Every string player performs some sort of warm-up routine before beginning practice. In this video, DePaul University student Michelle Manson, who is studying viola performance with a second major in psychology, details their warm-up routine and gives suggestions for how musicians can continue to evolve their own warm-up routine.
“I’ve noticed a big difference in my playing since I started doing this,” says Manson. “When I finally start playing, my body is just way more prepared to take on my practice session.”
For creating your own warm-up routine, the most important thing is to listen to your body on a daily basis. “Some days you may feel completely loose and free, and you can do one or two stretches, and it’s fine,” says Manson. “And some days you’re extremely tense and have to do a lot more. Everyone’s body is different, and everyone’s body changes day by day.”
Manson’s warm-up routine normally takes 20 to 30 minutes. It draws inspiration from many different sources, including conversations with other string players, exercise apps, and listening to what their body needs that day. It usually begins with a little yoga, “nothing too drastic, very low intensity,” Manson says, followed by a stretching routine starting from the ground up. Calf raises (10 or so), followed by toe touches letting the shoulders hang to stretch out the back, then stretching hamstrings and quads.
For the upper body, Manson moves the arms around to get bloodflow going, then raises the arms above the head and bends the back a little bit back, breathing deeply. Then pull each arm across the body, holding it with the other arm. This is a common stretch, but it should be kept as intentional as all other stretches.
For the arms, things begin with static wrist stretches. After that, Manson makes small circles with the wrists, keeping the forearm in place and just focusing on making small movements—10 rotations each way. Then the circles expand to include the forearm, and increasingly more of the arm until the shoulders get involved at the end of the cycle. The focus is on keeping every motion as fluid as possible.
Using light resistance bands can be a good way to keep strength up, too. There are many exercises that can be done with bands, so it may take a while to find what works best for you. A good place to start is with any specific exercises gleaned from physical therapy sessions or work with a personal trainer that work well for your body.
“Most of my warm-up is without the viola,” says Manson. Still, it’s important to warm up with the instrument and bow to prime the body and mind for practice. Manson starts by bowing with just the wrist on the center of the bow, then adds the forearm. Then comes bowing with only the upper half of the bow, followed by the lower half. This is done on each string on the viola before moving on to rhythms.
Rhythm exercises come next, in order of half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets, sixteenths, and sextuplets. For the left hand, Manson puts down the bow and does metered vibrato exercises without it, gradually getting narrower and faster, to help loosen the fingers on the left hand. Finally, finger patterns in different combinations of high-twos, low-twos, low-two high-three, etc. can sometimes take the place of scales. Manson suggests this is a good place to get creative in a warm-up routine, just remember that the goal is to set up the hand frame before diving into the rest of your practice.
Finally, getting into the right frame of mind is an important part of a warm-up routine. Manson suggests to stay open-minded in terms of what your practice time looks like. “Really, your practice time is your time to yourself. At least that’s how I like to approach it—it’s my ‘me time’ with my viola.” It can be easy to let outside stresses seep into your practice, Manson says, but a good warm-up and the right mindset can help make your practice time a relaxing experience.