Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Practical advice on flutist's balance & flexibility

Dear Flutists,

Regarding the recent blog post about Galway's advice about posture while practising flute: just recently I came across a great quote from Michel Debost's "The Simple Flute from A to Z". I'd like to share it here, and also recommend that this book is fabulous for every flutist. Here's the quote about light vs. heavy flute fingers:
The Simple Flute from A to Z page 164-165:

The most restful position for the hands is when, with the wrist resting on a flat surface like a table, the fingers are also in contact with the surface, without pressing down.

The arm muscles are inactive.

As soon as we try to lift a finger, a slight effort (in the forearm tendons) is perceptible, increased with each lifting finger. The extensors (muscles in the forearm) are at work.

When we transpose this experience onto the flute we find that the main reason for cramped playing, painful shoulders, tendinitis, and many ailments that plague flute players.

The prevailing opinon is that tension initiates in the neck area (atlas-axis vertebrae) and affects nerves, tendons and muscles all the way down the arm to the wrist and hand. The theory is that by working to relax the neck and shoulders through excellent disciplines like Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, or Yoga, we can find a panacea for all our aches and pains.

I believe the process works in the opposite direction. Tension starts at our fingertips. (and, Jen adds, often because in amateur players and students, there are leaks in the flute's pads as well. Have flute checked by an expert, please! :>)

Debost continues:
When we slam-and-squeeze on the keys, as if to conquor a problem by force, and when our finger technique is noisy, it is a sign that we are using too much pressure. We are brutalizing the flute. In turn, the extensors must fight to counteract the force of the flexors to lift the fingers, thus producing tension that radiates back up through the tendons, arms and shoulders. It is like pedaling a bike uphill with the brakes on.

Flutists have been told to relax so many times that they forgo all the stability of the instrument-holding posture and end up doing lip acrobatics and straining the weak facial muscles. Facial muscles are not meant to do that.

When playing with a loose flute and slapping fingers, we are not calling into action the strong leg muscles or the abdominal and arm muscles (biceps). These have been called the energy muscles. We use them without thinking to stand, walk, run, push, lift and so on. They are well within their power when we play the flute, and for this reason they do not generate tension and problems of overuse.

I believe that in the above Debost quote there is a clear pointer guiding the posture of the holding of the flute:

Let the STRONG muscle stabilize you and give you strength and poise (core muscles, legs, the stance and balance on the feet, the balancing of the head, and all the bones and muscles that aid a light, upward posture in Alexander Technique) and let the weak muscles (face, fingers, forearm tendons) work lightly, simply and efficiently within the framework of a strong and balanced body posture.

Galway used to state that setting an egg-timer for every five minutes to check in with yourself, allows you to, during flute practise, become aware of your posture and muscle use, and allows you to gradually incorperate new habits, and interrupt the old habits. This five minute check-in really works.

In his excellent book, Debost also covers the main points of flute stability in addition to posture; he has excellent diagrams and explanations of:

- how to hold the flute stable with a three-point hold so that fingers that are moving up and down are NOT the fingers that are holding the flute stable in the hands

- how to have the head isometrically balanced on the neck so that there is no neck tension

- how to assure a stable placement of the chin plate on the chin (very important feature that many flute students miss.)

- how to balance the flute on the right thumb in a natural hand position, and how to avoid cocking the left wrist back so that you do not strain the left forearm

- how to use stabilizing fingerings so that the flute doesn't bobble in your hands when you change many fingers at once.

Although the language of "The Simple Flute" is often French-English translation-esque, the diagrams and advice are very very good. Highly recommended.

I'm still looking through both this book, Walfrid Kuajal's "Vade Mecum" and Angelita Floyd's "The Gilbert Legacy" for a truly great quote about finger tension that I can't seen to locate this morning. I say: Duh.........where did I read that??

One of these three great flute teachers said something like:

"We grip the flute hard when we feel we are losing control of the music. This can happen in practise, or in performance. You grip, you try to hold on tight, you lose the fleetness of finger movement.
It's only natural; that's what human animals do; they hold on tight when they think they're going to fall or fail.

This shows up in flute students when they try and play difficult works or tricky technique at high speeds; the fingers grab at the flute so that the human being doesn't fall off that cliff-top, or fall into that lake.

The answer, of course, is to avoid this common pitfall. Do not push to play quickly any passage or series of notes that is not yet easy at a slower tempo. In this relaxed way we can balance and stabilize our posture and our hands so that speed and accuracy become possible without gripping".

I read this excellent analogy, piled the three flute books on my bedside table, promptly fell asleep and dreamt of cougars chasing flutists into fast moving rivers. (ha hahahhahaa! :>D)

So, thus far this morning, I have been unable to find the exact quote. :>) I will check the Kujala "Vade Mecum". Much pithy advice is found in each chapter intro. Another excellent voice in the flute teaching world. And, it really painted the picture.

Have a happy, free and balanced day, with no cougars chasing you to the Ibert Concerto at 120!! :>)

Jen Cluff
Comments (4)
Blogger Unknown said...

The difficulty is playing C-D (middle range). The flute wobbles! How to stop this? My teacher said, hold the flute with the left joint pushing against the chin.
It's true that when playing slowly, the movement of rolling out and up of the flute are less. When the speed increases, especialy in those iportant scales, payingattention to stbility, not touching those trill keeys and find teh roight pitch with the mouth are tricky.
(June 2015)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015 10:36:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Michael,
Yes, C to D is tricky for everyone at first.

I use two extra fingers down on the C(RH 23 on E and D) so that they stay down for both notes, when played slowly.
I re-balance the flute with these two fingers down, by adjusting the rest of the two hands around the two stable fingers.
By gradually speeding up with the two stabilizing fingers down you can teach yourself what else to do to keep the flute stable, when later, you no longer use the two extra fingers. Try it.

Also, when you are going faster in scales, are your fingers higher when up or heavy and pressing too much when they are down?
If so this can make the flute unstable.
When you go fast keep the same low and easy fingers that you use when you play slow.
Then the flute's stability and the changes in stability are more easy to feel with the hands.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015 3:25:00 PM

Blogger Araaon said...

Excellent article, thank you so much!

Sunday, August 14, 2016 12:03:00 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Dear Jen,
I am re-reading this advice and start using it again (haha, now he thinketh!) (I’ve past my 2nd grade now and revisit my first steps! Debost is really good. I read on Kindle during the night until his teaching sends me to sleep and matures in me!)
Perhaps another way to ease the way into fast playing is to play slow with the metronome and increase the speed little by little. I find it successful to learn a piece in this way.
I actually learn a piece backward! Playing only the last bar, then going backward bar by bar – using the slow metronome technique. (Strangely, this method helps with memorising the piece too as I work through the same few bars, I just remember them, especially where there is a difficulty)
That way, at the start the music doesn’t seem to make sense.
But in the end, I notice that often, the composer (women composers too!) finishes his/her piece with a reminder of the first phrase.
In fact, I find it useful to divide a piece into sections and variations of sections. You can use then the metronome slowly to learn the particular section and increase the speed so that the fingers remain relaxed.
I hope that this comment is OK. I’m only a grade 2 student, so I have a long way. But I do like re-reading your pieces of advice, as I learn some and come back for more, perhaps even more of the same. Thank you, Michael

Friday, August 19, 2016 6:40:00 AM


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