Wicked Warm-Ups

A lesson from the February 2015 issue of KEYBOARD.
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I started out on the piano with classical training, first taking lessons from private teachers, and later studying at Manhattan School of Music’s college prep program. At the same time, I was always fooling around with blues and Boogie-woogie music, and dreaming of electric pianos, organs and synthesizers. But the piano is still home base for me. It’s where I started and got my chops together.

When I warm-up on piano, I begin with exercises like Hanon and Czerny (and some of my own variations on them), along with scales and Bach Inventions. I play everything with a metronome. This type of material demands perfect note accuracy, rhythmic precision and even accents, so I warm up with it exclusively before attempting to play anything with jazzy syncopation, blues inflections or flexible time. Without having warmed up, you can still play something that sounds pleasing to the ear (like a bluesy lick, for example), but because your finger control and independence is not at its best, it may or may not end up being precisely what you intended to play. It can lure you into believing you are warmed-up and can play anything that pops into your head, when actually, you can’t. If you then proceed to play something challenging, you’ll soon find out that your playing is sloppy. On the other hand, if you try to play a Hanon exercise or a Bach invention with cold fingers, any sloppiness is immediately exposed. So that’s where I begin at the piano, and where we will start this warm-up lesson!

1. Hanon-Esque

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Ex. 1a (above) is a pattern that you can take up and down the scale a la the famedHanon exercises. This kind of exercise is great for warming-up, but I have found after playing it that my sixteenth notes can still sometimes be sloppy on the weak subdivisions between the eighth notes (on the “e” and “a” beats). To get my sixteenth notes even, I will sometimes use a metronome and play these weak beats on the clicks as opposed to between them. Try this technique with the Hanon-themed exercise Ex. 1b (below).

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2. Back to Bach

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Ex. 2a (above) is an imitation Bach example for you to play through. In Ex. 2b (below) our pseudo-Bach exercise is played with accents on the weak rhythmic subdivisions, where your metronome clicks should fall. (This can make a Bach invention sound like some kind of mad uptempo swing, but it exposes any mushiness in your fingers and helps iron it out). Try this technique on pieces by Bach himself to continue your journey towards fierce finger independence.

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3. Blues and Boogie

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After you have spent some time on the previous examples and you are really feeling the blood flow in your fingers, try things with more jazzy syncopation like blues & Boogie-woogie licks. You’ll notice immediately how much better and consistent your playing sounds. Then play Ex. 3 (above) either using the metronome in the standard fashion, or even with no metronome at all, and see how it feels after having warmed-up in this way.