Warming Up vs Building Fundamentals, part II

In my last post, I described the difference between warming up and working on fundamentals. Warming up is the readying of the physical and mental aspects of playing an instrument, and fundamentals are the habits formed by working on specific skills or concepts, like tonguing or playing scales. In this post, I'd like to address the feasibility of warming up and working on fundamentals in the context of a large ensemble (as opposed to small groups or individuals).

An effective warm up address both the physical and mental aspects of playing an instrument. When having my ensembles warm up, I want every member of the group to be thinking the same thoughts at the same time. Any individual lapse of concentration causes the musicians nearby to think less about their own playing, and the ensemble suffers. Consider your own experiences in an ensemble. When another player demonstrates that they are not concentrating at the highest level (perhaps by making a mistake or causing a distraction), your mind moves to think about them rather than your own playing, even if for just a moment. For students, a stand partner who is late to set up his instrument can keep nearby students disengaged for much longer than that. Therefore, it is critical to make sure all students are ready to begin warming up at the same time. If the group can't keep one mind for the duration of the warmup, something needs to be changed.

For wind players, air is the most critical physical component of the warmup. I've never met a professional musician who thought they had "arrived" with their breathing, but it is rare for me to encounter a student who realizes the important of their lungs. Without proper breath support, tone suffers, embouchures grow tired more quickly, and the level of phrasing and dynamic the individual students and the ensemble can achieve will be very limited. Aside from air, students (including percussionists) need to make sure the rest of their body is limbered up and relaxed.

It may be easy to agree with the paragraphs above, but to determine what to do with a large ensemble to meet the needs of the individual students is quite difficult. While my next post will deal with a review of one specific resource, in this post I'd like to point out some general ways the director can address the group warm up.

Idea #1 - Students have petitioned me to let individuals warm up on their own before the group rehearsal begins. While this sounds like a great idea in theory, I have never seen it play out well. Even with explicit instruction on what to do in a warm up, students invariably play louder, faster, and higher than they ought to with the result that the room is cacophonous and the students are no closer to achieving the sort of consistency and flexibility that a good warm up would provide.

Idea #2 - The group plays long tones--perhaps from a scale or the Remington series--and while the physical may be addressed, the monotony of this routine ruins the mental preparation of the group. A really great group can probably get past this, but that brings us to...

Idea #3 - Teach the ensemble what the warm up is for and get them to buy in to doing it right together. I haven't succeeded completely with this yet, but I'm convinced it's the way to go.

At this point, I'm out of time to thoroughly address fundamentals. The next post, however, should hopefully address one way of teaching fundamentals in the context of the group rehearsal.