Monday, October 06, 2008

Galway talks about flute arm pain

Dear Flutists,

On Galway's Flute Chat group there have been discussions from time to time about how much tension James Galway uses to play the flute. Many folk have seen videos where you can clearly see the impressions of open-holes on Galway's finger tips, and Galway himself has provided photos of his hands showing the calluses he has built up on his right thumb and left index finger.

As flute teachers who teach students who can develop tendonitis, carpal tunnel, frozen or painful shoulders, scapulas, arm pain, neck pain and back pain, many of us have been very cautious about using the word "tension" or "grip the flute" or allowing the development of callouses etc. Up until now Sir James has rarely admitted to any kind of pain or disability from his incredible flute playing routine.

However, now, still as the greatest performing flutist of his generation Sir James Galway seems to be taking more time to discuss the "dos and don'ts" of flute practising, and admitting that some postures and "holding the flute" methods are more advantageous than others to allow longterm practising without muscle fatigue.

For example, in the past few weeks on Galway Chat there have been several discussions about flute playing and sports, flute playing vs. weight lifting, and flute playing tensions and pains vs. flute playing positions that are "relaxed" or "poised".
It is very interesting to hear Galway add the following today to the discussion:

Dear Friends,

I have to confess it was I who first mentioned weight lifting in connection with flute technique. This probably started the sports related topic as well.
The reason I come up with this comparison was my personal trainer at the time was explaining to me how to train various muscles. Many of them I never knew I had.

While watching a weight lifter on TV I thought this guy has to have trained every possible muscle in his body, most of them I will never get to know. He looked to me that he was getting ready, good position, to lift. Then it appeared that he used this good starting
position to hoist a great deal of iron. In doing so I thought he had to be using muscles I am never going to have to know about in doing the everyday things I do and playing the flute.

When practicing the next day I became aware of how I should stand in relation to the music stand with the notes on it, so that I can play for the longest time without tiring myself. Having arrived at a good position to begin playing I then thought it would be nice
to find a good place for the arms and fingers. My mind went back in time to Geoffrey Gilbert and Alexander Murray who both showed me how to stand and hold the flute.
Gilbert, from a practical point of view and Murray, from an Alexander technique point of view.

At the time I was doing this I had just returned from a US tour and had decided to revise my Daily Exercises. This was because I had advised a student of mine to study these exercises and I thought I would do the same so I knew what I was talking about the next time we were to meet.

Well I found out that these studies are really difficult and taxing on the body. At one point I thought I was going to have to stop playing altogether the pain was so bad. I then did something to alleviate this and that was to stop for a second or two, between scales.
Taking the flute away from the lips, realign the whole muscular system, and then continue.
This had the effect of releasing the tension caused by the stress involved in playing these difficult exercises.
I have come to the point now where I can play A, B, C and D in about 40 minutes with stopping for no more than a moment at a time.
I noticed too that when I used excessive pressure on the fingers I had more pain feedback around the shoulders and back, and began to practice with a softer touch. I noticed that the more difficult the scale or arpeggio, the more tense I became in trying to play it. I
normally play with a soft finger touch but sometimes this gets forgotten in the heat of the moment, with disastrous results.

I hope these thoughts will help some of you who are having difficulties. It has certainly helped me and as a result it is fun to practice on a daily basis.

Sir James, Meggen, Switzerland.

In my opinion this advice is excellent.
Finally we agree. :>)

Jen the protector of students who tend to hurt themselves playing technique that's far too fast and far too hard at first.... :>)
Comments (11)
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lessons in the Alexander Technique helped me a great deal with my playing, and singing. Definitely worth checking out - they have a wonderful site at

Monday, October 06, 2008 7:39:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Yes, Alexander Technique is fab. for musicians. In looking on youtube for various demonstrations I came across some good flutist's posture and breathing advice here:

Thanks for bringing A.T. into the conversation. I find Tai Chi and Rolfing also excellent in restoring a "floating posture". Best, Jen

Tuesday, October 07, 2008 12:58:00 AM

Blogger pete said...

an audio tape that guides the listener through Alexander relaxation exercises is very good. I was given one about 15 years ago and still use it.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008 6:52:00 AM

Blogger Sheila said...

Absolutely. Really neat, thanks for sharing! One thing that Galway really stressed this summer was NOT to hit the keys. This comes right into the points he is making here, because not 'hitting the keys' relates very closely to not gripping the flute and hurting ourselves.

Very interesting.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008 9:01:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Pete,
If you ever transfer that cassette to mp3 I'd love to hear it.
Jen :>)

Tuesday, October 07, 2008 12:11:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Sheila,

Yes, fingerings that are soft, gentle, accurate, and close to the keys.
I've found a Debost quote from "The Simple Flute from A to Z". I'll put it in the next blog post so everyone can find it.
Very good advice.
Look to next, more recent blog post above this one. Jen :>)

Tuesday, October 07, 2008 12:13:00 PM

Blogger Spence said...

About freakin time. I am so tired of it's being taboo to discuss the fact that our instrument (the metal Boehm flute) is an akward instrument to play. For many years, I've wondered why my technique was so much better on alto flutes and wooden C flutes. It baffled me that these other instruments were so much more comfortable for me to hold and play. Lately, I have added leather baseball bat grip with double-stick sponge tape to the underside of my flute right where the right thumb hits. I also use a thin strap of the stuff for the right index finger. I also used a floor protector (vinyl round disk with adhesive on the back, about the same size as the key) to elevate the offset G key. The end result is that the whole instrument feels bigger and more stable, thus less tension everywhere. I think it is high time that flute makers get with it - and start helping us reinvent our instrument. I say bravo to people like Jen Cluff and Jeanne Baxtresser, who have their flutes either permanently or temporarily modified to make them more comfortable to play. People are not one-size-fits-all, and neither are flutes. I don't feel so bad doing what I need to to enjoy playing again, and I am glad to know that people are being honest with themselves and each other about our instrument.

Spencer Yeamans

Thursday, October 23, 2008 8:48:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Thanks for your enthusiastic comment, Spencer. I really appreciate hearing from you.
Best, Jen

Thursday, October 23, 2008 9:42:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

My child recently broke her left wrist and has a flute concert next week, is there any trick/method to playing the flute with one hand/ arm. In a cast up to shoulder, cannot use left hand or fingers

Thanks very much

Sunday, January 08, 2012 4:44:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Anonymous,

No, it's not possible to play the flute without being able to move the left hand fingers. The left hand is used for the notes C, B, A, and G. It's also better not to strain the muscles inside the cast. Put the flute concert on hold, and re-book it for another time when the arm is completely functional. Best, Jen

Sunday, January 08, 2012 8:34:00 AM

Blogger gaty said...

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Wednesday, April 12, 2023 2:09:00 AM


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