To Warm Up or Not To Warm Up…
Part 1 – Should You Warm Up?
Do you ever feel like you’re practicing and practicing but just not getting better? Or perhaps you’re seeing some improvement but it’s taking too long to learn all your stuff. Of course – we all have! But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. I’ve been having that feeling a lot and that I should be getting better – and better sooner – with the time I’m putting in.
So why am I not making more progress? I kept asking that question over and over. The teacher voice in my head kept repeating, “Something needs to change. I have to do something different to get different results.”
I found myself spending too much time at the start of each practice session doing familiar warm ups comprising scales, arpeggios, and bowing. The problem was I didn’t need to. I was playing but I was just running out the clock. I needed to calibrate my mind and muscles to my bass and move on.
But what to do differently? I still gotta practice. Us string players always need to hone our shifts, intonation, and bowing skills. And as we move through our career we get busier and practice time gets smaller.
What’s the answer? Stop warming up and start eating frogs!
“EAT YOUR FROG”
“Eating Your Frog” refers to tackling the most difficult or least desirable task first. I go to my gym every morning at 4:30 when they open. A friend is always there at the same time and does cardio which he referred to as eating a frog since he hates cardio.
We all know what our frogs are. They gnaw at us. The best players attack the frogs while the rest just let them continue to hop around and plague our playing.
But traditionally, the first part of a practice session is devoted to warming up. How can we start with the most difficult tasks if we’re warming up? Great question and I’m going to offer a controversial strategy. DON’T WARM UP!
In this first post I examine whether you need to warm up at all.
Warming Up vs. Calibrating
Some days you just plain don’t need to warm up. Many times all you need to do is calibrate. Other sessions your mind and body call for both.
Let me be clear – beginner to intermediate players need to spend time on fundamentals such as long tones, scales & arpeggios, finger exercises, shifting & intonation work, and so on. This article is aimed at the more seasoned player that has already spent years laying this groundwork. Musicians with injuries or other circumstances will of course need to do what is best for their health and playing.
If you’re playing every day you may not need to warm-up, especially if you’re practicing later in the day when your muscles are already loose.
At this point we need working definitions of warm ups and calibrations.
Exercises and movements that physically and mentally prepare the musician, prevent injury, and contribute to a better playing session.
“To make adjustments based on external factors or data”
“To check accuracy”
You recalibrate your mind and muscles to the current instrument or situation.
Which do you need?
Let’s look at the purpose for each to determine the answer.
What is the purpose of a warmup?
– improve circulation
– enhance performance of muscles
– reduce muscle stiffness
– prevent injury
What is the purpose of a calibration?
– acclimate to instrument or current environment
– attune & prepare oneself
Examples when a calibration is needed:
– using a different instrument, bow, or rosin
– switching from bass guitar (something I do often)
– before a gig when you’re getting used to the space and sound…
Calibrating doesn’t take long but it takes as long as it needs to take. Probably between 1 and 10 minutes.
Once you’re calibrated, it’s time to start the warm up process if it’s needed.
How do you know if you need to warm up?
Listen to your body:
- Are you playing early in the day?
- Do you muscles feel tight or stiff?
- Are you recovering from or dealing with an injury?
- Do you feel groggy?
- Does your mind or body need to wake up?
- Does your initial playing calibrations still feel inaccurate?
If any of these are a ‘yes’ then it’s definitely time to warm up.
A warmup should contribute to and improve an aspect of your playing. And to do this they need to be just slightly outside of your comfort zone. Otherwise they are already within your current sphere of readiness. They are mindless, automatic gestures that are too easy – they are just us calibrating and we don’t need much of it.
How long do you need to warm up? It depends but I find it is almost always less than 20 minutes. If you’re spending longer than that on a task then you need to move it out of your warm up category and in to your main practice and skill acquisition block.
I recently had a 6 month hiatus from double bass playing. My bass was in the shop and I was traveling during the summer months. I knew that when I got back to playing I’d have three obvious frogs to eat:
– Strength and endurance. Especially in the left hand and even more to the point, in thumb position.
- Left thumb callous. This was the most obvious deficiency as my crown jewel of a callous was no more. My thumb position callous needed serious attention asI needed to build it back up.
– Fast bowing. I had always done long bows and scales as a warmup but I don’t need to. My long bows and scales are fine. But very fast bowing is a personal deficiency. I’m not saying don’t practice scales and such but make sure you are doing them for a reason, not just because that’s what you’ve always started with.
So the first thing I did every practice session was rub my thumb up and down the G & D strings. Then some scalar passages with just my thumb then the artificial harmonic section to the Monti Czardas. But the callous developed more quickly than it ever had in the past.
Then I did finger and dexterity work in thumb position. And finally I did finger and scale work with triplets and sixteenth notes in first position.
These all seem like ‘no-brainer’ warm ups but they were much more than that. Yes they got me warmed up but they also attacked my deficiencies right at the outset of my practice session.
Now go grab your bass, fry up some frogs and watch your playing skyrocket!
In part 2 I’ll look at more ways to warm up while cooking up tasty treats and frying those playing problem areas.