Monday, February 19, 2007

Flute Lessons after a debilitating illness

One of my students has come back afer a debilitating illness, and had been preparing to play a senior recital.
I have one hour lessons with her, and she can't yet hold the flute for more than five minutes. The illness has left her quite weak.
What kind of things can we do in lessons as she gradually recovers (besides listening, of course). Ideas that would help prepare for her (probably simplified) senior recital would be helpful also.
Thanks for your input. A.

Dear A.

Here are some ideas:

1. Patricia George's idea of "Right hand on the barrel"
is not only good for beginners, it's good for advanced
players, and re-starting flutists. [See short video on this topic]
Footjoint is off, and the weight of the flute is much
lighter so the balance is far easier for youngsters, or
for those re-starting flute after a hiatus.
The right hand, palm facing away from the player, is
wrapped around the barrel, and the LH only is used to
play C, B, A, G. This can be used for a multiplicity of
short exercises and tunes, longtones, breathing,
tuning, scale patterns and improvising. F and E can be
added gradually (footjoint remains off).
I have written a whole lot of easy duets for this
configuration which will be published next year. But
the notes G#, Bb, and F# can easily be added to create
your own improvisations during lessons.

I find that the contact of the flute's lip plate on the
chin is achieved with no added strain to the arms, and
that even after returning to regular flute
configuration that the contact on the chin improves
embouchure and balance of the hands.

2. Using the new light-weight flute, as above, I
recommend using the Tuning CD, and a metronome to
improvise over top of a tuning drone, using various
rhythm settings for improv, and eventually adding
rhythmic variety from introducing clear patterns of
articulation. Both student and teacher can improvise
back and forth in short bursts, immitation and echo
effects etc. This gives the returning student rest
times while they listen to the clarity of tonguing, the
tuning, the tone quality, and the note endings the
teacher uses, and they can more quickly return to their
former quality of playing by immediate immitation of
the correct sounds.

3. It would be interesting to explore stabilizing fingerings,
where individual finger changes are practiced in a relaxed
and comfortable sense of hand-balancing.
I highly recommend slow finger changes as per the Walfrid Kujala book:
"The Flutist's Vade Mecum". Working on hand-balancing and finger
stability in short concentrated periods of lesson time can really
help the student get coaching on which muscles they do need and
don't need, in order to develop a fluid technique.
This kind of highly relaxed playing (learning when to release muscles that aren't needed) is useful at any time in a flutist's career also.

4. Playing music that is far easier than before the
illness would be a boon. I recommend the countless
short and interesting melodies given in Jessica Walsh's
Celtic Flute books (World Music, Renaissance Music
etc.) and playing duets from the melody and variations
as shown at my Jessica Walsh Duets page.

When I returned to music after several years haitus, I
found the soothing playalongs most enjoyable, and short
enough not to tire or create bad-habits.
These melodies are very inspiring, and the duet form
(with the CD playing at the lesson) is very
entertaining in lessons, even with advanced students.

5. After the student has gained back some strength and
can play for at least five minutes before resting, I
advise you work through the book "The Physical Flute"
by Fiona Wilkinson. The author had to return to the
flute after severely injuring her spine, and also had
to relearn to play without excess effort.
This book is inexpensive and avail. at

6. For working the ears and mind, I suggest singing
while playing. Robert Dick has some exercises in "Tone
Development Through Interpretation", but you can
develop others. The buzzing of the lips that occurs
allows the tone to improve magically, and the breath
speed and lung support to naturally improve.
These exercises also cause resonance to return to the

7. Rhythmic work: I find that melodies, etudes and
repertoire that consist of fast finger patterns can
easily be reduced to the structural notes, to simplify
difficult repertoire. This is an "outlining" technique
where only the main notes in a bar are played,
outlining the structure of the melody or functional
notes of an etude, and the additional decorative notes
are only added gradually.
Teaching the student in lessons, how to outline a
melody (using Bach is always rewarding, but any
fast-fingered etude or piece will do) is beneficial on
many levels. Most rewardingly, however, it teaches the
student to play effortlessly, adding the complexity
back in over several weeks, in only one layer at a

8.Watching videos of flutists may be useful. See list of online videos from last week's blog.
Part of getting back a skill is observing others who are at their full ability levels.
This is the concept behind "Inner Game of Tennis", "Inner Game of Music".
Watching recitals and performances also give energy to thrive and improve, I find.

9. Finally,of cours it would be healthy if a series of musicians stretches, exercises
and breathing techniques can be taught during lessons
which will strengthen this student after his/her
illness, and also create a foundation for their own
teaching in the future.
A good book of exercises is "Playing Less Hurt" by
There are also some good basic warmup exercises in the
opening of "Warmups" by Paula Robison. All these are
worthy of being shared in lessons.

I would probably also suggest that the student play a
joint recital of slightly easier but very interesting
works, using other chamber musicians and reduced flute

Using other simpler compositions she could demonstrate flute techniques,compositional techniques, or instrumental blend etc.
Discussing the interaction of the chamber group's lines of music would also be interesting.

Jen Cluff
Comments (2)
Blogger Sheila said...

Yay for C,B,A,G duets!!! You're doing an awesome job with them!

This is a very interesting post, and just the reminder to stretch is good, especially when the musician plays two instruments which are played in totally different positions. Even when there hasn't been any illness, I find that I often get a little sore, and taking it slow and easy fairly frequently a good idea.

Any other ideas you can share on keeping from having sore muscles after only a few minutes? I keep my elbows down and try to relax, gently stretch etc., but it's sometimes not enough.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007 10:30:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Hi Sheila,

The ways to avoid sore muscles that I've used are this:

1. Every other moment that you're playing your instrument say this to your body: "Can you find an easier, stress-free way to do this?" Then, wait for a physical reply.
The body WANTS to do things the easiest way possible. But we use "mind over matter" so often that we don't realize that if we actually ask the body to do it's own thing that it will show us how to do it.

2. Look for release places in the music. A guitarist I once lived with (during college we shared a flat) discovered from reading "Le Violin d'Interieur" that there are releases in every gesture in music; it's always TENSION, and then release. Hypothetically you can be completely releasing every other bar or so. Look for complete moments of relaxation within the act of making music.

3. Move while you play. Move deliberately. When we move, the muscles no longer have to hold in static positions. If you walk around the room while warming up your longtones, if you deliberately play up to the ceiling (look up and follow the gesture with your flute) or make slow, easy circles with the flute, you will give the muscles more blood flow, and relieve static tension. I use this deliberate slow motion WHILE I'm playing, especially when doing long slow notes.

4. Take frequent breaks and THINK about the music. 60% of what we do starts in the brain---and can be rehearsed in the brain.
If your arms or shoulders are sore, then the only real answer is to rest until through sleep, time and stretching, the muscles restore themselves. So give them this time.
THINK through your music, instead of actually playing.

Hope this helps,
Jen :>)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007 11:58:00 PM


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