Music and writing are woven throughout my life like the strands of a double helix, and I often learn things from one discipline which can be applied to the other.  Warm ups, for example.  Singers simply must warm up their vocal chords before a performance, and there is a wide variety of exercises designed to target specific aspects of vocal production.  The high school girls love to do “sirens,” a high pitched “woo-oo” sound which gets them singing in their head voice and also relieves a lot of tension, effectively serving as a  (safe!) vocal scream.

As a pianist, I need those warm up exercises too, and the older I get the more important they are.  My fingers are literally stiff until I’ve played for a bit, and my mind needs some time to focus itself on the music, to set aside my worries from the day and hone in on the nuances of those notes in front of me.  If I’m playing a different instrument, the warm up becomes even more important.  What’s the key action like?  Is the pedal sticky or loose?  Is the upper register overly bright?  All those things are important to know to avoid being surprised during the actual performance.

In this month’s Poets and Writers Magazine, novelist Bret Anthony Johnson writes about the effectiveness of writer’s warmups, which, not surprisingly, serve similar purposes for the writer as they do for the musician. Ellis calls them Narrative Calisthenics, and says they transition the writer from the world of daily living into the world of the imagination.

“Writing exercise purges my mind of everything but a concentrated attention to language.  I’ve forgotten about the leaky faucet or the overdue library book, and most importantly, I’ve released my fear about starting the morning’s writing.”

Ah yes, the fear of the blank page.  Sometimes that seems almost insurmountable, doesn’t it?  Here are a couple of Johnson’s suggestions to get the writing muscles warmed up:

  1. Spend five minutes listing every word you can think of that starts with the letter “a”; tomorrow, use “b”; and so on…
  2. Spend five minutes listing everything you can think of that’s the color blue; tomorrow, green, and so on…
  3. Open your dictionary and blindly point to an entry.  Do this until you land on a noun, then spend 10 minutes writing a scene in which that noun figures significantly.

About two years ago, I began doing Morning Pages, as recommended by Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way).  I’ve found those three pages of stream of consciousness writing each morning to be a useful warm up exercise, a way of “priming the pump” of my imagination.  However, they often become an emotional clearing house for worries and concerns which have little or nothing to do with my writing projects.  I see the value of Johnson’s objective writing exercises as a way to sharpen the focus before embarking on whatever writing you’re engaged in.

“Writing is one of the most difficult and frightening things anyone chooses to do,” Johnson concludes.  “Exercises make the work a little easier and a little less terrifying.”

How about you?  Do you do writing exercises or warm ups?  Do you think they could be valuable?  Have you found warm up exercises helpful in some other area of your life, e.g. art, music, athletics?  

Extra Credit: Try one of Johnson’s exercises above, and post about your experiences.  Or create an exercise of your own and share it.