Nuts and Bolts
Dale Clevenger was often asked by his students about his daily warm up routine. In his oft-impersonated Tennessee drawl he would famously reply "why, I never warm down!" Another well known anecdote about warming up involves a horn student at the Marlboro Music festival who observed that John Barrows would arrive ten minutes before rehearsal, "belch out a middle C" , leave stage to drink coffee and chat with colleagues, then return to stage at the tuning note and proceed to play brilliantly. When the student asked Barrows if he warmed up at home, Barrows replied "I used to warm up. I warmed up every day for years and years. One day I was warmed up!"
Most of us mere mortals require some type of daily warm up, for both physical and psychological reasons. When I was first getting serious about playing the horn, I found a copy of The Art of French Horn Playing by Philip Farkas in the band hall library of my high school and took it as my bible. I was especially drawn to his fully notated daily warm up, which Farkas professed to practice in full every morning. Over the next several years, I tried to make the Farkas Warm Up the foundation of my practice routine. Some days I would slog through it and come out ok; other days I found it to be exhausting. I was definitely way past "warmed up" by the end! While I have since become a more efficient player, going through the full routine still makes me feel like I need a nice, long break before I continue practicing.
While the Farkas Warm Up was not for me, I was attracted to the idea of a systematic routine that could improve my skills and consistency without tiring me out. I tried lots of prescribed routines endorsed by great players (Standley, Singer, Caruso, Brophy, etc.) but eventually burned out on all of them. Over time I realized that the appeal of a prescribed warm up is not so much about the exercises themselves but rather about trusting in daily rituals and routines that get positive results today and have a good chance of getting positive results tomorrow. While there's a bit of a placebo effect in the concept of a daily warm up, any ritual that provides a sense of stability in the sometimes chaotic, frustrating endeavor of playing the horn is not something to be dismissed. But a routine is useless unless one can find the time and energy to actually do it every day. An hour long intensive daily warm up is not something I have the endurance or discipline for; especially if I have lots of other actual music I need to practice. I want my routine to be concise, purposeful and interesting enough to keep me engaged. Most importantly, I want to feel fresh and flexible by the end of it so I can practice actual music.
A key concept handed down to me by my teacher Bill VerMeulen was the idea of a daily routine being the "nuts and bolts" that hold your playing together. Charles Kavalovski (another famously diligent warmer upper) called them his "Daily Dues." In this sense, the daily routine is more about maintaining and improving technical skills than warming up. In reality, most professional players, especially if they've arrived at the concert hall uncomfortably close to the start of rehearsal time, are ready to play after a few minutes of noodling (provided Bruckner 4 or other similarly touchy repertoire is not first up on the rehearsal schedule.) With this is mind, the "warm up" portion of the routine should be the first five to ten minutes. Whatever you have time to do after that falls under the category of daily maintenance. This maintenance block of practice usually immediately follows the warm up but it could occur later in the day as a prelude to a practice session following a morning rehearsal. These exercises can be practiced in sequence although sometimes I feel more engaged with technical practice when it's mixed in with other practice material such as excerpts, etudes and solos.
After years of experimenting, here are some conclusions about what works best for me:
- A routine should be no longer than 30 minutes. Quality practice time for a busy professional or student is often a luxury and I'd prefer to spend it working on actual music rather than technical exercises. If there's a specific technical problem I want to work on, I'll find an etude or orchestral excerpt to address the issue whenever possible.
- A routine should make my chops feel better, not worse. Long exhausting "warm ups" defeat the purpose of getting you ready for the day and often engrain bad habits. Try to use exercises that emphasize efficiency rather than strength. If you want to work on stamina, it's a lot more fun to play through a Mahler symphony or a Strauss Concerto.
- The exercises that make up a routine should address fundamental concepts necessary to play well. In my experience, good technique can be boiled down to relaxed breathing, easy sound production, flexibility, mastery of scales and arpeggios, and efficiency. If the exercises you are working on don't address these concepts or repeat other parts of your routine, you might ask how they are serving you.
- The routine should be consistent but have an element of novelty. The basic framework can be the same from day to day but, for the purposes of avoiding boredom or burnout, it's nice to mix things up slightly. For example, the scale patterns might change with the days of the week (Sundays are major scales, Mondays are natural minor, etc.) On odd days, start scale and lip slur sequences tongued; on even days, start slurred. Use a flashcard app to add an element of chance to what you're doing that day.
- Start each day with a "beginner's mind." I like to think of my first sounds of the day as restarting the process of learning to play the horn. I always like to start with buzzing in part because, as a beginner band student, we weren't allowed to touch the horn for the first month. Instead, we were left to figure out how to play tunes on our mouthpiece alone. This was so helpful for understanding that the sound of the horn is merely an amplification of the buzz! When we were finally allowed to play thr horn, we started with easy middle register notes and took nice, relaxed deep breaths to create beautiful sounds. Gradually we expanded into the lower and upper parts of the register. I I try to start each day by recreating the feeling of being a beginner "finding" his sound. My biggest criticism of the Farkas routine (and other well know warm ups) is that, within the first minutes, you're playing at the upper and lower limits of the horn. I believe it's much better to start slow to focus on taking full, relaxed breaths and making beautiful sounds...just like a beginner!
- When the routine feels stale, make a change. This point is maybe the most important to me. For most players, doing the same routine every day for years on end is a recipe for diminishing returns, or worse, the development of bad playing habits. While some parts of my routine have remained consistent over the years, every few months I feel the need to make a change. Sometimes that means simply changing the order of a sequence. Sometimes it means adding, eliminating or substituting an exercise.
Here's the basic framework for my routine. The actual exercises change from time to time but they generally follow this template:
The Warm-Up (before rehearsals, concerts and practice sessions)
- Slow middle register long tones with deep breaths
- Harmonic Series/Lip Slurs/Flexibility
Nuts and Bolts (after the warm up but before a practice session)
- Scales, scale patterns and arpeggios
- Accuracy and intervals
- Long tones over the full register of the horn
- Special techniques in a daily rotation as needed (lip trills, stopped notes, extreme high register, multiple tonguing, etc.)
There are infinite amounts of exercises covering all of the above but they are usually variations on the same basic principals. I'll talk about more about these in more detail in the future. For now, I would encourage horn players to try simplifying their daily routine. Try some variation of the sequence above using established exercises or, better yet, create your own.
Always remember that technique is a means to an end; a tool for creating art, not the artform itself. With this in mind, the goal of a daily routine should be to maintain and refine technique so that we are able to express our musical thoughts freely and become better storytellers.
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Jeff Garza is principal horn of the Oregon Symphony and Britt Festival Orchestra.