Practicing: Part 1 – Warming up

I’m a big fan of a 15-to-20-minute warm-up. It relaxes me, focuses my attention on the tasks ahead and loosens up my fingers, hands and arms. I don’t focus on the individual fingers too much; rather, I like to make sure my arm rotation is happening … from left (as I play the thumb on my right hand) to right (as I play the fifth finger), and vice versa on the left hand. Allow the hand and arm to play the notes, unless the tempo is REALLY fast. Then engage the fingers, but don’t play too loud. Use full arm and shoulder weight for really loud passages.

More on this later. Today we’ll give you a great warm-up routine.

I got this from my teacher at Duke, the late Loren Withers, who was a student of Ernest Hutcheson, a former president of the Juilliard School. First, acquire, if you don’t have it already, the classic Hanon studies book (Schirmer, Vol. 925). On pages 50 through 64, he has very good fingerings for the 12 major and minor scales. Incidentally, his alternative fingering for the chromatic scale, on the bottom of page 64, I like very much.

Pick a metronome marking of, perhaps, quarter note = 60. Then practice your scales the following way:

Play scales in quarter note = 60, one octave. Start mp, get gradually louder, don’t stop on top, just get there, maybe at a forte dynamic, and come back, getting softer to the original mp.

Think about sound … make each note RIGHT with the metronome. No bumps in the sound; make the crescendo and diminuendo even and musical.

Now play in eighth notes, two octaves. Same approach.

Then, triplet eighths, three octaves.

Finally, 16th notes, four octaves. If this isn’t possible, either slow down the tempo or leave out the 16th notes for now. It’s important to have even tone, consistent crescendo/diminuendo and perfect rhythm. I have done this every day for 35 years (except for my occasional days off!!!).

Then I do my chromatic scale, starting on C. If I’m feeling good, I might omit the quarter notes here and go right to the eighth notes. Same approach.

Next, I would tackle dominant seventh chords (Hanon, pp. 70-71).

Quarter notes one octave, eighth notes two octaves, triplet eighths three octaves, 16th notes four octaves. Don’t skip any steps. Think rhythmically, and think about great tone. That’s what I love about the piano; even if you’re a beginner, you can get a great sound right away.

Next, use the same approach for major and minor triads. (Hanon pp. 65-68).

I’m not a huge fan of pounding through the Hanon uncritically, but there are some exercises in it that are of value:

On a particular day, I might pick one from pp. 22-43 and run it through a mode I’m trying to learn — in all keys, of course. I also think the trill exercise on pp. 76-77 is worthwhile. Keep the hand relaxed, and let the arm rotation help you execute the trill. Don’t do it with just the fingers.

Many of the Hanon exercises concern themselves with technical problems in mid-19th-century piano music and are not as useful to the modern jazz player. I’d rather a student practice Bach two-part inventions, easier Mozart and Beethoven, and Chopin preludes and etudes. I think you can get technically all you need to be a fine jazz pianist from these composers, throwing in a little Debussy and Ravel for tone color and balance.