By Benjamin Whitcomb | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
There are many benefits to having a routine of activities to practice each day before starting to work on repertoire. For one thing, many of the technical aspects of playing a stringed instrument can be isolated and addressed more efficiently outside of the repertoire that contains these passages. Addressing such issues “in the abstract,” as it were, can help you to think about the technique in more general terms, and may well help to keep you from becoming bored or frustrated with your current repertoire. Ideally, working on each technique in a systematic fashion through a warm-up routine will eventually make the technical aspects of playing natural and automatic.
Another significant benefit of warm-up routines is that they can ensure that you are addressing the many facets of string playing on a regular basis, regardless of whether each item is represented in your current repertoire. The principle of “use it or lose it”—meaning that skills tend to atrophy over time when you stop doing them—applies not only to playing an instrument as a whole, but to the constituent components of playing as well. A good warm-up routine will help to keep you advancing in every aspect of your technique and should also help you to see and feel the relationships among these components.
Once you’ve made some decisions about your warm-up content, don’t forget to be mindful of your process:
- Always have a plan. The process of planning your intended routine will help keep you thinking about what you are trying to accomplish.
- Be willing to alter your plan on any given day. Sometimes you may well solve certain issues in a short time but then suddenly run into an unexpected issue in some other area.
- Be willing to alter your plan over time. Not only will it be appropriate to adjust your routine as your skills improve, there is also something to be said for keeping your routine from feeling stale and monotonous.
The warm-up portion of your practice time is also ideal for monitoring every aspect of your playing. Just how resonant is your tone? How is your overall comfort level? Are you holding onto unnecessary tension anywhere? How is the timing and flow among the various actions? Evaluating all these aspects each day from the very start will go a long way to help instill the good habits and avoid the bad ones.
The Constituent Parts
A good warm-up routine should contain several components. Here are the ones I recommend to my students:
- Long tones
- Finger independence
- Large shifts
- Bowing styles
- String crossing
- High registers
Of course, it is possible to have more or fewer categories, but, for the reasons I list below, I find that these work very well.
1. Long tones
If you begin your practice session by immediately moving both hands, even at just a moderate speed, there is a risk that you could fail to notice such things as latent tension, a slightly crooked bow angle, a slightly forced tone, etc. Beginning with one sustained pitch at a time, even if just for a minute or two, should allow the brain to more carefully monitor these fundamental principles upon which everything else depends.
Where to start:
- Begin by practicing very slow notes on each of the open strings.
- Next, add stopped (i.e., fingered) notes: start with notes that have lots of sympathetic vibrations, such as G or D, played with a strong finger (such as your second finger).
- Later, proceed to work on less resonant or even “wolfy” notes like F or F-sharp, and with weaker fingers (such as your fourth finger).
- Vary attributes like dynamics and bow speed.
Scales are perhaps the component most commonly included in any warm-up routine, and for good reason. They form the building blocks of most music and help you read in and tune to each of the various keys. The finger patterns that they train often prove useful in playing a stringed instrument. In addition, scales are a perfect medium for practicing other aspects of string technique as well (such as bowing styles, double-stops, and more).
Where to start:
Phase I: Your purpose at first is simply to learn the scales.
- Learn the notes of all 15 major scales. Yes, enharmonic keys like F-sharp and G-flat are in the same location on the fingerboard, but the experience of reading and thinking about six sharps versus six flats is a bit different.
- Next, add the minors. I recommend doing natural minor briefly, then adding harmonic minor and finally melodic minor. Be patient and persistent, as these can take some time to learn well.
- One octave is fine at first, but add the second octave as soon as you are able.
- Be sure to spend some of your time looking at the music (i.e., written-out scales) and some time playing by rote.
- No tempo requirements—go as slowly as you need.
Phase II: Once your fingers and brain understand the scales, try adding the following things. You could start doing these things with major scales once they are solid, while your minor scales are still in the acquisition phase.
- Listen carefully for the quality of your tone and intonation.
- Pause on every tonic note. This simple device can be quite effective at anchoring the tonality of the scale (Ex. 1).
- Play with a metronome.
- Play with a drone pitch.
- Play the scales in both duple and triple divisions of the beat (Exs. 2 and 3).
- Increase the speed, at least to moderato.
- Practice the scales both slurred and with separate bows.
Phase III: Once Phase II becomes easy, proceed to add the following.
- Add a third or fourth octave.
- Increase the speed, up to prestissimo.
- Vary the dynamics: add hairpins, gradual and sudden dynamic changes, etc.
- Vary the bowing styles and the rhythms.
Phase IV: Finally, there is a great number of variations you can do with your scales.
- Work on broken thirds, use different fingerings, experiment with ornamentation (Ex. 4).
- Practice the various modes as well, such as by staying within a given key signature but changing the note on which you begin and end (Ex. 5).
- Practice scales in fragments, such as ascending a tetrachord at a time (Ex. 6).
- Devise other alterations as well. There are many possibilities, and the process of coming up with additional modifications is great for the mind.
Arpeggios are chords performed successively, rather than simultaneously. As such, they help you to think more chordally. While scales predominate in conjunct (i.e., stepwise) passages, arpeggios are frequently the basis of disjunct material.
Where to start:
As with scales, there is enough to do with arpeggios that you should divide it into two parts.
Phase I: Your initial goal is to learn the basic arpeggios, notice the recurring patterns, and carefully tune them.
- Begin by learning all major and minor triads, then proceed to diminished and augmented ones.
- Playing them in just one octave is fine at first but move to two as soon as you are able.
- No tempo requirements at first—play as slowly as you need.
Phase II: Once you have achieved a comfortable fluency with the list above, proceed to add the following:
- Practice playing all arpeggios within any given key—i.e., I chord, ii chord, iii chord, etc. (Ex. 7).
- Learn all five of the seventh-chord qualities at every pitch level.
- Add a third or fourth octave to each arpeggio.
- Practice them at a wide range of tempos, including very fast.
- Apply variations to the various arpeggios, such as inverting them, practicing broken arpeggios, or ornamenting each chord member with a neighbor note, etc. (Exs. 8 and 9).
4. Finger independence
Finger-independence exercises are a great way to improve coordination within the left hand. They also help improve your finger strength and your left hand’s sense of balance over the fingerboard. Some of these adjustments may feel very subtle at the time you are working on them, but they can have a significant effect on your playing in the long run.
Where to start:
- Play through the various finger permuta-tions, gradually increasing the tempo (Ex. 10).
- As you increase the speed, try to turn each combination of fingers into an unmeasured trill.
- Try incorporating small shifts (i.e., of a m2 or M2) during these patterns as well (Ex. 11).
- Try having different fingers simultaneously do different activities on different strings. For example, one finger holds down a pitch, another slides up and down the fingerboard, and a third finger taps yet a different pitch.
5. Large shifts
Shifting is, of course, another skill of critical importance to all string players. Sometimes the larger shifts—of a fifth or more, for example—can prove treacherous in terms of accuracy and tension level unless practiced regularly. Regularly practicing large shifts can also help you unlock and find balance in the left arm.
Where to start:
- Shift among harmonics in order to keep the left hand light and relaxed.
- Practice shifting different sizes of intervals, from a P4 to a P15.
- Most of this activity will take place on one string.
- Throw the hand from position to position.
- Vary the speed of the shift. If you always practice large shifts slowly, you may not develop a sense of throwing the hand from place to place.
- Use dotted rhythms to change the timing between left and right hand (Ex. 12).
6. Bowing styles
There are many different types of motions and articulations that can be accomplished with the bow, and these are called “bowing styles.” The benefits of being fluent with them include the ability to perform the repertoire in which they are called for and to improve the precision, control, and detailed muscle movements in the right hand.
Where to start:
- Study the many bowing styles, on and off the string. Examples include legato, detaché, marcato, spiccato, martelé, louré, staccato, and sautillé (Ex. 13).
- Apply them in different contexts, such as while playing scales and arpeggios.
- Vary the parameters, such as tempo, location in the bow, and dynamics.
7. String crossings
String crossings are required in virtually all string repertoire, which is enough of a reason to practice them. In addition, learning to execute truly smooth and consistent string-crossing motions improves the overall mechanics of your right-hand technique.
Where to start:
- Play through permutations of patterns involving various strings with various patterns of slurs (Ex. 14).
- Note the shapes drawn by your right hand (for example, figure 8, circle, or crescent shape).
- Pay attention to tone quality. Ensure that each string rings equally well.
- Start to vary factors such as the speed and the dynamics. Apply different bowing styles as well.
- Try playing double-stop open strings while varying the relative dynamics (for example, loud on the D string and soft on the G string, followed by soft on the D and loud on the G).
Double-stops appear in some of our repertoire. They are also excellent for tuning the spacing within the hand (between fingers). They get the fingers of the left-hand working as a team. Finally, they can also help you to think more about the underlying harmonic progression (whether implied or explicit).
Where to start:
- Play through different finger combinations on adjacent strings (Ex. 15).
- Carefully monitor intonation and comfort level.
- Play them as slowly as you need until a high degree of mastery is achieved.
- Practice transitioning between one interval and another (going from a P4 to a m6, for example).
- Apply double-stops to patterns such as scales—play scales in intervals like 3rds, 6ths, and 8ves (Ex. 16).
- Try working on triple- and quadruple-stops as well.
- On cello and bass, eventually include thumb position.
9. High registers
For each of the stringed instruments, there is repertoire that requires playing well above a player’s normal range. In addition, playing very high notes requires great precision in intonation and bow control, and this precision will prove valuable in all of your other playing as well.
Where to start:
- Locate many of the various harmonics on your fingerboard, as they provide excellent landmarks for locating other pitches as well (Ex. 17).
- Play scales and familiar songs by ear, in high registers.
- Know your finger patterns and fingerboard geography very solidly (see Ex. 18). For example, are you using high or low second finger? What other pitches are available in this position on the other strings?
- Practice reading music above the treble clef. Much flute repertoire works well for this purpose.
- On cello and bass, be sure to address the comfortable and accurate use of the thumb.
It seems appropriate to keep an open-ended category at the end for miscellaneous other skills you may want to include in your routine. For example, some people like to include the following:
- Orchestral excerpts
Activities like these could also be thought of as a separate component of one’s practicing regime, and indeed some people like to put activities like sight-reading or improvisation at the end of their practice time. In the category of “études,” do consider the possibility of including some of your own making, which could mean something as simple as a series of exercises to work through short, technically challenging portions of your current repertoire.
Learn to perfect your practice through expert advice from top string players and educators with the insightful e-book A Practice Primer.