I often refer to piano playing as the "Olympics of the small muscles". It is important to consider oneself an athlete when playing and practicing the piano. High level athletes take care of their bodies and minds, and we need to as well. The better we feel, both physically and mentally, the better our productivity is, and the better our efficiency is.
Although this Blog will focus mostly on tone production, I would be remiss not to talk about warm-ups and cool-downs. These are essential elements in our daily practice and performance regiment, which are unfortunately often neglected. No athlete would begin a practice session without warming up. Warm-ups are intend to actually raise the body temperature. This warmer temperature has positive effects on allowing muscles and tendons to become more extensible, allows for more blood flow to the muscles, more oxygen in the muscles, better efficiency in muscle contraction, and by carrying out functional activities, neural pathways are activated, which enhances reaction time in the actual performance/practice.
Pianists typically limit their warm-ups to a few scales and arpeggios. While these are important aspects of a good warm-up, they are actually just the last step before we start the actual practice session. To follow along with what other elite athletes do, I recommend the following step:
These stretches cover everything from the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers. They are also similar in concept to the stretches used by baseball players and golfers.
One final thought about these warm-up exercises: never do anything mindlessly. While you are doing these stretches and exercises be sure to be thinking about your breathing and about your upcoming practice session. Make a plan about what you want to accomplish. You might find that thoughts come into your head, which will disturb your practicing. Use this opportunity to free yourself from these thoughts. It can become a meditative, Zen-like experience. This will allow you to have positive and productive practice session.
These are actually easier to achieve, as cool-downs are a continuation of your practice session, just at a slower and less intensive pace. So you can either play some slow scales and arpeggios at the end of your session, or you can even play through a slow piece or a fast piece at a slow tempo. Avoid any kind of difficult passages during the last 10 minutes of your practice session. If you have a history of piano related injuries (tendinitis, carpal tunnel, etc.) you may also want to consider taking an anti-inflammatory, and/or ice your shoulders, elbows, and/or wrists. The next time you see a major league pitcher giving an interview after a game, notice the ice sleeve he is wearing on his pitching arm.