Category Archives: Skill Development

Your Teachers Warm-ups


Have you ever asked your teacher or mentor about their warm-up routine?

There comes a time in a students career where they are ready to learn their teachers warm-ups. Perhaps not all at once, but certainly little-by-little. As an instructor, I do my best to assess the capabilities of each of my students based on the size of their hands, coordination, and focus. Because of varying levels of maturity/ability, some of my students are prescribed a warm-up routine that is not identical to mine. Just recently, a middle school aged student who has been studying with me for a few years now, showed me that she’s ready to work towards a new warm-up routine: my warm-up routine.

I noticed that Ellis has many strengths as a musician and pianist, but makes different fingering choices than I do at the piano. I also noticed that the size of her hands is now about the size of my hands, and decided it’s time to tone those suckers up and get them into even better shape.

I practice three instruments – and on all three, I have adopted a warm-up routine that incorporates a routine shared to me by a teacher or mentor that I admire.

Part of my warm-up on the drum set comes from a few pointers given to me by my good friend Jendeen Forberg. I love her calculated approach to systematically moving accents through mundane rhythms, and transferring them to all 4 limbs. Her warm-up tips are valuable for the drummer who wants to gain strength, quickness, and the ability to interpret rhythms beyond the barline.

My warm-up for piano is a mixture of suggestions from three instructors. I begin by doing Hannon exercises in all 12 keys, as recommended by my friend Nachito Herrera. This is a fraction of his two hour warm-up. I then move onto the scales required of a first semester piano principal at Berklee College of Music (which I was once). I finish with an improvisation game taught to me by my childhood teacher Sean Turner, who is now a professor at McNally Smith College of Music.

After a year or less of studying cello with Jacqueline Ultan, I asked her about her warm-up routine. Because I am a beginner, I suspect that she has shared only a fraction of it with me at this point, but already I feel stronger on the fingerboard based on the warm-ups she shared.

My middle-school-aged student Ellis is strong willed and quirky. She’s not always the easiest student to move into a new routine. However, I know that she is taking lessons with me because we have good rapport and she likes the way I play. I simply informed her that she was a big kid now, and will start to learn my personal warm-up routine because she can handle it. I explained that most of it would be first level scales from Berklee college of Music. She reminded me that she was not yet committed to being a music major in college. I responded: “You are a very bright girl who is good at many things. And one of the things you will be good at is scales… because I said so. No other reason. We make different choices, and have different strengths. I can give you my choices and I can give you my strengths, but you have to do my warm ups.”

For that statement, I received a big smile from Ellis. It’s the same proud smile I give when hold my head up high and say that my warm-up is Jacquelines warm-up. My warm up is Nachito’s warm-up. My warm-up is Jendeens warm-up. It’s not that Ellis has to play like me. It’s that choices are valuable. In order for her to play like herself, she should have as many choices at her disposal as possible. I wish for her to be able to choose a fingering I would probably choose, or make a choice to do something else. That, after all, is a part of why I believe she has chosen me to be her teacher.

If you are a player who looks up to someone, ask them to teach you at least parts of their warm-up. Gain their strengths, through focused hard work. Do your teachers warm-ups.

Where Off Road Biking and Cello Practice Intersect

mountain biking

Photograph: Jupiter images/Brand X/Alamy

As I continue to take cello lessons, I continue to find similarities in practicing the cello and practicing the drums set. As I work through the music for my upcoming concert, I am muddling through the correct notes and rhythms, but it’s taking a lot of concentration and I’m having trouble relaxing while playing. I’m also constantly worried that my bow is going to bump into the other cellist, and my paranoia is causing restrictions in my movement, creating a less than ideal sound on my cello. During my last lesson, my cello teacher gave me a short lecture, comparing off road biking and cello playing, which, I’ll bet, makes absolute sense for any instrument.

Some years ago she took up off road biking as a hobby. At first, she was trying to control every motion, grabbing the handlebars tightly, tensing her shoulders, etc. One day someone finally told her to loosen up and let the bike do the hard work. She describes that when she did so, she learned what an off road bike was built for. It had specialized parts that took care of much of the movement she was trying to control. She was suddenly able to bike over obstacles she never thought she’d be able to handle.

My cello teacher instructed me to loosen up, let go, as she did with her off road bike – let the cello do the hard work for me. She reminded me that there is weight to the blow, and that the cello sits underneath the bow to support it. She reminded me not to try and control the physics, but rather to notice and work with them as I play.

This is brilliantly similar to how drummers approach their technique. I observe many beginner students holding their drum sticks for the first time with their index finger stiffly out in front of their grip, trying to point the stick into the drum head. However, drum heads are built to bounce, and drum sticks are weighted and balanced to fit in the drummers hands. When a drummer pulls their index finger into the rest of their grip, they may feel a little out of control at first, but quickly, they should be able to notice the bounce of a drum stick coming back from the drum head. They’ll learn to work with the motion, and that’s when their real technique forms. Playing becomes much easier.

My lesson this week reminded me that cellos are specially made for cello playing, just as drums are made for drumming and off road bikes are made for off road biking. I should try to stay loose while playing through each passage, so that I can be aware of the cellos role, and fly with it over obstacles I thought were beyond my skill.