A Dynamic Warm-up: How to stretch your body as a musician

Stretching before an activity is probably not a new concept to many of us.  There is a surplus of articles, videos, and infographics out there claiming to have the best stretches for classical musicians, the essential yoga poses for performers, the only move you need for perfect posture!  Though each approach may be slightly different, most seem to agree that warm-up (and perhaps cool down) is important to executing an activity well.  Static and dynamic stretching are beneficial to everyone: musicians, athletes, office-workers, baristas, and airline pilots.  It is important to know the differences between these styles as well as when each type of stretch is most helpful. 

Static stretchingDynamic stretching
This involves stretching a muscle to its (comfortable) limit and holding it there for a set amount of time, usually 10-30 seconds.  This stretches muscles to limits, but by using motion to do so. 
For example, a pianist may use one hand to hold the other hand down toward the floor and back toward the body.For example, a cellist may roll her or his shoulders in circles, backwards and forwards.

In general, static stretching is not recommended as a warm-up, but should be done after muscles have started moving and blood is flowing.[1]  Here’s a simple formula to remember healthful stretching: dynamic warm up + play + static cool down = happy body!

With some tips from Civic musicians Kristen Seto, Jordan Gunn, and Philip Bergman, here are some suggested warm up and cool down stretches.

**Please keep in mind that these are peer-suggested stretching exercises. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. Never disregard the advice of a medical professional, or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Website.**


Orchestral musicians do a lot of sitting, so stretching hips, hamstrings, and sides in addition to the more obvious hands, neck, and fingers can be so helpful for long rehearsals! 

Plant your legs hip-width apart. Lift your right arm up over your head, reaching slowly to the left, and shift your hips to the right. Repeat slowly reaching with left arm, shifting hips to the left. Alternate sides several times.“Dishwasher” motion: Plant your legs about hip-width apart.  With arms loosely at your sides, swing your torso left and right, arms following the motion like the spinner in a dishwasher.  Make sure to let your leg follow your torso movement to protect your lower back.

Example of the “Dishwasher,” a dynamic stretch for your upper body or torso


Hinging from just your hips, reach your fingertips as far forward to your toes as is comfortable.  Keep legs straight or bend just a bit if you need to.  Hold for several seconds.  This can also be done seated, reaching forward to your toes, keeping feet flexed and knees touching the ground.Plant legs wider than hip-width.  Reach left with both arms toward your toes, as far as is comfortable, and tap your knee, shin, toes, or the floor.  Before returning all the way to upright center, tap the floor (or as far as is comfortable) in the middle, then again your right knee/shin/toes/floor.  Return to upright center.  Repeat several times, always alternating which side you start with.
While seated, place right foot on left knee, leg parallel to the floor. Raise left leg as high as is comfortable and hold for several seconds. Feel the stretch in the side of your leg!

Examples of a static stretch for your lower body


Reach your left arm straight forward and across the front of your chest, reaching to the other shoulder.  You can use your right arm to gently pull your left arm closer and deepen the stretch in your shoulder/back.  Repeat with right arm.Shoulder circles: Reach arms straight out to your sides from the shoulders and begin making small circles going forward, rotating from your shoulder joint.  Increase the size of the circles each time, until the motion is large and windmill-like.  Repeat the process from the small circles, this time moving backward.
Reach your left arm up and behind your head, bending at the elbow.  Place your right hand on your left elbow to gently pull your left arm deeper into the stretch.  Repeat with the right arm.  Your head will come forward a bit – this is ok, just be aware of the back of your neck, not stretching to the point of pain.Elbow circles: Similar to the arm circles, but with arms bent and slightly in front of your body, pivoting from the elbow.  Again begin with small circles moving forward, getting larger.  Repeat circling backward.
Reach straight arms forward and cross left over right. Bend both arms at the elbow and reach your right hand inside your left. Lift up as high as is comfortable, creating a twist that stretches your triceps and shoulder blades. Repeat with the right arm over the left, twisting left hand into right.Wrist circles: You’re probably getting the gist – it’s similar to the arm and elbow circles, but pivoting from the wrist. Begin small, circling forward, getting larger, and repeat circling backward.

Examples of a static stretch for your shoulder/arms

Example of a static stretch for your shoulder/arms

Example of shoulder circles, a dynamic stretch for your shoulder / arms

Example of wrist circles, a dynamic stretch for your shoulder / arms


Tilt your left ear to your left shoulder and use the weight of your left hand to gently nudge it closer.  Hold for several seconds.  Repeat with the right side.Neck circles: With arms at your sides, shoulders down and relaxed, tip your chin to your chest and slowly rotate the top of your head around in a circle.  Your right ear will touch your shoulder, the back of your head will reach your back, your left ear will follow and touch your shoulder, and you’ll return to center.  Repeat the other direction.  Circle several times.

Example a static stretch for your neck


For those with a tendency to hold tension in their jaw (and those who don’t), Philip recommends jaw circles!  He moves his jaw gently in circles left, then right, and in figure-eights left and right as well.

Stretching before and after playing is an important way to stay healthy as a professional musician, but is only part of the whole story.  Here are a few resources to look into more health-conscious musicianship, including ways to keep limber during rehearsal!

Janet Horvath, author of Playing (Less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians, gives tips for stretching that are rehearsal-safe: www.internationalmusician.org/stretches-that-every-musician-should-do-before-playing/

Noa Kageyama writes a blog that focuses mostly on the mental aspects of stretching our musicianship.  See his free online blog here: https://bulletproofmusician.com/blog/

Alexander Technique is a method that helps people find balance by releasing tension.  Many musicians have found this method helps them play their instruments and live their lives more freely.  Chicago-area instructors can be found here: https://www.chicagoalexanderteachers.com/

Former Civic Fellow Kip Riecken followed Carmen Abelson and Quinn Delaney on their journeys experiencing Alexander Technique lessons for the first time.  Find out their take-aways on his blog, Rediscovering Musician: https://rediscoveringmusician.wordpress.com/

Do you have a favorite stretch, warm-up, or cool-down routine that’s missing here?  Help us add to the knowledge base and share them in the comments below!

By Civic Fellow and viola Bethany Pereboom.

TOP: “Stretch before playing your violin.” | violinst.com, 2018.

[1] There’s conflicting research out there – see this overview in the online database of the National Center for Biotechnology Information to dive in to some of the data!