What's the point?
When I was a young musician, teachers and adults kept telling me not to forget my warm-up and to take time to play the longest notes... and the inner question kept coming back: “Why? That's just to warm up my saxophone, I've got more important things to practice...”
Practice is an art, it's underestimated compared to so many people who talk about “talent”. If it were only talent, why should we practice to improve, and why on earth should we warm up? To the question “what is warming up and what is it for?”, most students answer: to warm up the instruments, or to practice the sound. Not a bad answer, but I think there's a lot more to explore!
What's extremely important is to emphasize that becoming a musician and making a living from it is a full-time job, hard work. And very good, consistent practice habits are part of it. One day without practice can set you back three steps from the day before. (Suggested reading: The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle).
Each exercise has its goal
Every warm-up exercise has a target and a purpose, it's your personal trainer and very, very good friend if you get to know it, and if you're curious about what this exercise actually can do for and with you.
The question is: are you wide awake during your warm-up session? Are your ears active, listening for improvements? What are you concentrating on? If you're warming up without a goal in mind, what are you improving on?
One of my favorite (teacher) quotes is: “What we practice is what we improve”.
Do you play etudes without phrasing them correctly? Do you play technical scales without paying attention to rhythm? If you're 100% sure that there's NOTHING to improve in one of your warm-up exercises, then is there a new way to practice technique? Does someone else have a different technique skill than you, and more importantly, how can you learn it? Does this person practice in a different way?
It's by practicing that you become an expert, so if you practice without your ears and your goals, you'll become an expert in the art of not knowing how you learned things, and the art of not knowing how to control when to activate your techniques for larger pieces, or under pressure. What often limits our warm-up practice, in my opinion, is our own box of knowledge, our own library of exercises. By exploring and cultivating our curiosity for new warm-up exercises, we continue to improve and fill our internal library.
Learning from others
One of the many things the world of musicians and music has taught me is that you can always learn from someone.
There will also always be someone who tries to make you feel like a failure, and far too few people who support each other, help each other and learn different skills from each other when they study. Many have this idea that you have to bury everyone to make sure you get to the top! How about reflecting instead: "Wow, you played that amazingly, I've been practicing it for so long... How did you learn it? Can you tell me in great detail what you do to achieve this technique in this way?".
Then you've got a new warm-up exercise, a new way of learning a technique and a happy new colleague - who might ask you for help at some point!…
In the worst-case scenario, knowing that we're all different people in different bodies, you've learned that what worked for that student isn't something that worked for you (considering you've devoted enough hours to the exercise to be able to say you've tried it properly).
A few practice tools
► Vary the order and manner
What in your pieces of music, performances, lessons or practice sessions seems to keep being “difficult”? When you figured it out, ask yourself: How often do you practice to improve this challenge, and do you keep practicing it the same way and in the same order during your practice?
Let me explain with an example : You keep practicing your long notes for your practice, long daily notes – same order of tones and exercises during your practice every day. You will most likely to lose your focus on the same place every practice, and loose the quality of the tones going on during the exercises.
Scientist are indicating that we are losing our focus after 15-20 sec, that means if you are always starting your sessions with the same exercise/pieces, the same focus and techniques you will keep making the same mistakes. The same techniques will fail, and without attention to it you will never be able to exercise the length of your focus and concentration. No wonder you are an expert on the first exercises, and keep meeting ballpoints towards the end...
► Take a step back
Ask yourself this, after a performed or practiced passage: What would my current or previous teacher say? Would she/he be satisfied or not? What would be the improvement suggestions? How can I practice this, is there a new way to keep me interested? Do I know anyone who could help me with this?
► Check your concentration
Checkpoint to see if your focus is lost or at place, could be: Do I know what I just played, did I hear every detail in sound and technique on what needs to be improved or am I doubting?
If you’re doubting, make it a rule to ALWAYS repeat the passage, now notate a couple of improvement points because you are sure where your loopholes are. Repeat practicing it, in small parts, when you have it correct repeat it correctly three times, and always come back to it for storage and affirming. What we practice is what we improve, if you practice it wrong 10 times and 1 time right without repetition, the statistically chance of your brain remembering that one time, and choosing that connection instead of the other 10 with the same mistakes are low…
► Working out what scares most
What scares you about the technical aspects? What great saxophonists are incredibly good at something you "know" you'll "never" be able to do? It's something you can practice! Do some research and find three new training methods on this particular technique. Practice regularly for 3-4 minutes, and repeat. Change the time you repeat it, to boost your concentration.
► Give yourself a break
If you can't concentrate, if you nod off and can't find your bearings, take a break for 5 to 15 minutes. You're human, and it's perfectly normal! In fact, this is the time when our brain physically stores and saves information. My best advice is to practice for a maximum of 45 minutes, then take a 15-minute break. It's the best training interval I've ever tried, and I use it every day. It's a guarantee that my head won't explode before the end of my practice. Breaks are vital and very effective, and it's important to listen to your body! On the other hand, most of us need more sleep than we imagine; try giving yourself a few extra hours at night, and see if it makes a difference.
► Vary the exercises
If you warm up with EVERYTHING every day, you may not have time to do anything else, and you won't have the concentration or the energy to learn anything from the warm-up, or to be able to use it in the future. You risk starting from scratch every day.
My best warm-up advice is therefore to choose 3 to 4 different exercises each day at most, with different objectives, to keep your mind busy and interested.
When we perform, practice and play, we (of course) need our bodies. What I like to do is vary between physical exercises and my warm-up exercises to ensure that my body works in unison with me and the instrument. Playing sitting on the floor, sitting cross-legged, lying down, standing on a balance cushion or using Timani exercises.
Timani is a method based on anatomy, where musicians get to work with their muscle coordination of their bodies while performing/practicing, it includes exercises specifically designed for musicians. The exercises and anatomical knowledge you learn within the subject is designed to help with understanding and overcoming challenges related to pain, injury, technical issues, sound production or even just to enhance ones playing or singing to access higher potential as a musician.
The fact is, when you switch exercises and stay focused on the goals, you achieve something with every practice session. You continue to feel good every time you “just” warm up, with a mission and a goal. If it helps, you can write down all the exercises you know in a small notebook, linked to different skills, and see how many you can do over a week or two.
Keep the curiosity of a child and see if you know anyone who has something to teach you. You're unique, there's no one else in the world like you. It may sound cliché, but it means you have something no one else has, find it and enrich the world with it - and open your eyes and ears to others - what's unique about them?
This is just a tiny glimpse into the huge subject of warming up. Use it and share it.
Enjoy your warm-up - it's like carrots and broccoli, it's not always the first choice, but it's always healthy for your progress and development!