Greetings to all as we welcome spring, some later than others. As we enter a new season, let’s get some good habits going as well.
This time around I’d like to talk about warming up. Some of us do it, and some don’t, but it’s important, and important to know the reasoning behind it and how it can help us with our primary objective with this column, which is to avoid injury.
First of all warming up is necessary, bottom line. In the last year there has been some ‘new information’ which means that the same doctors who told you 5 yrs ago that athletes, weekend warriors, and by extension musicians needed to warm up before vigorous exercise have now decided it is not necessary after all. The science behind this is sketchy, and there will probably be a big announcement in a few years time by these same docs that will say it is back in favor. Alcohol, coffee and chocolate go through the same merry go round, and the info filters down into various newspapers and magazines and becomes law until the next big study.
Your muscles need blood flow to operate properly. If you jump right into a playing situation without the circulation flowing, you could find yourself cramping up early in the set depending on how hard you play or how difficult the material is. When this happens you may be able to plow through it, setting yourself up for injury or you may get very tense because you are freaking out and this tightens up your muscles unnecessarily and can cause injury.
Here are some ways to help avoid this and stay healthy:
- When playing something new or challenging, start slowly, progressively building up speed to allow the muscles to warm up properly and to avoid strain by doing too much too quickly. This will also help to lessen stress that you put on yourself if you can’t play something as well as you would like right away. Esperanza Spalding, killer upright bassist in case you don’t already know, recently told me that she tells her Berklee students to practice slowly, not only because if you don’t your muscles are more likely to tighten up and fatigue, but because when you practice slowly you build up muscle memory and kinetic (motion) memory which will allow you to play the same part fast later on with no problem.
- Once warmed up, start playing slowly, running some scales before a gig slowly and without tension. Warm up with something simple before trying anything complex. If you start to feel a slight burning sensation in the muscles controlling your thumb and fingers, wait a couple of minutes to see if it goes away. If it doesn’t, that means you’re doing too much too soon. If you are playing to the point of experiencing acute pain in either hand that means you’re probably doing something wrong and could be about to develop tendonitis or a repetitive strain injury (see Dec.-Jan. article for more info on repetitive strain injuries).
- When stretching before a gig, know the difference between stretch and pain. Stretch is good. Pain is not good. Many musicians have a no pain no gain mentality instilled in us, either through instructors, fellow musicians, or society. This is bunk. Pain is telling you there is something wrong. Listen to it, and make the necessary adjustments.
- Many bassists start warming up at the nut and running scales, working their way up the neck. When first picking up the bass, start at the top of the neck (by the pickups) and work your way down towards the head stock instead. This will increase blood flow and stretch the hands and forearms naturally. By starting where the frets are closer together and working your way to larger stretches it is easier on the muscles.
- Victor Wooten suggests that to warm up only the hands is insufficient. He proposes that since we play with our whole bodies and our minds, one should warm up everything as if you were going to play a sport. Such non musical activities as playing basketball, juggling, and light calisthenics help him to feel ready for performance, and ensure that his whole body and not just his hands and arms are warm and ready to go.
As always, questions and suggestions for future topics are most welcome. This is your column, and always will be.