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Is It Necessary for Musicians to Warm Up and Use Finger Exercises?

The snarky answer to that question is another question: Do Olympic-level athletes warm up before their competitions? If the world's finest athletes include warm-ups in their routines, wouldn't it make sense for you to add some simple yet helpful exercises to your music practice—especially if the benefits are obvious?

Consider the similarity between what a champion athlete does and what you do as a musician. Whether you perform on woodwinds, brass, strings or percussion, you're performing complex controlled actions to produce music from your instrument. And you'll probably concede that your best performances result from your mastery of the physical actions that produce your music. If you're accomplished enough, you barely think about most of these actions during your performances. (And if you aren't yet that accomplished musically, you're probably looking forward to a time when you no longer need to think carefully about every action as you perform it.)

Now consider some of the benefits of warm-ups and finger exercises, and I think you'll be convinced to add exercises to your practice routine:

Warm ups can help prevent injury or assist with the healing of existing injuries. A warm-up routine is a great way to take your mind off of everything else going on in your life in order to focus on your instrument and your music. Once you are warmed up, playing becomes more efficient, easier, more fluid, and probably more accurate. You can even integrate your warm-up routine into a regular exercise program with the benefits of better health, improved posture, proper breathing, and mood enhancement.

And just to clarify, musicians have available both purely physical exercises as well as exercises performed on their instrument and both are beneficial for improving health as well as performance. It probably goes without saying that your most valuable instrument is your body, and that anything you can do to help it remain healthy and supple will contribute positively to your aspirations as a musician or to the length of your musical career.

Here is another reason to advocate for warm-up exercises: Musicians, especially beginners, are susceptible to injury because of repetitive movement—and for beginners—unfamiliar repetitive movements.

String performers who don't warm up properly risk injury to their backs, shoulders, and neck. Performers on wind instruments may subject themselves to neck, shoulder, and arm injuries, as well as problems with their ears, nose, throat, mouth, and lips. Brass instrumentalist may even risk eye injury as they attempt to exert undue air pressure. Percussionists, too, can encounter back, shoulder, neck, hand, and wrist problems, as well as pain in their arms and fingers from accumulated tension.

If untreated, these symptoms can lead to extreme pain as well as specific conditions such as carpal tunnel, cubital tunnel, or thoracic outlet syndrome; and tendinitis, bursitis, or Quervain's tenosynovitis. If like most of us, you don't even know what most of these are, let's just say that all of these repetitive strain injuries are well worth avoiding.

Thankfully, you can take some simple steps to minimize your chances of injury.

For example, keyboardists have been using various Hanon keyboard exercises for finger dexterity ever since Charles-Louis Hanon first published them in 1873. Brass performers blow through their mouthpiece as part of the warm up. One great practice tool for brass players is the B.E.R.P. And orchestral string players have various bowing and fingering exercises specifically for their benefit. All of these measures contribute to better playing, and no matter what instrument you play, you can find musical exercise books and DVDs on our website that will help you be a better performer.

In the meantime, we suggest a few physical exercises that can benefit you no matter what instrument you play. Depending on your specific physical needs, you may also want to consult a qualified medical professional before starting any exercise regimen, especially if you have existing injuries or chronic pains.

When doing any of the exercises below, remember that they are intended to release tension and to relax and stretch your muscles and tendons. They should not cause pain or be done to the point of feeling pain. If you begin to feel discomfort, stop.

As you warm up, focus on what you feel in your muscles and tendons. Think of yourself as waking them up, getting the blood flowing through them for flexibility and lubrication, preparing them to do your bidding smoothly and efficiently knowing that you'll be expressing yourself musically with the least amount of effort for the greatest effect after you exercise.

Gentle Stretching

Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and swing your arms freely from left to right moving your shoulders. Imagine that your body is like a rag doll and each arm is an elephant's trunk moving smoothly back and forth. Twist gently at the waist in response to the weight of your arms as you feel your body loosening up.

Do arm circles with your hands out in front of you clockwise and counter-clockwise.

Stretch the smaller muscles of your hands by first clenching your fists and then opening them with your hands straight out in front of you. Try it palms down, then palms up, then with your palms facing each other.

Perform these movements slowly and gently holding each position for a few seconds. Remember to breath, and relax between sets.

Neck Stretching Exercises

Clasp your left wrist with your right hand and hold it in back of your head. Pull your arms to the right and then to the left. Repeat with the other hand.

Reach for the sky

First reach up with both hands and rise on the balls of your feet if you can. Bring your arms down and your feet flat on the floor, and then reach up with alternating arms. Then reaching one arm up at a time bend at the waist to the opposite side without twisting at the waist.

Standing twist

Bend forward, place you right hand loosely around the inside of your right knee. Stretch your left arm up toward the ceiling and turn your head to the left, trying to see your left hand. Repeat on the other side.

Neck and Shoulder Stretch

Clasp your left wrist with your right hand and hold it in back of your head. Pull your arms to the right and then to the left. Repeat with the other hand.

Finger Flexor Stretch

With either your left or your right arm straight out in front of you, use one hand to move the fingers of the other. Gently bend each finger and the thumb back as far as it will go without pain, one at a time and hold for a few seconds. When stretching your hands and fingers only go far enough to feel resistance. Never pull back until you feel pain. Repeat on the opposite side.

Finger Extensor Stretch

With palms down on a flat surface such as a table, or desk, or the top of your piano, straighten all the fingers and thumb and move them apart and then bring them together again.

Forearm Flexor Stretch

Place a cushion or folded towel on a table in front of you. In a standing position with palms down and wrists bent, place your hands on the cushion with fingers relaxed, not spread apart. Straighten your arms and lean your body forward slightly without putting weight on your hands and wrists and feel the stretch at the back of your palms.

Forearm Extensor Stretch

Extend either arm in front of you with your elbow straight. Let your hand flop down at the wrist. Put your free hand in front of the other and gently pull your fingers toward you stretching the top of the land. Reverse and do the same for the right hand. Now repeat with each arm with the fingers of the stretching arm pointed upward.

Here are a few exercises specifically for your fingers:

Finger Lifts

Place your palm flat on a table and simply raise and lower your fingers one at a time. Do the finger in a variety of patterns to enhance your muscle control. For example, start with the index finger and work your way down to the little finger. Or start with the middle finger, jump to the little finger, hop across to the index finger and finish the series with the ring finger. Create your own sequences to keep the exercise fresh.

Finger Spread

With your palm flat on a table or other surface, bring your fingers together tight. Now fan open your fingers, allowing them to stretch as far apart as possible. Slide your fingers shut again returning to the starting position. Repeat the movement at least 10 times with each hand to complete one set. Add more repetitions and sets as your finger strength increases.

Finger Walk

Again, place your palm flat on a surface spreading your fingers a natural distance apart. Now walk your fingers across to your thumb. Start by lifting your index finger and move it closer to your thumb. Next, lift your middle finger and move it toward the thumb, followed in turn by the ring finger and little finger. Keep your wrist and thumb stationary throughout the exercise.

Paper Crumple

Hold a piece of paper between your thumb and fingers, and extend your arm straight out in front of you. With your arm extended, crumple the paper into a tight ball using only your fingers. Try to crumple up the paper as fast as possible. Keep repeating with fresh paper until your fingers, hand and forearm are warmed up.

Fingertip Touch

Hold your hand straight out in front of you. Bend your thumb across your palm and touch it to the outer edge of your hand beneath the little finger. Now return your thumb to the starting position and touch the tip of your index finger to your thumb. Next, touch the tip of your middle finger to your thumb, followed by the ring finger's tip and the little finger's tip. Start the exercise over and repeat as many times as necessary for the movement to become smooth and effortless.

Finger Walking

Finally, finger walk exercises can help strengthen your forearm, hand, and finger joints. Place your palm flat against a smooth, flat wall while seated or standing. Next, focus on using only your individual fingers on that hand to move your arm up the surface of the wall. Gravity will provide the resistance needed to accomplish this strengthening exercise for maximum benefit. Hold your arm up for a few seconds after your hand has walked as far as it can. Then repeat using the opposite arm.

Finger Strength

Doctor of Musical Arts Yoshinori Hosaka recommends the following exercise: Hold your right hand up with your fingers slightly curved. With your palms facing, use the finger of your left hand to reach over your right hand fingers and cover the nail of each right-hand finger with the corresponding fingertip of your left hand. Now bear down with your left hand's fingers while resisting with your right hand's fingers. Try this with each finger individually, then with the whole hand. Finally, reverse hands so that each gets an equal amount of exercise.

You don't need to perform all of these exercises every time, but do consider printing them out and selecting a few of the ones you find most useful to do before every practice. You'll notice that you feel looser, more relaxed, and more alert after performing a set of these exercises. And once again, you should not feel any pain, and you should feel the physical and mental benefits almost immediately. Over time you will notice that your flexibility, strength, and range of motion are increasing.

When you are finished with these exercises, start playing some slow gentle exercises on your instrument to warm up the specific parts of your body that you use in performance.

Woodwind & Brasswind is proud to offer high-quality music instruction materials to help musicians from professional to beginner improve their skills. Many of the books, videos, and practice aids we sell can be shipped overseas. They are all backed by The Woodwind & Brasswind's 110% Price Guarantee, assuring that you won't find musical instruction materials at a lower price anywhere else.


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