I've seen people doing it for loosening up their inflexibility. But, should we 'warm up' before we start playing our instrument ? Perhaps we don't need to do it if we are used to playing the instrument?
Warming up means an initial period as you start a playing session where you prepare yourself to play at the highest level you can. It doesn’t always mean physically, although that’s one aspect. There are some times warming up is very important, some times it is less important, and some times I barely even bother. It all depends on you, your instrument, and the condition of both.
I play violin, flute, and sing. For all warming up is a way to start out slowly, and remind my body of exactly what I want it to do. I always sound better after warming up than before, but to someone who was just listening casually, the difference might be too subtle to notice.
When I warm up:
If I’m playing for a situation where I want to sound my best, I warm up a lot. So for a performance I will always spend at least 15 minutes on my warm up, and preferably an hour. Normally, I'd call an hour of playing a practice session, but pre-performance, its a warm-up.
If I’ll be singing or playing something strenuous I’ll warm up. I sing with a local chorus, and the group always challenges my abilities, and usually has a few pieces that touch on the top of my vocal range. If I don’t warm up, I literally have to stop singing at those high notes. By warming up, I can contribute more to the group.
If it’s a cold winter day, my hands literally need to be warmed up to be flexible enough to play. I’ll practice after exercising, or wearing gloves for half an hour, or holding my hands in warm water for a while.
If I’m just practicing by myself, I’ll spend about 5-10 minutes on a warm-up that gets me mentally ready to focus on whatever specific aspects I’ve chosen to work on that day. If I try to just jump in to playing, I tend to quit after 10 minutes because mentally, I’m just not focused.
I don’t warm up if I’ve only got a few minutes to play or sing. For instance, if I’m taking a quick break at work, I might sing a couple songs, but I’d keep them easy enough that I don’t need a warm up.
EDIT: Since there seems to be some interest in the warming up of instruments as of players, I'll add a little bit about that. Depending on your instrument and the materials it’s made of, you may need to physically warm it up, as well as yourself.
Wind instruments will become sharper as they warm up, due sound moving faster in warm air than in cold. If you come inside on a frigid winter day, and your instrument has had time to cool to the outdoor temperature, you need to warm it up before tuning it, or it will be noticeably sharp. The smaller the temperature difference in your breathe and the instruments starting temperature, the less important it is to warm up before tuning.
With all wooden instruments, including strings, you need to let the instrument physically warm up slowly when you have had them outdoors on a cold day or if you are playing in the sun on a particularly hot day. Humidity changes are even more severe on the instrument. They will not only cause tuning issues, but can potentially damage the instrument if the temperature and humidity changes happen too fast. Potential damage can include: crackling the instrument’s finish, causing seams to come unglued, or even cracking the actual wood of the instrument. In these situations, players of wood instruments will usually let their instruments sit in the case to provide a slightly insulated environment, where the conditions adjust relatively slowly.
The bigger the instrument, the longer the physical warm-up period because of the greater mass and thickness of material. I once played with a stand-up bass at an outdoor concert in the desert. The bass arrived about 10 minutes before the performance, and immediately set her instrument in the sun to start warming up (we were playing in the sun). I had already done the same with my fiddle, and after 10 minutes, it had settled firmly into tune. We started the first song without the bass, because the instrument was changing its tuning too quickly to play. After 20 minutes, the bass was steady enough to be mostly in tune through a whole song, although the player was still tuning after each song. After 30 minutes, when our set was almost over, the player was satisfied her instrument was mostly staying in tune.
I don't know. But I'll tell you, I once heard a radio interview (it was on NPR, IIRC -- if anybody can find me this thing, I'd be grateful because I want to hear it again) with a sports medicine doctor who had changed his focus to work on musicians (instrumentalists). The interviewer asked him.
How are musicians like athletes?
to which he replied, and I will never forget this,
Oh, musicians are just like athletes, only dumber.
He then launched into an indictment of how serious musicians typically treated their bodies, doing things to their bodies that no athlete would ever do. Things like take two weeks off from practicing, and then on the first day back go right into 8 hour days practicing. Things like smoking. And yes, things like not doing any sort of warm up or cool down.
And I sat there listening to this, shrinking into my seat, thinking, "Oh, god. I totally am that."
So, yes, apparently we're supposed to warm up. I'm not quite sure what would constitute a good warm up, and I suppose it would be instrument-specific.
Many musicians have a warm-up routine that they go through before practicing or performing on their instrument. This can include any number of technical exercises, physical exercise (Famed Swedish madman trombonist Christian Lindberg integrates yoga and running into his daily routine) and meditation. Intuitively, you can think of this as causing all of the neurons in your brain relevant to your instrument to fire after being dormant for a night of sleep. Also, for many instruments, playing is a physical act, and so just as an athlete will stretch and warm up before a race or game in order to avoid injury, the same is true of instrumentalists. A particular example is brass instrumentalists, who exert tremendous strength in their facial muscles when performing at a high level.
The counter-argument to this is that as an instrumentalist, you never know when you might be running late for a performance and have to skip your warmup, and you don't want that to cripple your performance. I've heard a story of a trombonist who doesn't warm up precisely for this reason -- and he's developed this to the point where the first note he plays on his instrument (that is, he takes it out of the case and goes on stage) is just as beautiful as the last.
That's certainly not for everyone, and the vast majority of musicians, particularly at the professional level, will follow a warm-up routine for the various reasons I outlined above.
Caveat: My answer is anecdotal, and I am not a professional musician. Nor have I had any significant professional training in music performance.
I play the piano in our Sunday morning church service, but I'm not that great a pianist. I use a combination of sight reading, playing by ear, memorization, and knowledge of music theory to create something that sounds "close-enough" to what I'm trying to play. I use the hour before service (when everyone else is in Sunday school) to warm-up. This helps me in several ways. It acts as a last-minute practice, to remind me what the melody and chord progressions are, and where the tricky parts are. More importantly, it gets me into a certain performance mind-set. I'm not really sure how to describe this other than being really focused and "in the zone". For me, at least, this mental preparation is fairly crucial, more so than any physical benefit.
On Sunday evenings, however, we have a different pianist, so I accompany on recorders, flute, and melodica. Partly because I find these instruments much easier to play (at least for the given repertoire), and partly because I am providing a secondary role to the pianist, I rarely (if ever) bother warming up.
It's also worth noting that if I used wooden recorders instead of plastic ones, and if it were cold outside, I would probably have to literally "warm up" the instrument. The expansion and contraction of some instruments caused by temperature changes, can throw them out of tune. I believe this applies to many other instruments as well, including string instruments.
Warming up helps us reach peak physical performance while minimizing the chance of injury. Typically, the best warm-ups feature the same kind of activity that you’re preparing for, just with lower intensity. This gets your muscles and other soft tissue ready for action without straining or tiring yourself.
The best practice according to current sports medicine is to use dynamic flexibility exercises rather than static stretching when you prepare for physical activity. Static stretching before a workout reduces strength and endurance. Instead, use stretching to cool down after physical activity to help relax any muscles that are tense after performance.
Warm up by playing music, cool down by stretching.
The aspects of warm up is different for different types of instruments, but it is important in various degree for most instruments in some way.
Warming up the instrument
Some instruments need to be in same temperature and moisture as the surroundings to stay in tune (important for string instruments). The "warm-up" (or "cool-down") for this would just be to make sure the instrument is physically in the room long enough for acclimatization.
Wind instruments need to be warm relative to the breathing temperature. This is more important the smaller instrument you play.
For woodwinds that actually have wood in the construction also moisture and softness for the mouth piece is an important aspect (not including silver flute, but include saxophone because of the wood slice in the mouth piece).
Warming up the body of the person playing
For most instruments, it is important to warm up the fingers/hands. This is both for flexibility, and persistence.
For wind instruments, it is also important for the mouth/lips to warm up. This is to increase control on the sound, and persistence.
For more "physical" instruments like drums and percussion, warm up is needed more for the entire body. This is perhaps more similar to how an athlete would need the warm up.
For singing, warm up is very important for persistence and to avoid strain on the vocal chords. This is very similar to athletes, as the vocal chords are indeed muscles that needs warm up.
I am a guitarist and vocalist. My experiece is .. For vocals, I find I need 3 or 4 songs of medium kind of pitch (for me) to warm my voice up. It seems to clear any mucous (bleah- sorry) and get the right muscles all pepped up properly. After that I can go for it a bit and hit higher notes much more easily.
There are also specific warm-up excercises that vocalists do which others will be able to quote here but I find just a few gentler songs does the trick.
For guitar : I play a lot generally so I'm kind of ready to go right away, but I normally make sure I play a solo of some sort in the sound check. If it's cold, I find shaking my fingers helps to get them more supple.
But for both, as a general 'performance' thing, I find a mental warm -up helps LOADS. I can't exactly describe what I do, but I get myself prepared to be ready for some quick reactions which, for me, is important for how I go about playing solos. About the best I can describe it is that I recently went go-karting, which involves being ready to react to things much more quickly than in normal driving. Getting the mind into that kind of "zone" works very well for me.