Thursday, August 12, 2010

Warming Up - Long Tones

I must not talk enough about warmups. I say this because recently, in my last lesson ever with a student leaving for college, I was mentioning something about my warmup regimen and his jaw dropped. Apparently long tones and intervals and scales with varied articulations are not part of his daily routine, nor had it ever occurred to him to use his band's warmup period to improve his playing. And I'm not telling this story on him, but on myself. Obviously I need to address the warm up period because it is fully half of the playing I do, and sometimes more.

Much of practicing is focused on learning a specific piece - either something you are performing at a specific time in the future, or an etude for your lesson, or the piece you're playing in band or orchestra. You are working on the specific problems or techniques that that piece requires. Of course you are working in as efficient a way as possible, and at the end of your practice period you can play the passage or piece you were working on, which is great.

Practicing a piece gets you better at playing that piece, but using your warmup effectively gets you better at PLAYING THE OBOE, which obviously will then translate to every new piece you encounter. The better your baseline oboe playing, the easier you will find each new challenge, and all of your practicing can become more efficient because you don't have to waste time relearning a Db major scale every time one comes up in your music. Or how to slur smoothly. Or how to work through a passage of mixed articulation.

In addition, I find that a good solid warmup slides me smoothly into a productive practice session and focuses my attention on quality. If I just pick up the oboe and start playing the music I need to cram for TONIGHT, of course I can do that. But I feel unfocused, undirected, and frantic sometimes, and I would submit to you that I can do things better. Honestly, if I only have a very short time, unless the need is urgent my warmup trumps actual music for me almost every time.

The first step of my warmup, and the subject of this post, is long tones. I vary the details based on my mood or what I feel I need to work on.

Sometimes I will just hold a middle Bb as long and as powerfully as I can, and at the very end of my ability to hold onto it I will slur effortlessly, without biting or dying, to the A below it. I will work my way chromatically down from the middle of the instrument to the bottom in this way, working on making the oboe really ring in its lowest octave. Even in this range which is not the most comfortable, I want to find a warm sound and vibrato, relax my embouchure, and control my endings. At the end of that octave I am accustomed to blowing freely through the instrument and I have relaxed into it, and the reed and oboe are vibrating fully.

Often I use a metronome set at 60 to practice vibrato at varying speeds. So, for instance, I will pulse eighth notes for four beats, then triplets, 16ths, and 5-tuplets and just hold out the note at the end pulsing for as long as I can manage. I'll start on a comfortable note in the middle of the instrument, then work down and up by thirds so that I use every range of the oboe. The next day I would start on a different pitch so as to get a different set of notes. If I have a rehearsal or concert later in the day I make sure that I cover vibrato in this way. I find that I don't really have to worry about it again if I have taken the time to find it and control it at different speeds.

Sometimes I will take a four note pattern and play it in whole notes, starting pp and crescendoing to ff in the middle of the set. In that case I am listening for intonation, obviously, and also focussing on making my attacks and releases consistent and beautiful at very soft dynamics and becoming very loud in the middle without sacrificing quality of sound.

These are some of the ways I use long tones, and I can adjust them as needed. If I am worried about note endings in my playing, I'll focus on that. If I hate my high register I will play there. If I feel that I need more dynamic range, obviously I can work on that. Regardless, since I know I am committed to playing long tones in my warmup every day, I do not have to play every single note each time, nor do I have to be perfect on every note of every exercise. I am always a work in progress, and putting in the time every day - just ten minutes for this part of my warmup - keeps me honest and on the road to improvement.


  1. I could not agree more. I had this epiphany partway through my first music degree. As soon as I added a serious warmup to my practice routine, my playing really started to improve in noticeable ways. Now I'm struggling to get the message across to my own students.

    Some days I almost resent having to work on repertoire, because of the time it takes away from the workout/meditation that my warmup has become.

  2. Thanks for the comment!

    I'd be interested to hear about other ways that people approach or use long tones in their own warmups - there are so many things you can think about while you're sitting on a note. Way more than I mentioned...

  3. Hi Jennet! I'm really enjoying reading your insights. I never got into warming up until a couple of years ago, when it became the "workout/meditation" that Bret mentioned.

    One exercise that is giving me great results these days goes as follows:

    I put on the metronome (last few days, at 72) choose a note and start moving either up or down chromatically: e.g.


    and then, with always only one beat to breathe, add one additional note to each series:



    and so on until I reach an octave. Difficulty varies with your chosen range and tempo. At 80, it takes about 2 minutes and 15 seconds. It's not as boring as single long tones, and I think it does quite a lot of good -- also really challenges the breathing mechanism. (I don't allow myself to circular breathe on this one -- feels like cheating.)

    Bret, we are on the same wavelength!

    Jennet, thanks for the lovely blog and ideas.