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First Things First - Some Thoughts on Warming Up

Zither players should avoid approaching the warm-up process in an ad-hoc and unstructured manner. Like each practice session, warm-ups should be arranged in order to make the most gains for the time invested. Doing so will help facilitate memorization, expand one's repertoire and, over time, once difficult passages will be played with greater confidence and fluency. In this article, Jane Curtis offers sage advice on how to make the most of the warm-up process.

First Things First

Some Thoughts on Warming Up

by Jane Curtis

Musicians, from the beginner at home to the professional in the Green Room, need to warm up in order to get into full form. This time can be put to better use by improving the warm-up itself and by using it to accomplish other things at the same time.

Warming up is important in itself for reestablishing fluency, both physical and mental. Fingers, hands, wrists, and arms are limbered up. Orientation and coordination patterns are reconnected. A comfortable playing position is established, which may involve adjustments if you are playing in different surroundings. The tuning and general well-being of your instrument are automatically checked. If you play more than one kind of instrument, more than one exemplar of the same kind, or more than one range of the same kind, warming up is especially important for reorientation. If you ever turn from, say, banjo to mandolin or switch from one guitar to another or alternate among the four zither ranges (quint, descant, alto, and bass), you know that you need to adjust for differences in fingering, positions, distance between strings and/or frets, the exact points for the best harmonics, general ease of playing, total size as affects body and hand positioning, etc.), and so on. The differences are small in terms of measurement, but they require reprogramming of brain and muscles - an adjustment that usually takes place with amazing speed.

When you sit down to play, to work on particular things, or to prepare for a performance, deciding what to warm up on can cause hesitation, wasted time, and diffusion of effort. Planning your warm-up overcomes this, and it does not automatically mean a series of dull or frustratingly thorny exercises. (Technical exercises, beyond the basic drill of the first lessons and for learning new techniques, are often more profitably done after warming up anyway, and more enjoyably too when the exercises are tasteful and do not have to be tackled cold.) To get your fingers onto the strings, a good beginning is to check tuning.

After tuning, the next step is not to just fool around for a few minutes, rambling, hesitating, and playing random snatches that vary from day to day, but to have a set program of things you already know or are learning and that you will repeat every day. This applies especially if you are not very experienced or are working your way up from a plateau. In the early stages, two or three easy pieces should be taken as a starter. Take one that you like and that you can play with minimum difficulty. Liking is important so that you are motivated to keep at it. Play it every day and memorize it, so that you can play it off with confidence, even if not perfectly at first. Then when you sit down with your instrument, play this piece first, one or more times before going on to play or work on other things. You will get oriented and start limbering up without having to worry about what to play or how to finger or what comes next or any other basic details. A few scales or exercises would be good here too, but only if they are a comfortable addition to your regular routine - not if they are so dreaded that they discourage you from getting out the instrument.

Now add a second piece and play these two pieces first at each session (before you get down to work on your current lesson or goal), working a little extra on passages that still slow you down or that need more work. You may find yourself being lured painlessly into good thorough work as your playing improves and your standards rise. As you get a good fix on each added piece, add another, until you have five. Continue starting with two of your pieces as warm-ups each day, rotating through all five consecutively, two at a time, so that each one is being played about three times a week—for example, 1 and 2 the first day, 3 and 4 the next, 5 and 1 the next, and so on.

As your playing improves you can substitute harder pieces and/or try variants on the easier pieces. For example, you can add chords or embellishments to the fingerboard part, or convert a routine jump-bass accompaniment to split chords or arpeggios. The fact that you know the five pieces inside out makes them an excellent base on which to build up new devices as you acquire them (harmonics, slides, pizzicato, etc.), to say nothing of developing the freedom to improvise, play by ear, add expression, and enjoy what you are working so hard to learn.

Eventually you will be warming up firmly, without hesitation, you will have built at least a small repertoire that you can play with confidence, and you will be exercising newly learned techniques. To help you in choosing which pieces to put on your current warm-up list, the following are suggested as successful ways of keeping the warm-up process interesting and productive.

Use exercises (as distinct from basic drill) after you have developed some fluency and can play them without torture and fatal boredom. They include the natural scales and arpeggios, which can be varied endlessly as to tempo, volume, accompaniment, fingering, addition of special techniques such as hammer-ons and pull-offs, and so on. This is popular among professionals warming up for performance.

Take difficult passages from music you are working on or from pieces in your permanent repertoire that still have rough spots. I keep several of these going at any given time, play them at least every two or three days, frequently spend a few minutes working on them, and replace them when they start to go smoothly in playing the piece through. The advantages of repetition are very noticeable here: you not only overcome the difficulties but you memorize the passages as well.

You can also use pieces that you want to fix in your memory and make thoroughly comfortable as part of your permanent repertoire.

There are different schools of thought on warming up for a performance. Some musicians include music they are going to play, especially passages they may be less comfortable with. Others find this unnerving and prefer to warm up on unrelated music and/or on exercises that limber up the muscles but leave the mind free for a more spontaneous performance.

In sum, devoting some attention to the warm-up process will help you to make the best use of your working time, supplement your work on pieces and techniques, facilitate memorizing, and enable you to have something to play when you are asked to play without any private warm-up time. This is most important for beginners, who do not have a backlog of pieces to draw on, who read with less facility, and who are less able to play by ear. And a more planned approach can do all this for you without pressure or frustration or boredom.

About the author: Jane Curtis has been involved with the Zither for many years, as a performer, arranger, composer, teacher, and author. She is shown here holding Franz Schwarzer's first concert zither.

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