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The Value of Warming Up In Both Music and Life

By Scott Watson | August 16, 2021

The Value of Warming Up In Both Music and Life

Every single moment with our students is precious! Whether it’s a lesson, sectional, ensemble rehearsal, there’s always so much to accomplish and no time to waste. Nonetheless, it’s worth taking the time to establish the habit of warming up at the start of all our meetings with students.

Primarily, warming up prepares players physically, but the benefits of warming up are many. It also focuses a player’s, or an ensemble’s, attention on playing – as opposed to visiting with friends in the section, asking irrelevant questions, or thinking about the algebra test coming up next period. It’s important for students, and valuable to teachers, to establish early on the routine of warming up at the start of each session.

Long Tones

This can be done in band as soon as students learn to play their first notes by having them use those notes for a long tone warm up. The goal is to initiate and maintain a steady, clear sound. Begin with a note that is in a comfortable range and move to lower and higher tones from there. Kids love watching the clock to see who can hold a note the longest! Students will come to practice asking, “Can we have a long-tone contest today?” To add to the fun, have everyone stand to start the chosen note together. Then, as students run out of air and stop playing, each takes his/her seat. The last one standing is the “Long Tone Champion” for the day! Even after students have been introduced to other warm-ups, we continue with long tones because they can be so useful. For instance, long tones can be used to introduce and/or reinforce concepts such as intonation/tuning, dynamics, and phrasing (i.e. “If you can hold a long tone for 16 beats, you should be able to play this 4-measure phrase in one breath!”).

Scales and More

The next warm-up I teach young players is a brief scale passage on the bottom five notes of the B-flat concert scale: 

scales and more

While there are many other early warm-ups that would serve students well, I choose this particular one because it reviews 1) the first five notes, and 2) the first three durations presented in our first-year method book (Sound Innovations). I use this at the start of lessons consistently until it is memorized. Eventually this leads to playing the entire scale, and then other scales. 

Additional warm-ups are geared toward the needs of particular instruments. Brass players benefit from beginning, then intermediate, and then advanced lip slurs. Woodwind players get interval exercises that work the fingers. You can find great material for all of the above in Alfred’s Ensemble Development Series books, or you can create them yourself using notation software like Finale, or SmartMusic’s built-in Compose app. There are many great warm-ups—just ask any successful band, chorus, or orchestra director to share their favorite!

I always feel the lesson or rehearsal goes better when we start with a couple minutes of warming up. It sets the tone for what follows. Setting aside a few moments from every rehearsal to warm-up is like putting a few dollars in the bank each week: you have to sacrifice a little to do it, but the investment pays big dividends over time!

Morning Drives and Quiet Times

In the middle of my career, I took a new job that involved an hour and a half drive each way to work. At first, my morning drive involved stopping for a large coffee and listening to NPR. But before long, especially because of the stress of acclimating to a new job, I found myself turning off the radio to think through (even meditate on) my work day: What did I need to do first when I got to campus? What details did I need to take care of to prepare classes? What a feeling of confidence—even peace—those drives gave me as I tackled my first full-time university teaching. That drive was my mental warm-up for the day.

There are other routines that I, or people I know, engage in to warm-up for the day. Some eager-beaver/early risers begin their day at the gym or outside running or biking. The workout clears their mind, maintains their physical health, and burns off stress. Others take a few minutes to read scriptures each morning, giving them wisdom to face the day’s challenges. Others like to get to the office early to sit down with a cup of coffee and go over emails and the day’s agenda. One morning “warm-up” that has made a difference for me as I get a little older involves doing stretches to loosen up my back and legs.

Purposeful Preparation

A while back I had a pretty rocky lesson with one of my second-year low brass sectional rehearsals. It seemed as if the kids wanted to do anything but the tasks presented. Little arguments flared up between different sets of kids about silly things: who didn’t practice, who banged the stand on purpose, who was playing out of turn… you name it! Students were challenging me with a slew of questions and complaints that particular day and it seemed like I was putting out one fire after the next until it was time to go… and we hadn’t accomplished much. As soon as the kids left I wrote in my planbook, in big red letters, “WE NEED TO HAVE A GOOD LESSON NEXT WEEK!”

The following week, before this group’s next lesson, I had mentally warmed up. I thought through what specific things I wanted to accomplish and how I would handle any discipline issues. When I heard my students approaching the band room, I made sure I was standing at the entrance with a smile to greet them: “OK, come on in and set up quickly. We have a lot to do,” I said purposefully.

As soon as most of them had their instruments together and were in their seats, we were doing the B-flat concert scale. By the time the warm-up was over, everyone was ready to play. I began positively and business-like—no grudges about the prior week, just deliberate instructions and an upbeat demeanor. I dealt with the few, minor issues quickly and soberly in a way that kept things moving forward, 180 degrees different than the week before. 

Warm Up Routines Are An Investment!

Ben Franklin had it right when he wrote, “Early to bed, and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” When we get to school just in the nick of time as our work obligation begins, we start our day reacting to what is happening rather than purposefully leading the events of the day. And my-oh-my what a difference it makes to be mentally prepared for your students, your classes, department meetings, or whatever awaits you each day.

My work as a musician and educator has taught me the value of warming up. It allows us to be physically and mentally prepared for what’s ahead. Taking time to consistently invest in worthwhile routines to start rehearsals, or our day, will yield long-term benefits for our students, our teaching, and in life.


Scott Watson

Dr. Scott Watson has taught instrumental and elective music in the Parkland School District for 35 years and serves as adjunct professor for Cairn University, among others. He is a frequently commissioned composer with approximately 100 published pieces for band and strings, and is an active clinician and guest conductor.

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