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How to Create a Practice Warmup Routine

a grey cat on a yoga mat with an exercise ball nearby

Playing an instrument is surprisingly physically tasking. While you wouldn’t run a mile without physically warming up your body, you shouldn’t jump into practicing an instrument without warming up, either. Even more important is “warming up” your mind and getting yourself in a good mental space, or mindset, for focus and learning. A good warmup routine can really help your child prepare themselves physically and mentally for quality practice. A warmup routine can look different for every musician. Check out these ideas to help your child develop a solid warmup. A beginning piano student should aim for 5 minutes of warmup, and an intermediate student should aim for around 10 minutes.

Move It, Move It

Literally, move! Think gym class… okay, don’t think gym class. Think of something more fun! And then stretch, touch your toes, swing your arms, shake out your hands, or do a few TikTok dances. Playing an instrument puts our bodies in awkward positions or sitting (and more and more research shows the negative impact of sitting on our bodies). Add to that our tendency to tense up when we struggle with a challenging skill, and you start to see how physically taxing playing an instrument can be. Light stretching and movement before starting will help relax your child’s body. Doing the same short routine at the start of every practice also helps put them in the mindset of “it’s practice time.” Remember, we’re talking about a practice routine; a good routine has a definite start that triggers the rest. Make this fun! Do the warmup with them. Encourage giggles.

• Before sitting at the bench or picking up their instrument, have your child stand with space around them. Show them how to gently swing their arms side to side (sometimes called “knocking on heaven’s door” in yoga class). Kids love flopping their arms like this, and it's a great way to get rid of any tension and to get a feeling for their arm weight.

• Show them how to stretch their arms up in the air - really stretch - and then let them flop down heavily at their sides. Have them do this three times in a row.

• As they sit down to their instrument or pick it up, have them take a moment to ensure they have good body posture. Your child’s teacher should have explained what this looks like. Since I’m a piano teacher, I’ll explain body posture for piano here. If you aren’t sure about your child’s instrument, ask their teacher. Piano Posture

Set them up with the bench or armless chair at the correct height and their feet firmly planted on the floor or a footstool if their feet dangle. Their forearms should be parallel to the ground, and their shoulders relaxed. For distance from their instrument, I like to demonstrate zombie arms (too far) and T-rex arms (too close), then either Rainbow Dash or Superman being just right - with knuckles hitting the fallboard or the back of the keys.

Demonstrate how to raise their arms gently to the keys (without playing) and make a curved handshape on the keys. Don’t worry about a beginner student finding a particular hand position -- you’re just looking for a relaxed curved hand shape with their arms at the right height.

Every time they sit at the piano, have them go through the body warmup - swing arms side to side, raise and drop their arms three times, adjust bench height and body distance from keys, and gently raise their arms to the keys with curved handshape.

Play It, Play It

While all musicians (even grownups) should follow a body warmup routine before playing or practicing, your child’s ability level will dictate how their playing warmup goes. Start simple and build on the warmup as your child advances with their studies. Let’s start with a sample warmup routine for a young beginner. I will reference the piano in these warmups, but they can be easily adapted to most instruments.

The First Months Warmup Routine

1. Always start with a body warmup, like above.

2. Play a finger number reminder game. Do a quick reminder of the finger numbers, then ask them to wave to you with different fingers, alternating between hands. For example, ask them to wave with their left-hand finger 5. After having them wave a few fingers, move on to having them play a single note on the piano with the requested finger.

3. Find notes on their instrument or the staff. For piano, ask them to find all the Ds on the piano, starting high and moving low, for example. Have them practice playing the individual notes they have learned for another instrument.

Advancing Warmup Routine

1. Always start with a body warmup, like above. 2. Practice scales, chords, and arpeggios. Scales are the backbone of chords and harmony, and chords and harmony are the backbones of music. I get it. Few musicians just love playing scales. But a thorough understanding of scales leads to a deeper understanding of how notes relate to one another and how chords work. Learning scales is valuable and will open the world of music to your student. And playing scales and arpeggios increases flexibility and agility and improves their sense of where notes are on their instrument. A beginner student can start with a C Major pentascale (a 5-finger scale CDEFG) and add from there as they learn more. Using the scales, your child can also practice dynamics, articulation, and other skills. Play them soft, play them high, play them slowly, play them staccato, etc.

3. Play some favorite songs. I have my students develop what we call “the warmup set,” like a setlist for a band. It is three songs that they a) love and b) have so well memorized they can play them anytime, anywhere, even through distraction. These aren’t meant to be recital-worthy pieces. They are songs from a method book they have passed, a rote piece I have taught them, or something from a favorite songbook. These must be songs they really enjoy. It also helps if the music is impressive-sounding. They are to play through their warmup set from memory at the start of every practice. A few minutes might need to be spent on memorizing a new song added to the list.

A good, short warmup routine helps prepare your child for practice time. Getting into the right mindset with a solid starting routine goes a long way toward bringing about more effective and efficient practice. This is an excellent time for you to be involved too! Make it a habit to warmup with your child, even if it is just the physical warmup part. Until age 10, most students will need your help or presence for their entire practice time. However, even an intermediate and advancing student will benefit from one-on-one time with a parent to jump-start their practice time. I encourage you to think of music lessons and practice as a joint venture with your child and find ways to be more involved, even if you aren’t a musician. Music should be a family affair. Start early developing a partnership with your child over music. You will be building habits that will benefit both of you outside of music and last a lifetime.

I’ll share more tips on building a solid practice routine over the next few weeks. Check out the first post here and grab your free practice routine printable.

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