I’ll admit that I don’t do nearly as much warming up as I should. So in preparation for this article I tried a lot of stretching and warm-up routines to see which ones stuck!
I found two main reasons for stretching before playing. One, stretching warms-up the body for faster, more accurate playing. Two, stretching increases flexibility and dexterity which is valuable for large reaches or awkward passages, and particularly for pianists with small hands. I will provide and analyze YouTube videos as helpful visual aids.
Stretches for Warm Up
The value of a warm up in sports includes the following:
- Increases blood flow to the muscles
- Prepare the nervous system
- Makes muscles supple and therefore stronger/flexible
- Stimulates the brain as blood flow increases
I viewed many piano stretch/warm-up routines, but the one I gravitated to most hit many of the check boxes above.
The stretches above effectively warm muscles because they:
- Increase blood flow to muscles. They are quick, high speed exercises. I can actually feel my muscles warm with blood through the process.
- Prepare the nervous system. Admittedly I’m not a doctor so I don’t know how to properly prime the nervous system, however, she is thorough, warming up all major body parts used in piano playing including: wrist, fingers, arms, shoulders, upper back and chest.
- Stimulates the brain by increasing blood flow. Because the exercises are more active I noticed a clarity of thought that I associate with exercise.
0:59 – Stretches for the Wrist.
She offers many exercises for the wrist. One of my favorites is at 1:37, where she instructs to hold arms out straight in front of you and then gracefully throw your hands down creating movement and stretch in the wrists.
5:10 – Stretches for the Fingers
For fingers she recommends pulling at each joint of each finger.
Start by holding one hand out straight with palm facing away from you as if motioning for someone to stop. Then pull each joint of that hand towards you with the other hand. Switch hands and repeat.
5:47 – Stretches for the Elbows
Most of these stretches involve holding the upper arm still and spinning your hands and forearms in circles. I found these exercises to increase blood flow to the forearms while also improving elbow flexibility.
6:15 – Shoulder Exercises
This section includes my favorite exercise in which you windmill each arm independently.
Start by stepping your left foot forward so that you are well supported. Then straighten your right arm and spin it quickly. Your right arm swings behind and in front of you, not from right to left. Switch arms and legs.
This exercise is my favorite because it forces blood into my arms and fingers, making them warm up quickly.
Stretches for Hand Flexibility
Some people are more interested in stretching to improve hand flexibility, especially if there hands are small and they have difficulty with octaves or large chords.
If you are stretching for flexibility, do be careful. According to legend, Robert Schumann stretched his fingers with a contraption built out of a cigar box that would force one finger into a stretched position while his others moved freely. Supposedly, this eventually permanently paralyzed some of his fingers. That said, recent research suggests that his Syphilis medication may have been the cause because it used mercury which can cause paralysis starting in the extremities. Either way do be careful.
I turn to a video by Carl Brown for hand flexibility stretches. While he is a guitarist, he has used these stretches for years, and as a result his fingers are flexible.
He offers three main stretches starting at 2:56 (before this he massages his arms and hands).
- 3:14 – Start with arms reaching in front of you with your palms facing down. Pull one finger back/up while waving the other four fingers. Repeat with all fingers.
- 5:25 – Again start with arms reaching in front of you with your palms facing down. Pull one finger down while waving the other three fingers. Repeat with all fingers.
- 6:40 – Stretch in between each pair of consecutive fingers. His flexibility is particularly impressive in this exercise.
So now you have the tools to stretch for warm ups or to increase flexibility. But, I always find warming up and doing my scales and arpeggios a bore. How can I make it more fun?
Thoughts on Making Stretching Enjoyable
On Find Your Melody I like to explore learning that stems from joy. Let’s explore why stretching and warming up can be boring. Malcolm Gladwell highlights the necessary components to meaningful work in his book “Outliers”.
- Autonomy. Provides the ability to make your own decisions.
- Complexity. Provides the ability to improve skills and master a task.
- Direct connection between effort and reward. Provides positive feedback and reinforcement.
I’ve always been atrocious with warming up before practice, which may in part have led to certain un-diagnosed muscle/tendon pain. In light of Malcolm Gladwell’s statement, warm-ups routines strike me as a triple-wammy of un-meaningful work because:
- No autonomy. Practice exercises were rigidly prescribed by my teachers, or other sources – not chosen by me.
- No complexity. Warm-up routines and stretches were the same every day.
- Indirect connection between effort and reward. Often I view warming up as simply getting my muscles into a place where they can effectively practice. So it feels like an obnoxious obstacle before I can get in tune with the effort and reward of playing piano.
To combat this, I’ve decided to try warming up in a “meaningful” way. First listen to my playing without warming up.
After this recording I spent 5 minutes or so warming up in a way that hits the criteria for meaningful work.
- Autonomy. I made decisions in the moment about what parts of my body need blood flow, stretching, and/or massaging. This involved some jumping jacks, and fun sorta-dancing, sorta-stretching moments.
- Complexity. The task of listening to my body to discover tight spots and responding appropriately takes a lot of mental effort.
- Direct connection between effort and reward. I recorded my playing with and without stretching beforehand so I could hear the results. I chose a particularly challenging section I haven’t yet mastered.
It is subtle, but as expected I am cleaner and hit more notes in the second video. In fact, earlier when I played the section after really spending some time practicing, I reached a speed level and ease that I never hit before in this section and that was very rewarding.
Autonomy, complexity, and connection between effort and reward made warming up at least a bit more enjoyable for me. I’d love to hear your favorite stretching/warm-up routines and any tips to make it fun in the comments!
Now you should feel comfortable stretching and warming up all necessary body parts for playing piano including your fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, and arms. You should also have tools to increase flexibility if you have small hands or are working on an awkward stretch in your music.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: the Story of Success. Back Bay Books, 2013.