Do You Need a Pre-Warmup Ritual?

It was the last week of the school year, and all of us parents were invited to attend a play that the entire 2nd grade class had been working on all semester.

So, an auditorium full of busy parents were gathered together at 9am, chatting amongst themselves, checking their cell phones, and antsy to get off to meetings, classes, and morning yoga sessions.

The director welcomed us, explained what our children have been up to for the last few months, and then it was time for the production to begin. But before he would let the kids come out on stage, he asked us to participate in an activity he had them do before every class.

It was the kind of thing, that once upon a time I would have rolled my eyes at. Yet I and the other parents did just as he requested.

The activity took just a few moments, but had a palpable effect. Not only was the auditorium noticeably quieter, but you could feel a difference as well. The energy of the room went down a notch or two. I felt more present. Less scattered. And more focused on what was in front of me now, not what I had to do when I left in 30 minutes.

So what did he ask us to do?

Breathe in. Breathe out.

He simply asked us to breathe together. To take a deep breath in…and slow easy breath out. Simple. Easy. Just three deep centering breaths.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it changed my experience of the performance. I was able to enjoy and appreciate the show, instead of sporadically checking my phone and drifting in and out. I was actually present.

Take a deep breath…

I often see the same phenomenon play out at my kids’ Tae Kwon Do classes. The students enter the dojang after a busy day of school and other activities, and are often scattered and bouncing off the walls a bit. Their movements are rushed, and it’s apparent that they aren’t focused or paying full attention to either the execution of their skills or the instructor’s input.

But when the instructor tells them to stop for a moment and take a few deep breaths, the tone of the class changes. Everything slows down a notch, everyone settles down, and they appear to be more focused.

Practicing before we’re ready

We all have a ton to do, with to-do lists that only seem to grow longer with each passing day and seemingly less and less time to do everything in. And with a big performance or audition on the horizon, the passage of time can feel very much like a ticking time bomb. So naturally, it is easy to feel pressured, rushed, perhaps even a little frantic, and jump into a practice session without taking the time to get into a good head space first.

But like trying to cut thin slices of tomatoes without first taking a moment to sharpen our chef’s knife, that can lead to a ton of frustration and more harried, aggravated, hacking away at our instrument.

Try a pre-warmup routine

So the next time you step foot into the practice room, and even before you begin your warm up routine, try this short pre-warmup ritual.

Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Listen to the air on the inhale…and the exhale (it sounds different in each direction). Feel the cool air filling your lungs, and again as you breathe out (it feels different in both directions too). Let your attention turn inwards as the outside world fades away and everything becomes quieter….less hurried.

Then slowly get your instrument into position and play a few notes. Long, slow, easy notes, paying attention to how things feel. Relishing the sensory experience of every nuance and detail of your sound.

On paper, I admit this might sound silly. Or seem like a big fat waste of time (though we’re really only talking about a few minutes of actual clock time).

But don’t dismiss it out of hand quite yet. Give it a try. See how it feels. You might be surprised.

Do you have a pre-warmup routine that helps you get into the right mental state for a nice, productive practice session? Share below in the comments – I’d be curious to learn more about it.

The one-sentence summary

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” ~Abraham Lincoln (or at least, often attributed to Lincoln*)

photo credit: lucaohman via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
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25 Responses

  1. This is a really good idea. I have been studying Alexander technique for the past six years, and I usually do what Alexander teachers variously call the lie-down, constructive rest, or active rest. It consists of lying down on the floor with a few books under the head so that the eyes are looking straight up at the ceiling. The knees are bent to facilitate the release of the lower back. Hands can be on the torso or at the hip juncture. One lies in this position for around 20 minutes, but less time yields benefits as well. I usually also do a few minutes of Tai Chi before practicing. By the time I get to the piano my head is clearer and my body is more integrated.

  2. It’s a bad exercice : a good breathing is a silent breathing, if you hear the sound of the air while exhaling or inhaling, you probably breath too fast ! You breathing is normally ok , when you breath enough slow so that you don’t hear it !

    1. P.S.:be sure to put you hands on your belly to make sure you breath only with the belly (an abdominal respiration). Your chest and your rib must stay still.

    2. The ujayi breath done in yoga makes a sound, because you contract the back of the throat, but it is also very slow and deliberate.

    3. It’s a good exercise – as the attempt to hear the sound in breathing actually goes beyond the mere physical phenomenon – which may be audible, or not.
      In listening to your breath’s sound, you go even deeper into the experience, con-centrate (=go into your center) even more, than if you just – breathe.

      Thanks for reminding us of this very simple and very effective exercise, Noah!

    4. Even ‘silent’ breathing you will still hear a slight sound – but you are missing the point Nicole! The point is to focus and listen … Try John Cage’s how-ever-many-minutes-it-was composition!!

  3. I started doing yoga several months ago to increase my flexibility but have found the meditative aspect is just as important for general well-being. The act of concentrating on your breathing as you described helps to clear all other thoughts out of your head and calm your whole body for what you need to do next.
    I took up learning the clarinet about 3 years ago after my retirement and still have problems with tightness in my mouth and constriction in my throat which certainly doesn’t help the quality of my playing. Even after a short time, deep breathing at the start of a practice session is already helping me relax and play better. Now if I can just do that in front of my teacher….

  4. Love this! As a singer and voice teacher I begin every practice session and lesson with some stretching and breathing. Not only does it help bring awareness into the present moment, but it brings oxygen through the entire body, and can actually shorten the warm-up time needed. As an artists’ life coach, I do the same thing with my clients, and the effect is pretty remarkable. Thank you for bringing attention to such a simple, important issue!

  5. This kind of practice comes into play when meditating, which is something I have been doing now for close to a year. I have found that the focus on breathing required for meditation crosses over into my daily life and playing music, by helping me to be more present.

  6. I can attest to the results of focusing on breathing. As a brass player and teacher, I start all sectionals and lessons with breathing exercises (at least with my younger kids). This not only helps the kids’ playing, but it really helps their focus and lowers their heart rate.
    I was also involved in a study where we used breathing, along with physical therapy, as a means of injury prevention. If you want to read more about this…

  7. I don’t have a pre-warmup ritual, although I’ve heard about them. Some people talk about physically warming up and stretching the body before sitting down to practice, but I think that’s a little much. Three deep breaths, though, or five minutes of deep breathing, is a great idea. As a clarinet player, when I get nervous the most obvious thing that goes is my breathing.

    I learned a lot about practicing when I started taking karate a year ago, mostly about the mindfulness of execution. We always had our pre-class ritual that involved a quick 30 seconds of meditation to quiet us down and get our minds focused on the task at hand. We did the same ritual before my first belt test, and while I was really nervous before the test, once that ritual happened, I felt “safe” and executed my moves just as I did in class. Building a calming ritual into the beginning of your practice routine could do wonders for calming the fight-or-flight response inherent in lessons, performances, and auditions.

  8. Sometimes I do a bit of stretching followed by some juggling before I practice. I figure it gets the blood flowing and the juggling helps with timing and coordination.

  9. My pre-warmup routine consists mostly of dynamic stretching and breathing exercises. As a trombonist, the breathing is obviously important to wake up my respiratory system, but I find that the stretching is just as helpful. Getting my muscles warm across my entire body and getting the blood flowing makes my mind sharper and more ready to tackle big problems. It also more closely simulates the high-energy mental and physical states of performance.

  10. Great Article, I’ve been learning the value of this in my podcasting ironically enough. My wife is a vocalist and has been coaching me on doing exactly what you say here: breathing. Not being a vocalist, I tend to get extremely anxious and analytical when it comes to recording time. As a result I’ll have shortness of breath and not be able to say all that I would like on a given topic. She has been incorporating the habit of breathing prior to hitting record and already I have seen a huge improvement. Whether podcasting, practicing, or performing it’s so important to be in the moment. a pre-warmup ritual like breathing can do just that!

  11. The first time I did this and was totally relaxed, I thought no way could u play music in this state. Then my finger touched a string and the sound startled me. It was a profound teaching moment for me. What I had done was lowered my defenses (mental and emotional filters) and the sound had a direct impact on me. I was in direct contact with the sound, I was in the reality of that moment. Which is exactly where I want to be all the time.

      1. I agree, since last October I have made a deliberate attempt to slow my breathing and relaxing my body before u begin my daily practice. I’ve been having a ball. For the first time in my life (for some context, 52 with a DMA in Guitar Performance) I am performing pieces near to perfection and having a ball. It’s like I’ve been wearing earplugs for 30 years and then suddenly they fell out. My enjoyment of senous sound is at an all time high. If it wasn’t for all if this relaxing I might attribute it to a midlife crisis. Haha.

  12. My current routine:



    I’ve definitely found each of these steps to be worth the brief time and effort spent.

  13. Haha, this reminds me of when I tell my fiance I can control my heart beat and slow it down whenever I want. She thinks it’s so crazy every time I do it but all I’m doing is just exhaling sneakily when I want to “slow down” my heart beat. HAHA.

    I first noticed this when I used to do crossfit workouts.

  14. I play the horn (aka French horn) and I’ve been doing long tones at the beginning of my practice sessions. I think this helps me to get focused before doing the other parts of my practicing. It may be the same thing as taking deep breaths. I listen to get the note centered — there’s a certain ringing (some say “buzzy”) quality in the note when it’s centered. I do this for the mid-range notes on each fingering. This takes longer than the few breaths but, as I said, this is what has also helped me to focus and get connected to my instrument.

  15. I learn so many instruments until lately I learn Chinese Lute, and my teacher always want me to do finger stretching before playing, but I don’t feel any difference actually, maybe should try this 3 deep breath.

  16. I’ve found that during the pre-warmup phase, to take a few moments to visualize how I want to sound. Even if I’m warming up for a practice session and the first thing I’m going to play on my instrument are slow, long tones, I still maintain the habit of visualization so that when it comes to more intricate, complex musical items, I have the ideal picture in mind for what I want to sound like.

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