Why is Warming Up Important?
Warming up before practicing or performing (like playing for your teacher) increases blood flow to your arms, hands and fingers, enhancing the elasticity of your muscles, tendons and ligaments and lubricating your joints. As a result your body moves more fluidly and gracefully, and you’ll play better – and faster (if the music demands it).
What Would the Ultimate Warm-Up Include?
There are many ways to warm up at your instrument. Scales, arpeggios, trills and slow sight reading or repertoire practice may all be useful. Yet each has limitations as an ultimate (definitive) warm-up. What would the hallmarks of the ultimate warm-up be? In my opinion, the ultimate warm-up would:
- Provide equal playing time for all fingers
- Be structured to give equal attention to all major and minor keys
- Be easily learnable by beginning players, yet provide challenges for advanced players
- Be relatively concise (unlike, say, Hanon’s Virtuoso Pianist)
- Suffice as a complete warm-up when time doesn’t allow for playing other valuable exercises (e.g. scales)
- Lead to a deeper familiarity with the keyboard (hand positions, key patterns, chord shapes)
- Be relatively easy to play, allowing attention to how it is played (i.e. technique)
- Be easily modified to work on universal pianistic challenges (e.g. playing legato in one hand and staccato in the other)
Scales, arpeggios, trills and slow sight reading or repertoire practice are all valuable, yet none meets all eight criteria of the ultimate warm-up. Only the exercise described below meets all eight criteria!
The Ultimate Piano Warm-Up
Originally devised by Oscar Beringer for his Daily Technical Studies, the Ultimate Piano Warm-Up consists of three pentascales (five-note patterns): major, minor and diminished. These three pentascales outline the basic major, minor and diminished triads naturally formed from the major and minor scales. In the Key of C, these three pentascales are:
The formula for each pentascale is shown above it. The major pentascale consists of the first five notes of the major scale. The minor pentascale uses the same notes with a lowered 3rd. The diminished pentascale has a lowered 2nd, 3rd and 5th.
The three pentascales are to be learned and played in all 12 keys and eventually performed as a single exercise.
Each pentascale may be played once or repeated one or more times. (When first learning the patterns, it’s helpful to repeat each pentascale two or four times before proceeding to the next.)
Download a printable PDF of the Ultimate Piano Warm-Up (numbers show fingering):
Listen to the Ultimate Piano Warm-Up, with each pentascale played twice:
Procedure for Learning
Intermediate and advanced players can learn and practice the Ultimate Piano Warm-Up immediately. If you’re a beginner (having played less than two years) and/or haven’t yet learned the major pentascales (the first of the three pentascales), you’ll be best off learning those first (in all 12 keys). Download a printable PDF:
Listen to The Major Pentascales, with each pentascale played twice:
Each of the 12 exercises consists of a major pentascale (measures 1-2), broken major chord (measure 3), and blocked major chord (end of measure 4).
Once you’ve mastered this exercise in all 12 keys using the music, memorize it including the order of keys. Remembering the order of keys is easy: the fifth note of each pentascale is the first note of the following key. (The keys of F# and Gb are enharmonic equivalents.)
When you feel ready, learn the minor and diminished pentascales and switch to the Ultimate Piano Warm-Up.
As proposed by Beringer and agreed upon by the vast majority of piano teachers, legato (smooth and connected) is the fundamental touch (articulation) of piano playing. Therefore, play the Ultimate Warm-Up with a legato touch.
Strive to play all notes with a pure, even tone. In other words, endeavor to play all notes at the same volume.
Play slowly at first. There’s no need to rush. Keep a steady tempo. Use a metronome if helpful and track your tempo in order to remember it from day to day. A good starting tempo is 50 BPM (one quarter note per click).
It can be invigorating to change one’s warm-up routine from time to time. Fortunately, there are numerous ways to vary the Ultimate Warm-Up without altering its basic function. Other reasons to vary the Ultimate Warm-Up are to improve vital skills such as execution of standard articulations (legato, staccato, accents etc.) and/or develop more hand independence.
There are at least eight ways the Ultimate Warm-Up can be varied. Many of the variations can be combined, resulting in dozens if not hundreds of possible variations!
Order of Keys
Learn to play the Ultimate Warm-Up as a single chromatically-ascending exercise, as originally devised by Beringer. When you’re ready for a change, play it chromatically descending:
It’s best to initially learn and practice the Ultimate Warm-Up in parallel motion (as shown above). Later, it may be played in contrary motion:
As explained above, the Ultimate Warm-Up should initially be played legato. When you’re ready for something different, try playing it staccato:
Another interesting way to vary the articulations is by performing accents, first on stronger beats:
then on weaker beats:
Obviously, many other variations are possible.
The Warm-Up may be played at any dynamic level. As a variation, alternate crescendo and diminuendo:
The Warm-Up may be played in different note sequences. Playing with broken 3rds is useful for practicing the technique of forearm rotation:
Or broken 2nds through 5ths:
Many other variations are possible.
Numerous rhythmic variations are feasible, such as triplets:
Or sixteenth note rhythms:
Some of the most useful yet challenging ways of varying the Warm-Up are for the purposes of improving hand independence. One example is playing legato in one hand and staccato in the other:
Or different dynamics:
Finally, an extremely effective variation involves blocked (harmonic) 3rds:
Caution: use excellent technique for this variation to avoid developing habits of tension. Discuss with your teacher!
Find Your Way
Most accomplished pianists take time to warm up before practicing or performing. Many begin the process even before sitting down by soaking their hands and arms in warm water, by performing light calisthenics and/or by stretching. These can be invaluable, especially in colder weather.
Of course, there is no single “right” way to warm up. But if you’re not currently warming up and think doing so would be helpful, or you’re seeking a new, better, or quicker way to warm up, the Ultimate Piano Warm-Up may be all that you need.