Beginning Orchestra: Warm Up to Success

Beginning Orchestra: Warming Up to Success

I believe that every part of the lesson is just as important as the other. If one part of the lesson is weaker than the others, it can affect the overall quality of the learning that day. Conversely, when each part flows seamlessly and is just as informative and engaging as the last, students and teachers walk out feeling fulfilled in their learning. Each step is just as important as the others, and it all begins with the warm ups.

Why Warm Up?

Warm ups aren’t just about playing a scale to get your fingers moving. They are a sacred time set aside to help the musician physically and mentally prepare for a successful class. Warm ups help students switch gears from whatever class or interaction they just completed to directing their focus on music. They establish a sense of routine and familiarity that builds on the structured environment we all strive to create when we work with kids.

There are several different kinds of warm ups I keep in my back pocket to rotate through when starting off the lesson for the day, all intended to serve a specific purpose.

Physical Preparation

I learned to respect the warm up in a particularly memorable college studio class. Before giving us any tips, the professor asked us what we thought the first step to warming up was and then he called on me. I paused for a moment and said, “Scales and slow practice.” As great as that answer was, there was a crucial initial step that I missed: stretching.

We proceeded to go through a series of stretches to warm up all the muscles, big and small, that are necessary for playing our instruments. I would have loved to learn the importance of stretching as a beginning musician, so I encourage this habit in my students now.

Go through some basic stretches with them, and put them to music. Students can do finger taps on their knees or backs of their instruments, or tap each finger and the thumb together close to their ears so they can hear them make that “pop” sound. Stretch out each arm, and slowly roll the neck or shoulders.

Focus on posture. Go from sitting to standing without making a sound or making any unnecessary movements. Show your students how to sit up straight by having them slump over their knees and sit up with each part of their vertebrae stacking on top of the other. Do a little bow hold warm-up, tapping each finger on the bow, bending and straightening the thumb, focusing on the areas they still need work on. And finally, add the instruments and do a “quick check,” letting go of their instruments and making sure everything is either staying on the shoulder (for violin and viola), between the knees (for cello), or on the inside of the leg (for bass).

As far as music choices, find out what songs and artists your kids listen to and pick something relevant to them. My classes have enjoyed singing along to “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran and “You Are the Best Thing” by Ray LaMontagne while they warm up. In fact, one student proclaimed that it was her favorite part of class because of the music.

Scales with Rhythms and Articulations

Once posture is looking solid and the muscles are warm, choose a scale or two to work on for a few minutes. This can be done with a metronome, to a drone, in rounds (my students’ personal favorite), and with whatever rhythm or articulation you want.

Scales are a great way to focus on intonation and introduce or review technical concepts. This is the time I work on slurs and the variety of bow strokes with my students and talk more about achieving different dynamics.

I once wrote the different dynamics on the board, ranging from pianissimo to fortissimo, and pointed to the dynamic I wanted them to use throughout the scale. This is the perfect time to have students focus on the three fundamentals of good tone: bow speed, placement, and weight.

Find Your Go-To Exercises

I introduce the “Open String Cycle” to my students early on in the year and start off class with it every few weeks after that. It is a basic exercise I learned from my coworkers that has the whole orchestra playing each of their strings 8 times, then 4, then 3, 2, and 1 time without stopping. They start with the highest string of the orchestra (so violins and bass play E string 8 times), go all the way down to C and go back up. It is a great way for students to focus on bow usage and angle as they switch strings.

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As the year progresses, I increase the difficulty by showing the violists and cellists how to play their highest E’s (fourth finger on A for viola, fourth position, first finger for cello) and the basses and violins to play their C’s (shifting on the G string for bass, and third finger on G for violin).

We always play the open string cycle to a backing track that helps keep the tempo steady. Because it is simple for students to memorize, I can get them started and let them carry on alone while I walk around and adjust their posture.

Be on the lookout for similar “keeper” warm ups that are simple enough that students can pick them up quickly (providing you with mobility), while having the potential to become more challenging.

Sight-Reading Exercises

Whether you read through a couple pages from a method book, or pull out a new song, it’s crucial to have students regularly work on their reading abilities. I created a sight-reading packet. Included are:

  • Several one-line exercises that were written by co-workers
  • Short, popular songs (Hot Cross Buns never gets old when it’s in different keys!) and
  • Longer exercises that allow students to focus on playing longer in a certain key

One resource I found for these longer exercises is the Uni-Tunes book by Carold Nunez.

Refine Listening Skills with Ear Training

We like to play a game called “copycat.” I play four beats, and the students immediately copy me. I might give a hint and tell them what string to start on, or what the first note is, or I might not. I will keep repeating the “leader” measure until most of the students get it before moving on.

Here’s what it might sound like: Beginning Orchestra: Warm Up to Success 1

Students love it. Whether I am making up a sequence of notes or bringing in a melody from a piece we are working on, they enjoy testing their knowledge and continuously playing. The key rule to reiterate before we start: the leader always plays first; the copiers listen. Another fun way to take this game to the next step is to let students be the leaders.

Always Remember Music Theory!

Word of the Week is a great way to sharpen students’ mental power right at the beginning of class. It is something I learned from a fellow student teacher in Juneau and it always receives rave reviews from students at the end of the year. Beginning Orchestra: Warm Up to Success 2

At the beginning of the first class each week, I put up four different staffs with four different words spelled out using notes. I just draw the notes with sharpie on large staffs and draw blank spaces on the whiteboard under each letter. It becomes a race for students to decipher their word and write it up there. It is a great way to help students start off class with a brain-working task and work together to decipher.

By the end of the year, I was writing the more complicated, longer words (baggage and cabbage are great ones!), and eventually turned it over to the students, as they wrote their own words of the week.

Warm ups are a crucial time in every lesson. What I love is that there are thousands of ways to make warm ups both beneficial and engaging to students. Find what works with your teaching philosophy and goals, and your students will benefit from a successful pattern of focused practice and healthy habits.

Ruth Schwartz

Ruth Schwartz is an itinerant sixth-grade beginning orchestra teacher with the Anchorage School district. She grew up in “The Lower 48” and graduated from DePaul University with a bachelor of cello performance before making the great move to Alaska to earn a master of arts in teaching music, K-12 degree in Juneau. Ruth enjoys performing in the cello section of the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra when she's not playing at church or hiking with her husband and their bloodhound Rooney. She's a strong believer in the power of music, which she has witnessed as a teacher in Chicago, Peru, and Alaska.