Warm-ups and Fatigue

Last month I wrote about my general approach to instrumental technique. I have also begun adding various evenness exercises to my site, which I plan to greatly expand over the coming weeks and months. This month I have decided to comment on two closely related aspects of technique which all of us encounter in some form or another.

At one time or another we have each enjoyed suffering through an early morning rehearsal or performance in which we did not get to play at all ahead of time. I have gotten to experience this same sensation both as a trombonist and a pianist, yet my teachers and colleagues have had somewhat different explanations for what exactly was going on that necessitated the warm-up.

Pianists would usually say that we need to “warm-up” the muscles in our fingers, or “get-used to” a particular instrument which might be different from the one we use regularly to practice. Both of these seem like simple enough explanations, but I have never been totally convinced that either one has consistently explained this feeling as I have experienced it. Some days with no warming up whatsoever I was able to play with a great deal of control almost immediately. Other days it didn’t seem to matter how much I “warmed up,” I just never felt comfortable.

I had very similar experiences with the trombone. According to my teachers and colleagues, the muscles in my face needed to be carefully prepared with an easy-going warm-up routine before I attempted to challenge them or else I would be punished with inconsistent technique and they would tire rapidly. However, there were many days when I could play almost immediately without much of a “warm-up” at all. I could even play for hours without a warm-up with no consequences. There were other days when it didn’t seem to matter how long I “took things easy,” playing just felt difficult. I would feel fatigue even after just a few minutes of playing. I began to wonder what if muscle and tissue had very little to do with it? Maybe the whole issue of not feeling “warmed-up” was neurological.

The myelin sheath coats the axon of neurons and serves to increase the speed at which impulses propagate. It is believed by a growing population of neuroscientists that the myelin sheath plays an important role in the precise timing necessary for the coordination of certain skills (such as those necessary for playing a musical instrument).

The nervous system regulates and controls all the muscles and tissues in the body. Based on my experiences playing and teaching two entirely different instruments, I have come to believe that the not-feeling-warmed-up sensation is mostly a result of a uncoordinated muscles either from not having played for a significant period of time, or from just having awakened from sleep. Obviously everyone is a bit different, and I would never consider my own experiences to be emblematic of the norm. However, if the sensation has to do with coordination many of us should probably be reevaluating our warm-up routines.

I see many brass players who warm up with the assumption that their respiratory and facial muscles need a great deal of stretching, similar to what athletes do before they run. They do a lot of breathing exercises, play long tones and slow lip-slurs, etc. I also have observed many pianists go through long warm-ups trying to stretch their fingers, playing aimlessly through scales and arpeggios until their fingers “feel right.”

While I doubt any harm is caused from any of this, I am not convinced that any significant benefit comes from it either. First of all, scientific evidence has started to doubt whether stretching actually benefits athletes at all. In some instances, research has concluded that it might make athletes somewhat more susceptible to injuries (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/13/health/nutrition/13Best.html?pagewanted=all).

Aimlessly playing long tones or lip slurs has never seemed to help me much. Instead of feeling relaxed, I usually felt more inconsistent and uncentered afterward. I learned over time that what worked best for me (and almost every one of my students) was practicing and refining the timing of the various parameters of my technique. I would practice connecting the breath in time to an articulation. I would practice coordinating precise slide-movements with slurs of various sizes. In fact, many of these are the evenness exercises I have been posting on my website.

The result? I could warm up very completely and very quickly. Some days I need to do a lot more of this than others to get things working again. I have become a much more consistent player since I started doing a lot of this.

In other words, a “warm-up” is more about rebuilding our technique after a break than about properly preparing our muscles for the stresses of playing. When we sleep or take breaks from playing for given periods of time our skills corrode to a greater or lesser extent. However, when we do not practice refining these skills in precise and meaningful ways they continue to corrode (much to our frustration). I’ve watched many instrumentalists practice aimlessly for hours only to make things much worse for themselves. It’s like watching an auto-mechanic spend hours fixing everything except what is wrong with your car. Practicing can only be effective when you have already correctly identified what isn’t working!

This brings us to the topic of fatigue. Fatigue affects all instrumentalists to greater and lesser extents. The clinical definition of fatigue is when a muscle losses its ability to generate force. While the exact biochemical causes of muscle fatigue are still under intense debate, muscles generally become fatigued when overused. Consistent exercise increases a muscle’s ability to manage this stress.

Therefore there are two ways to prevent muscle fatigue while playing an instrument. The first is to practice regularly and consistently to build up muscular strength. This is the purely muscular solution to the problem of physical endurance. I know first hand that brass playing is far more muscularly demanding than keyboard playing. That being said, I have found that extended fortissimo playing on the piano can be an endurance challenge as well. It is important to practice physically demanding passages on a regular and consistent basis in order to build muscle endurance.

However, the muscular solution to the problem by itself is rarely successful. It is at least equally important to become more efficient. We become more efficient by improving the coordination and timing of the muscle movements necessary for playing our instruments. By becoming better coordinated we can decrease the amount of physical force necessary to perform a given task. By lessening the load on our muscles for each task we can perform far more demanding tasks and play for much longer periods of time before fatigue sets in.

In other words, the same evenness exercises which can give us better control over musical passages can also make us more efficient and productive when it comes to using our muscular systems. There is really no reason why even a brass player should not be able to play for several hours a day without long term consequences.

All of that being said, here is my disclaimer. I am writing mainly from the experiences of myself and my students. Everyone is somewhat different and many of our specific problems are unique to each of us. I did not write this blog entry to pick apart anything that anyone is doing that seems to be working. Instead, I’m writing it for all of those brass and keyboard players out there who are looking for something else to try because they have exhausted most of the usual ideas.

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