recommended to warm up with scales, technical excercises an so on. I really did it and I was really not able to play without a long warming up at all.

Later I realized that it was a nonsense. I obtained a new knowldege, changed the approach and changed my "technique". Suddenly I did not need to practice so many hours daily and also did not need to warm up actually.

If you learn how to play natural way and relaxed, you just need to retain the feeling, when you in an amazing condidion at the end of your playing or practising session. And you just need to remember the feeling next morning. Very simple. It really works.


May 20, 2011 at 03:04 AM ·

Everybody is different, both physically and psychologically, and there are elements of both in this issue and we have to learn by experiment and experience what works best for us. This also touches on a larger issue of how best to practice, generally. There are great players who go the very traditional route of scales, excersises and etudes prior to any  work on repertoire. There are those who feel that they can get all the technique necessary with repertoire alone. I'm more in the first category - except that I don't believe in regular etude practice once you've achieved a high level of advancement. They are great at the building stage, but once you're on a high plateau, I feel that they are often more meandering than necessary for a busy professional. Some Bach movements and many orchestral excerpts make great etudes - w.o. precluding musicality, and kill two birds with one stone. That said, I will ocassionally prescribe an etude for myself.

What I do find extremely helpful is the system of excersises and scales that I put together for myself a long time ago, with some ocasional tweaking. Some I've taken from various sources, and some I've made up entirely myself. But the whole system, with the order and sequence is my own. I call it "Quintessential Violin Technique" or "QVT". It's in the general tradtition of such works as the Flesch Urstudien and the Dounis Daily Dozen. But my approach is more extensive and at the same time, I feel more 'muscle friendly'. It is a carefully considered workout that eases rather than plunges me into the violin. It takes anywhere from about 70-90 minutes, depending on diffrerent factors. I understand that such greats as Zimbalist and Heifetz had very similar routines, each in their own way. I'm a busy professional who does orchestra, solo work etc. and I find that making the time for this has done me a world of good. I can feel it at a rehearsal when many younger players are much more tired than I am, and just in my chops as such. No such approach can possibly anticipate every type of passage or contingency. But my approach keeps me in good general violinistic condition to handle all sorts of things at the gig.

So what about warming-up at the gig itself before it starts? I have a 5 and even if necessary a one minute version of all the above. Will that make me feel completely warmed-up? No - but it helps. How much warming up I feel I need or don't need depends on such factors as how much I have or haven't practiced earlier that day, how much typing I've done on a certain addictive site we all know, as well as how much driving I've done to get to the gig, what 'schleping' I've done in the long or not so long walk from the car, with my case, stand, et al.

There's a psychological aspect as well. If I'm running late and will be lucky after a very long drive to just visit the men's room, and then tune and play maybe a few notes, visualising warming up, even when feeling frazzled helps - though it's not a 100% substitute. Sometimes listening to and/or watching a video of a favorite fiddler will get my fingers itching to play, and I would need less physical warming-up to get in the groove.

Sometimes nerves actually help! The adreniline, if not too overboard, can give us a boost. The couple of times I've performed the Bach E major Partita, the adreniline absolutely helped me on stage at a point where I got tired in the comfort of the practice room. And I've spoken some time back of the time I attended a master class of my old professor, Glenn Dicterow as, so I thought, an innocent bystander, only to be taken by suprise, and asked by Glenn to try out a violin after the class in front of everybody! I couldn't talk too coherently at first, but I played not too badly. In any case, though, I do strongly feel that it is not healthy to plunge into something too physically challenging w.o. being warmed-up - one of the points Janet Horvath emphasizes. I'm usually a punctuality freak, and so the following scenario has only happended just a handful of times in my professional career, where I got to an orchestral rehearsal just in time to get my violin out as they were giving the A. Zero time to warm-up. Or was there? What I actually did in those cases was to go through the motions of playing full out, but actually playing sotto voce for  the first few minutes or so, till my muscles warmed up. Also there have been times when I would have to leave my house early in the morning to get to a gig, w.o. so much as opening my case to count the strings!. No QVT that day; just time enough to do my 5 minure routine at the gig. That's good psychologically too, to know that I can dispense with it now and then, and not be totally dependent on it.

Marina - do I remember correctly that you studied with David Nadien? I'm just curious if the subject ever came up with him, and what his views were.


May 21, 2011 at 11:57 AM ·

Funny you should mention Nadien because I was just remembering what his views were on warming up.  He didn't really buy into it.  He also never really bought into scales/arpeggios/etudes and thought you could get all the technique you needed from rep alone.  Coincidentally the reason he gave me for playing without shoulder rest was "what if you forget it at home one day and have to play without it?" haha!

So I spent some formative years of playing neglecting scales, arpeggios, and etudes.  Alas I can't play like David Nadien though and I think it would have been time spent well had I gone on with those exercises on my own.  But I definitely understood and followed his method and learned a lot.  His philosophy is much like Bohdan's, that warming up is not really necessary and I do doubt that people need a whole hour of scales to properly warm up.

It all comes down to each individual person's definition of "warming up."  My definition is get the blood flowing through my hands so that they are warm (temperature wise) and not cold as they so often can be.  I rarely need more than 5 minutes to warm up properly and feel pretty confident going on stage with only that much time.  It has nothing to do with my technique which is rather adequate, but more so to do with temperature and movement.  Nobody is able to do a sprint run without a bit of warm up, what makes me think I can play perpetual motion without a bit of a warm up?  It's insane. 

May 22, 2011 at 02:08 AM ·

Interesting re Nadien. I'd say that on a practical if not necessarily on a philosophical level, the same may be said re Glenn Dicterow. However, I do remember so many years ago at an outdoor concert, back when Nadien was Concertmaster of the the New York Philharmonic, I spotted him during intermission practicing an excersise in thirds (maybe Schradiek?) - for what that's worth. Glenn is insanely busy, and once said in an interview that between whatever practicing he manages to do, teaching, rehearsing and performing, that he may have the fiddle in his hands up to 12 hours a day! In such circumstances, it's hard to get UN-warmed up! I remember when I first started some lessons with Glenn he said that we'd get the technique through the repertoire, though on my own I did my "QVT" training. I also remember once starting a lesson and he said that if I'm not warmed up he'd understand. (He was always very supportive.)

Aaron Rosand, on the other hand, is a classic, scales, etudes, warming-up stickler. Ironically though, I worked with him in semi-private master classes, where there was very little opportunity to do so. Rosand told a story of how as a young man, he managed once to sneak back stage un-noticed before a Heifetz concert, and witnessed Heifetz slowly and carefully practice scales, bowing excersises, etc. Sherry Kloss, former pupil and assistant to Heifetz siad that before starting to give a master class, he would go to a room and warm up slowly with long bows, etc. Heifetz stated in an interview that had he only 30 minures to practice, he would spend 20 minutes on scales and trills, and 10 minutes on some difficult passages from the repertoire he was set to perform. There is a 30 minute documentary about Heifetz, c. 1950, which includes tantalizing excerpts of his warm up routine. It begins with finger excersises, w.o. the bow, played in  moderate tempo, with a good deal of precision and articulation.  Kreisler, on the other hand, almost never practiced in the typical sense, and didn't even warm up back stage, as he said he wanted to keep fresh. He was one of the greatest natural talents ever. He was of the school that it's all in the mind, and that all he needed to warm up was to run his hands under warm tap water for a few moments. After that he said that he was the general and his fingers were his soldiers and they obeyed him. Yet even some of Kreisler's most ardent admirers admitted that the first 10 minutes or so of a Kreisler performance could be pretty bad till he got warmed up. So who was/is right? Everyone - as long as it worked for them, and continued to for a long time.

Even for those who don't feel the need for much warm up, I would still be careful, if possible about plunging into the kind of repertoire that requires a lot of speed, intense vibrato, difficult chord formulations, fortissimos, etc. A veteran of numerous chamber music readings, and innumerable orchestra gigs  where I've often been the only string player warming up, I've often sensed that many of those who didn't warm up, or who did so very furtively, were just self-concious. That's too bad, because we all put our strengths and weaknesses on the line willy nilly. We might as well be more physically comfortable as we do so.

May 22, 2011 at 01:11 PM ·

"However, I do remember so many years ago at an outdoor concert, back when Nadien was Concertmaster of the the New York Philharmonic, I spotted him during intermission practicing an excersise in thirds (maybe Schradiek?) - for what that's worth. "

Haha, caught red handed!

May 22, 2011 at 07:31 PM ·

 actually I think he may have been caught blue handed...



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