By Patrick Sullivan
Since debuting at age seven, Anne Akiko Meyers has learned to expect the unexpected before a concert begins. The world-famous soloist has seen an outdoor show canceled on account of lightning. She has had unscheduled speeches and performances delay her turn onstage.
And then there were the times she thought she’d have a chance to prepare—only to have the stage crew suddenly knock on her door and tell her she was on.
“The point is, one has to be flexible and very prepared for anything to happen,” she explains.
That unpredictability can bedevil musicians trying to establish a pre-concert warm-up routine. But pros like Meyers don’t let the unexpected derail their warm-ups—they’re just too important. Warming up can prevent injury, improve performance, and help you get on the same page with others in your ensemble.
“As playing the violin is so physically demanding and requires much repetitive movement and focus, it’s important to warm up one’s body before a performance like an athlete,” Meyers says. For Meyers, that process usually takes just 15 minutes or so. “Too much time and you go crazy,” she says. “Too little time and you freak out.”
Her routine varies but some elements are constant: breathing, stretching (doorways are helpful, she notes), and slow practice. “Getting my mind into the music helps calm my nerves, and getting my fingers to be limber helps my mind to stay fluid,” she says.
Meyers normally starts her day with scales and takes a lap around the circle of fifths. “But when warming up before a concert, I play anything from wide open notes to Take Five from David Brubeck,” she says. “Whatever is hanging around my brain at the moment.”
For Jeremy Berry of the acclaimed Calidore String Quartet, a longer, more ritualized approach has been useful. The violist likes to have an hour for warm-up. “What I normally do is start with whatever core concept I want to work itself into everything I do after,” Berry explains. He often begins with Kreutzer Étude No. 1, played at a slow tempo, with a focus on breathing and relaxed playing.
Then, for establishing hand frame, Berry dips into Roland Vamos’ Exercises for the Violin in Various Combinations of Double-Stops. Next he moves to Sevcik Op. 8 for smooth, accurate shifting. Then he practices one scale with various bow strokes. After that, he’ll tackle a key from the Carl Flesch system and one étude.
Still, that deliberate approach isn’t always feasible. As a traveling musician who takes dozens of plane flights a year, Berry has seen airport hassles and taxi troubles cut into warm-up time. One obvious key to coping with unpredictability is leaving his apartment with his repertoire as secure as possible. “I try to assume that I will have very little time to practice,” Berry says. “If there are time restrictions I remove whatever technical drill that I feel the most confident about.”
Travel can pose other challenges. Berry uses the Alexander Technique to cope with stiffness caused by long flights, and he closely monitors what the stress of touring is doing to his musical technique. “Our bodies are constantly trying to undo all of the great work we’ve put into learning our instruments over the years,” he says. “When we travel a lot I sometimes start to feel a little inconsistent with my shifting, so I focus more on that.”
As a violist in a quartet, Berry is very focused on issues like articulation and tempo. “I do try to do a couple minutes of practicing vibrato against a metronome and being able to control my vibrato at different speeds,” he says. On concert days, his quartet focuses on playing pieces at one-half to two-thirds normal tempo—“We call it loading pieces,” he explains—before playing them at normal speed for at least a minute or two. “I think it has a meditative effect and puts us into the zone,” he says. “We’re doing more talking to each other with our instruments, which prepares us to go onstage.”
Venues themselves can also have a major impact on pre-concert warm-ups, notes world-famous British cellist Raphael Wallfisch. “Every venue is a bit different,” Wallfisch says. “Many churches have almost no room to warm up at all.” Some older buildings have long, drafty hallways between the dressing room and the performance space—meaning that you can get cold again just walking to the stage. Excitement compounds the problem.
“You have to keep that lovely, flexible warmth,” Wallfisch says. “But as the adrenaline rises, usually your hand gets colder, not warmer. It’s the flight or flight syndrome. Your blood is going elsewhere.”
If all else fails, the cellist just wraps his fingers around a cup of tea. “That usually does the trick,” he says with a chuckle.
But when possible, Wallfisch kicks off his warm-ups with octave shifts on one string, going from first, second, third, or fourth finger on the lower note, to either second or third on the high note. It’s all done slowly, feeling the length of the string. Then he might play the phrase from the second subject of the first movement of Dvorak, work on some fingering, and do some left-hand thumb-position exercises. If there’s time, he’ll glide through a couple of Popper études in a relaxed manner.
But you just can’t count on having time or space to run through a checklist like that, he emphasizes. A relaxed attitude in the face of unforeseen circumstances can carry you a long way. “All of us have warmed up in strange surroundings, and it doesn’t mean the show itself is going to go badly,” he says with a laugh. “If it’s a horrible place, you can’t wait to get onstage because it’s better than the dressing room.
“That can be an incentive to get on with things.”