The Mindful Guitarist’s Guide To Warming Up

by Leon Waters, Feb. 5, 2015

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Welcome back! In our last post, we explored a new way of identifying physical problems using a mindfulness-based technique known as the body scan. This time around, we’re going to look at ways to prevent injuries from affecting your playing, comfort, and fun in the first place!

Before we get started, always remember this: If you ever experience pain, discomfort, or other worrying physical symptoms, be sure to get checked out by a medical professional. Never ignore the messages your body is sending you; if you feel you need a short break during a practice session, take a break – and don’t feel embarrassed about taking the time you need, or seeking professional medical advice when it’s needed. Experiencing serious, long-lasting pain and being forced to stop playing altogether because you pushed yourself too far will feel much, much worse!

Many musicians skip warming up altogether and dive immediately into full-steam-ahead playing. For a handful of exceptions, the body seems able to take all the punishment the player can dish out without complaining – at least initially. In the short term, everything seems fine – but every human being’s body is constantly changing, and over time warning signs and eventually serious physical consequences are practically guaranteed to arise.

It may take months, even years – but sooner or later the vast majority of us end up paying the price for not thinking ahead. The musical community is rife with stories of marathon practice sessions and other acts of bravado, but it’s crucial to remember that music is an art form, not a sport – and if a story sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t be fooled into thinking you have to compete with every other musician out there, because you don’t. Take care of yourself, and you’ll reap the rewards in good time. Even Steve Vai – a virtuoso guitarist famed for his intense ten-hour practice sessions – advises caution in the face of concerning physical symptoms.

When you sit down to practice, pause briefly and pay attention to how your body feels. Perhaps you’re excited about picking your instrument up again; maybe your heart is beating a bit faster than normal, and you might even be literally itching to get stuck in! Feeling inspired and impatient is perfectly normal – after all, making music is fun stuff – but pausing just for a moment and taking how your body feels into account will allow your session to last longer and be far more engaging. This is especially important when you’re about to start the first practice session of the day.

Let’s say you’re an aspiring rock guitarist. You’ve pulled your axe out of its stand, strapped it up, and your head’s swarming with memories of yesterday’s spectacularly successful practice session. Before you get ahead of yourself and dive head-first into that tricky arpeggio sequence you nailed right on the head before putting your guitar down last night, pause and reflect on how your body – particularly your hands – feel right now.

Your hands and arms might still be fatigued after last time’s heroic endeavours; your shoulders and neck might be tense from all that concentration; your wrists may be sore – anything could be happening in your body at this moment, and if you don’t pay attention you’re likely to miss it altogether. If your body needs a little time to adjust, and you miss the messages it’s sending you, you could be looking at ten seconds of arpeggio time and the rest of the day sitting on the sidelines while you wait for the pains in your fingers to go away.

Fortunately, the solution is simple: Listen to your body, and give it the respect it deserves.

Another common mistake is trying to start a practice session where the last one left off. In this instance, that newly conquered arpeggio sequence is likely to be your first priority – you want to jump back into it, run it through over and over again – but your hands and thoughts may not be in sync right now. This is where simple warm-up exercises come in handy, as they allow you to run through something basic and familiar before tackling more advanced material.

Although they are absolutely essential in maintaining a healthy musical life, simple warm-up exercises do have a downside. While simple exercises do allow you to gradually ease into a practice session, it can be very easy to let your mind wander and become distracted. It’s perfectly normal to pick up your instrument, click on the metronome, and zone out for a few minutes while your hands go through the motions. Your fingers do light to moderate work while you end up thinking about last night’s practice session, the burger you ate afterwards, how tasty it was, whether you should have added mustard, or more gherkins…and then you snap out of it and move on to the next stage of your practice routine.

If you can relate to that situation, you’re not alone! Burgers, shopping lists, personal dramas, that awesome new TV show you just started watching – all can seem more interesting than going through that same warm-up exercise again. But a simple shift in thinking can change all that.

The secret, as you may have guessed, is simply to shift the focus of your attention to your hands while you run through your warm-up exercises. When doing this, you may notice signs of tension, discomfort, or pain telling you that you need to ease off a little bit, slowing the tempo or taking it easy for a couple of minutes. But as you progress, these aren’t the only things you want to look out for.

Paying full, concentrated attention to your body while you warm up doesn’t only function as an early-warning system that guards against injuries. It also allows you a front-row-centre seat as your playing becomes more and more controlled, fluid, relaxed, and effortless. Getting to grips with any instrument requires an investment of time, passion, and energy – and you definitely want to be present and aware as you reap the rewards!

Watching as you do something you previously couldn’t is one of the greatest experiences in the world. Watching as you go on to do it even better, the required motions becoming second nature, becoming part of you – is even better. This is the ultimate payoff for musicians everywhere.

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