The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

The Ritual Power of Physical Warm-ups


yoga on beach

Do you need another reason to add physical warm-ups to your daily practice routine? Here it is: As a ritual, your physical warm-ups can have a profoundly positive impact on your experience of performing. Those stretches and exercises that you do every day can eventually become a ritual that  focuses your mind and readies your spirit for the act of making music.

If you’ve ever been to a religious service, you’ve seen many examples of rituals:  from the small and simple gesture of bowing one’s head in prayer to the more involved actions surrounding Communion or Baptism (can you tell I have a Catholic background?). A secular example is the ceremonial taking down and folding of the flag at the end of the day.  Simple or complex, a ritual is a physical pattern one follows that has symbolic meaning.

One of the important things about a ritual is exactly that symbolic meaning, its spiritual/emotional/mental component.  Let’s take genuflecting as an example: the physical act is touching the floor with one knee, at the end of a pew, but the symbolic meaning is something along the lines of “I bow before God to show respect and receptivity.” Compare this to the case of your physical warm-ups:  while you are literally stretching certain muscles, you are symbolically saying, “Now I am getting ready for my regular practice.” (The key word in that sentence is “regular.”  A warm-up routine will not become a ritual unless you do it every time you practice.)


Yet the benefits of your warm-up ritual go beyond just signaling your readiness to practice. First,
you can use your warm-up ritual to great effect before performances.  Performing can be so anxiety-making because it is so unusual; relative to how many times you practice, you perform very little.  Doing your daily ritual warm-up before a performance can put you into (or closer to) your daily mindset.  It’s like saying to yourself, “Ok, no big deal.  This is just another practice day,” which in turn makes you feel more calm, and lowers the emotional stakes.

Another benefit is a little harder to describe, but no less important in the long run.  When you incorporate physical warm-ups into your daily practice, you eventually create a higher meaning to the physical work.  You not only ready your body to play, but you ready your mind and even spirit to play.  Your mind gets focused, and your spirit opens up to the power of music.  In short, you become more fully present.  There’s a reason all religions have rituals:  they work.

I experienced this in a very strong way last year—not before a performance but before my wedding!  [include pic]  On the morning of the big day, I was pretty excited, and pretty nervous, and was not at all sure what to do to get ready.  I had carved out a little bit of ‘alone time’ in the morning, and found myself pacing around the room, at a loss for how to prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime event.  You know when you’re so nervous that you feel trapped inside yourself, and not present to the place or other people around you?  That’s how it was.

I don’t know what possessed me to do it, since really, a wedding is not a concert, but I thought I’d do my flute stretches.  I guess it’s just because that’s what I usually do to prepare for something big.


The happy brides (I'm the one with blond hair)

It was amazing how effective it was. I went from feeling a little crazy and a lot nervous to thinking, “Oh, I’m me.  I’m ready to go.”  I felt like not only did my shoulders drop from up around my ears, but I became present to the moment: my mind focused and my spirit relaxed.

So if a few stretches, slowly crafted into a ‘get ready’ ritual over years of practice, can do that for a nervous bride, imagine what they can do for you before your next performance!  Get started now, and you’ll experience the benefits over your whole career.

PS.  If you’d like some suggestions on what stretches to do on a daily basis, click on “Physical Warm-ups” on the Categories sidebar at the right, and you can watch my video instructions on neck, shoulder, arm and hand stretches.

Photo Credits:  Yoga on the Beach by mikebaird, Prayer by prakhar, Wedding photo by Derek Goodwin

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