Piano health: 7 warm-up exercises to become a better pianist

Piano Blog by Skoove – Piano Practice Tips

When sitting down at the piano for a practice session, it can be really tempting to just jump straight into practicing that new song you’ve been wanting to play. Having that kind of enthusiasm to start practicing a song is really great but, as a pianist, you should also try to start each practice session with a few warm-up exercises in order to get your muscles and your brain up and running.

It may sound too obvious, but piano playing, and music performance in general, is a physical activity — this means that you’re using your muscles just as much as your brain, and you should aim at creating healthy habits in your piano practice. If you’re unsure of how to warm-up, or want to add some new exercises to your practice routine, then try out our set of piano warm-up exercises for beginners!

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Piano warm-up exercise #1: Stretching

Although it may seem counterintuitive at first, some of the best piano warm-ups do not involve the piano itself, but simply muscle stretching. Stretching your muscles at the start of every session will help you prepare your whole body, just like you would when playing sports, and avoid grave injuries such as carpal tunnel!

Stretching exercises can include a variety of activities such as applying gentle massages to your hands and fingers, or sets of movements involving different parts of your body. The great thing about stretching is that you can do it almost anywhere, not just when sitting at the piano!

Since stretching is better taught by example, we recommend watching this video tutorial for a great set of exercises:

Piano warm-up exercise #2: Scales

This exercise for playing piano is focused around building speed, finger strength, and muscle memory, through playing scales. For this exercise, we are first going to use a 2-octave C major scale — in other words, this C major scale will consist of white keys from C4 (middle C) to C6. Being such a common warm-up, you will likely find the sound of this exercise very familiar.

As a quick reminder on music theory, there are 8 white keys from any C to the next C, and we call the distance from C to C — or any two notes spanning the same distance — an octave.

However, before attempting the half speed and full speed method, let’s make sure that you are comfortable playing the scale at a slow tempo.

First, place your right hand on the keyboard, with your thumb on middle C. From here, you are going to play every white note moving upwards until you have traveled 2 octaves and are 2 C’s higher than where you started — make sure to pay careful attention to the finger pattern specified in the example, which tells you which finger is meant to be used for each note.

From here, all you need to do is return back to middle C, in the same way: playing all the whites notes on the way back down, following the same finger pattern. For instance, notice that on the way up, your thumb tucks and passes under your 3rd finger, then your 4th finger, and then your third finger again. On the way down this motion is reversed; your third and fourth fingers wrap over your thumb.

Learn how to have the right finger positions to be at ease with this exercise.

Piano warm-up exercise #3: Half speed / Full speed

Once you are comfortable playing the scale, try to play the next piano exercise and spice up the rhythm by playing some notes “half speed” and some notes “full speed”!

Get your right hand into position again with your thumb on middle C. This time, play the first 8 notes really slowly (half speed). Then, play the next 4 notes, but play them twice as fast (full speed). You are then going to repeat this pattern of 8 slow notes and 4 fast notes until you have gone up and down the scale twice. Watch the video below to see exactly how it’s done!

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The benefit of this double-speed method is that the half speed notes give our fingers time to rest, and helps us to execute the full speed notes with rhythmic accuracy and evenness. Put the C major scale into action by trying out Billy Joel’s hit “Piano Man” sheet music.

This exercise can be done using any scale. For instance, let’s try it using the A Natural Minor scale (As another music theory reminder, this scale is related to C Major, and therefore uses all of the same notes). Before trying to spice up the rhythm, get comfortable playing the scale normally.

This time, start with the thumb of your right hand on the A just below middle C. Then play up the keyboard, playing every white note until you have traveled 2-octaves up. At this point, just like before, head back down the other way until you land back where you started. 

Did you notice that the fingering is exactly the same as C Major? Just think of this scale as C Major starting on A. Once you can play this scale up and down using the right fingers, spice up the rhythm by adding in the half speed/full speed method.

Don’t worry if you struggle with this exercise at first. It can take some getting used to! Just take it slow at first, and make sure to count out loud if it helps. Once you master this exercise and improve your finger dexterity, it is very fun and beneficial to play!

Put the A natural minor scale into practice and try out the song “Mad World” by Tears for Fears.


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Piano warm-up exercise #4: Arpeggios – C Major & A Minor

The next of our set of piano warm-up exercises for beginners is all about improving flexibility and speed through arpeggios. As a quick reminder, arpeggios are chords broken into their individual notes — in this case, C major is being broken down into the notes C, E, and G. To demonstrate the exercise, we are going to use a 2-octave arpeggio in C Major and then A minor.

First, let’s get familiar with the C Major 2-octave arpeggio. An arpeggio involves playing the first, third, and fifth notes in a scale. To play this arpeggios, you start on middle C, and play all the C’s E’s and G’s until you have traveled 2 octaves. Once you are here, you then return back down to middle C, playing all the same notes on the way down.

Using your right hand, try playing the arpeggio. Start off with your thumb on Middle C. Make sure you read the finger numbers under each note as you play.

Notice that as you go upwards, your thumb passes under your third finger. This is quite a stretch, so make sure you turn your hand counter clockwise and raise your elbow out from your side a little if needed. On the way back down, your third finger reaches over your thumb; again make sure you turn your hand counter clockwise to help with the stretch.

Now try this exercise using the A Minor 2 -octave arpeggio.

What are the first, third, and fifth notes in the scale of A minor? A, C, and E. Well done if you got it right!

Start with the thumb of your right hand on the A just below middle C. Play all the A’s, C’s, and E’s until you have traveled 2-octaves up. Then come back down.

Did you notice that both arpeggios use exactly the same finger numbers?

As you start to feel more confident, slowly increase your speed, but make sure your touch and rhythm stays even and consistent!

Mastering arpeggios is extremely important, as it is a building block of many pieces of music, one known example being the Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, available through the Skoove app:

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Piano warm-up exercise #5: Hanon and Czerny piano exercises and techniques

A list of piano warm-ups cannot be complete without two of the most popular piano study methods: Czerny and Hanon. These two piano methods are named after their respective authors, Carl Czerny and Charles-Louis Hanon, both renowned and prolific piano pedagogues in the 19th century. 

Each of these authors produced a large variety of piano studies aimed at targeting and solidifying specific skills in piano students. For instance, the following exercises are taken from two of their methods, one emphasizing five finger scale patterns, and the other for building finger strength on the left hand.

warm-up example from Hanon

warm-up example from Czerny

Piano warm-up exercise #6: Improvisations

Although not a warm-up exercise per se, an important and advantageous habit to develop as a pianist is improvisation — that is, the ability to create and perform music on the fly. The idea of improvising may seem scary at first but it’s important to remember that the whole point of doing so is to allow yourself to be musically spontaneous and let your imagination flow through your fingertips. 

For instance, you may try taking a simple chord progression and adding a melody on top of it or, by contrast, taking a melody you like and harmonizing it with different chords. To give you an idea of how far you can get by adding improvisation to your daily routine, check out this video of Gabriela Montero, improvising on two themes suggested by audience members, alla Bach.

Piano warm-up exercise #7: Sight-read a new piece

An essential piano skill to develop as pianists is the ability to sight-read new pieces — that is, being able to play sheet music you encounter for the very first time. That’s why taking any piece, and trying to play it from beginning to end, even if it’s at a very slow tempo and with a few mistakes here and there, can be a great warm-up exercise. 

For instance, you may try a new Hanon or Czerny study every day. Eventually, you’ll find that learning a given song or piece of music will take less and less time, and you’ll also feel more relaxed when playing piano, positively contributing to your overall physical and mental health.

Final words

In this article, we discussed several warm-up techniques to ensure that your body is physically ready for your daily piano sessions, and start developing healthy practicing habits. Some of these included stretching, scales, arpeggios, improvisation and sight-reading. By trying out all these different approaches, you’ll start noticing huge improvements in your playing, even if you don’t spend as much time practicing each individual song or piece.

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Author of this blog post:

Felipe Tovar-Henao is a Colombian composer, developer, and researcher, whose work focuses on algorithmic creativity, sound perception, memory, and recognition. His music has been performed and commissioned by international artists and ensembles such as Alarm Will Sound, Grossman Ensemble, Sound Icon, NEXUS Chamber Music, and Quatuor Diotima, and featured in many festivals around the world, including WOCMAT (Taiwan), SICMF (South Korea), SEAMUS and SCI (US). He’s currently based in Medellín, Colombia, where he’s Professor of Music theory at EAFIT University.


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