As a guitar instructor I spend a great deal of time working on my students’ technical development. In order for a student to reach the pinnacle of their ability proper technique is an absolute must. Everything from sitting position to the finger independence of the right and left hands must be scrutinized. With the need for technical excellence in all musical disciplines comes a wide variety of exercises to help develop a students’ dexterity, strength, speed, tone, finger independence, and much more. However, I believe an important distinction/warning must be made clear to our students that many technical exercises are not warm ups and should only be practiced after they are sufficiently warmed up and then executed correctly in order to benefit from the exercise.
Unfortunately this is something I learned myself the hard way. In my early years of college I bought a technique book that I hoped to help my need for speed. I immediately sat down at my stand and started playing through it and fell in love with a dexterity exercise that sounded cool and I right away saw the benefit. Ignoring the authors warning to warm up and play the exercise slowly, I instead played quickly, dozens of times over the course of an hour. The next day I woke up with an intense pain in my left hand and wrist that did not go away for more than a week; keeping me from playing my guitar. Since then I am very cautious about warming up my mind and body before trying something new or a piece of music that is technically demanding. This is something I try to pass onto to each of my students so they do not have to learn the way I did.
So what is warming up? To me warming up is the process of preparing my mind and my body for the task at hand. This is my warm up routine (15-20 minutes time permitting):
- Stretching routine- Starting with a short full body stretching routine helps with blood flow to the brain, hands, and prepares the body for its sitting position that you will be in for the next couple of hours.
- Slow Scales- Playing through scales slowly is one of the best things you can do before practice. Starting around 60 bpm it is a great tempo to examine my nails to see how I need to file them, examine my guitar and strings, and examine myself; is my tone good? Am I playing with too much tension? etc.
- Slow Right Hand arpeggios- same as Slow Scales.
- Sight Reading – Is great to get you mentally ready and discover more new music.
Only after being warmed up will I go to my exercises or repertoire.
I put Exercises into another category because an exercise is not meant to simply prepare you for your practice session or performance. An exercise much like the same exercises done by a competitive athlete, is designed to push technical ability to the next level. If a student (or seasoned performer) attempts such exercises without being ready it could result in not getting the most out of the exercise or worse, injury. I noticed this becoming an issue with my students a couple years ago. As they advanced I gave them more advanced exercises, but each week the student called it warm up and often admitted to starting their practice session with the exercise. They would also complain about the exercise being too difficult or painful. My response to this was “Of course! Because this is not a warm-up! Would you try lifting 300lbs or running a marathon without warming up?” At a beginning level this is what some musical exercises can be compared to.
Since those early days of teaching I have my students create a section in their music binder for exercises, separate from warm-ups. I am also very careful too make sure the student is ready and I take however much time is necessary to make sure the student is doing it correctly and also understands the reason for doing the exercise. Many hours can be wasted in practice if the student is not doing exercises correctly. If a student is not or can not do the exercise correctly it is best to take them off of it until they are mature enough for it.
So remember…warmup first, exercise and repertoire second! Always!