Although it’s tempting to just pick up your sax at the start of each practice session, rehearsal, or gig and “blow the cobwebs out” before you start on the important stuff, is it the right thing to do?
If we are honest I’ll bet most of us are guilty of neglecting a proper warm-up from time to time. The thing is, we know that we should do a “warm-up” but few of us understand why it’s important or how to go about structuring our warm-up so that we can get the most benefit out of it.
If you have ever played a sport or done any sort of physical training you will be familiar with doing a warm-up first. It seems logical too. If you are heading off on a 5-kilometer run then it makes sense to warm up your legs first and stretch out those muscles. It makes you train better and avoids injuries.
The same goes for playing saxophone.
If you’re doing it right then playing sax uses a lot of muscle control and strength. Plus, to get the best out of our instruments we need to be in control of our breathing and have excellent posture.
Lots of things working together there. So as saxophone players, our warm-up is an opportunity to get all of those parts of our physique warmed up, focussed, and ready for the session ahead regardless of whether that is our daily practice or a high pressure gig.
Warm-up game plan
Just like with our practice in general, we need to have a game plan for our warm-up so we can cover all the important things in the most efficient manner. And to be honest this is relatively easy to do provided you are thinking about it in the right way.
Firstly let’s recap which things we need to focus on in our warm-up so we can get our heads in the right space.
Here are the things we need to be conscious of when we are working through any warm-up routine:
• Warm up our muscles.
• Focus on our embouchure shape and lip position
• Be conscious of keeping the corners of our mouth in.
• No air leaks.
• Keep our throat relaxed and open.
• Breathing deeply to the bottom of our lungs.
• Maintaining good even air pressure from our diaphragm.
• Blowing through our phrases to keep our sound consistent.
• Relaxed shoulders and arms.
• Hands relaxed in a “C” shape.
• Fingers touching the keys at all times.
• Neck strap correctly adjusted so the mouthpiece is at the right height.
Now we need to choose exercises that combine all these points. I’ll get to that in a moment.
The really important thing though is that as we work through our warm-up exercises, we need to be mindful of all the points above.
Take the opportunity during your warm-up to focus on how your embouchure feels. Feel how you are breathing. Think about your posture ( a mirror is great for this). Although it’s easy to play without really thinking about how our body feels, in doing so we are missing half of the picture. Our warm-up is the time to be totally mindful of what’s going on in our physiology so we can memorize that feeling and recreate it every time we play.
The simplest way to start our warm-up is with long-tone exercises. These don’t have to be boring either. Long tones are great because they give you time to focus on everything that’s going on. You can think about your embouchure, your posture and your breathing. Plus you have time to concentrate on the quality of your sound.
Long tones always start in the middle of your range. So somewhere between G and C (no octave key) is a great place to start. Think about the quality of your tone. Keep it consistent throughout the long tone and make sure even at the end when you are running out of air that you still have a full round sound.
Use your tuner as an extra challenge and make sure your intonation is consistent. Once you are happy with your tone and tuning on an easy “middle-range” note, repeat the exercise working your way down the range to low Bb and up the range to high F. You may want to set yourself a challenge of 5 or 6 different notes in each warm-up.
Keep a track of what you have done in your practice record.
Make it more interesting
For an extra challenge, add some dynamics to your long tones. Start at the softest volume you can manage and gradually crescendo to the loudest, then back to the softest. If you are holding your tone for 10 counts, break that up into 5 counts increasing in volume, 5 counts decreasing in volume.
Although this sounds easy it is a real challenge to get perfect. If you are a relatively new sax player you may find it easier to just go from loud to soft initially. The more you practice this exercise the wider your dynamic range will become. The real trick is to keep your tone consistent over the full dynamic range – easier said than done.
For the warm up I always recommend using both a tuner and metronome if possible.
Monitoring your tuning during this exercise will really help to tidy up your intonation and avoid the usual pitfalls of getting flatter as we get louder.
Combining skills in your warm-up
I’m a big fan of combining skills when practicing. It’s more efficient and is a better use of your time. For the warm-up I always recommend using both a tuner and metronome if possible. Why not think about your timing as well as tuning when working on your tone, breathing, and posture? As long as you are going slow enough you should have plenty of time for everything.
Another really important skill to work on in your warm-up is flexibility over intervals. Check out my list of [20 killer saxophone warm-up exercises] for some ideas using intervals. Practice these exercises really slowly taking extra special care to keep your tone consistent and you will see amazing results here.
Getting a warm-up plan together
For those who have read my “Ultimate Guide to Practicing Saxophone”, you will know that I recommend dividing your practice time in half and then spending one-third of that time on your warmup. So depending on how much time you have for your practice session, you should be able to fit in 3 or 4 exercises.
Choose a range of exercises that challenge you at your current level of playing.
I would always recommend a combination of straight-ahead classic long tone exercises (with or without the crescendo/diminuendo) plus one or two interval exercises. Take a look at the [20 killer saxophone warm-up exercises] for some examples to choose from.
Always keep a record of what exercises you have worked on in your practice diary and set yourself a challenge to accomplish with your warm-up each week.
There is an endless supply of ideas around you for warm-up exercises. Take a look at the pieces you are working on at the moment and identify the tricky parts. Why not make up your own exercises from these. Remember, go really slowly and focus. Think about what your body is doing and take care to get the best tone you can consistently. Approach your warm-up routine in this way and you will see massive results in your general playing.
Try these ideas with your workout today. Grab your free copy of Nigel’s 20 Killer Warm Up Exercises for saxophone