Basic Skills - Pt 1

What are the basic flute playing skills that I need to master?
Part I - Technique (flute stability)
As a beginning musician, the first skill that we all tackle is technique. What exactly is technique? In flute playing, it is generally referred to as the ability to lift and depress your fingers at the right time, and in the correct combination, to produce the notes that are required. However, “good technique” in its loosest definition, is just the quality of how a skill of any type is done. This entry is all about that second type of general “good flute-playing technique”.
Now, before you advanced players jump ahead to my next entry, I want you to pay close attention to one thing. Can you play all of your technique or scale exercises at the same speed throughout the entire range of your flute? When you play your five-note Taffanel exercises all the way up to a high D, do you have spots where you cannot keep up with your basic metronome speed without making little finger flubs?
If that sounds like you, or if you are in your first three years of playing the flute, keep reading . . .
Something important that we tend to forget about shortly after we learn how to hold the flute, is exactly HOW we hold our flute. If you ever take a look at a set of beginning flute players when they are all trying to hold their flutes up for the first time, they will look at you like you are a magician, because how can anyone even hold this monstrosity in one place without it rolling completely to the floor?
The key is BALANCE between all of the points of contact. What are the actual points of contact when we play the flute (think of how you hold it when playing middle C#)? We all know of the two obvious ones: the right-hand thumb and the left-hand first-finger crutch. There are two more not-so-obvious balance points which we need to keep in mind. The first one is our chin. The second is actually our right-hand pinky finger, when it is depressing the Eb key.
Let's talk about stability from front to back first. Have you ever thought about which direction your chin is pushing against the flute? Forward, right? Well, how do your left and right hands balance that push forward? That answer, at least, is pretty simple. Our left hand pushes the flute towards us, and the right hand pushes away again. So we have a 3-way lock for balancing our flute (see drawing #1).
Unfortunately, most beginning flutists assume that the job of the right hand is to hold the flute UP, and don't realize that the right hand needs to be that third and forward opposing balance point to the other two. If your right-hand thumbs sits smack dab under the flute, it is likely that your right-hand position needs some updating.
Here is a test for you to try. Can you hold your flute steady, in regular position, without depressing any keys, especially the Eb pinky key? It will likely be unstable, but the answer should be YES! Your right-hand pinky should only add a final small amount of stability to your flute position. If your flute rolls back when your pinky key is up, or if you need to stabilize it by holding on to the key rods (YIKES), then I want you to look at my second drawing, taken as a view from the top end of the flute.
Notice how the forces work in concert to adjust for both gravity, as well as the unbalanced weight of the flute. The force coming from the right-hand thumb should be more than just straight up. If you are only supplying a forward push with your right-hand pinky, and not your thumb, I would bet that your right hand is way more stressed out than it should be.
Young or inexperienced flutists commonly hold too much tension in their right hand, which can, in turn, lead to hindered speed in finger movement. If you find that you are a victim of right-hand tension, first check in with your flute teacher to find out if he/she can help. If you don't have a private teacher, you can consider making small adjustments to your hand position on your own.
To make right-hand adjustments safely, do everything in small increments. To start with, make sure that your right-hand thumb (though maybe still under the flute at this point) sits between your F and E keys (review drawing #1). Then, begin moving your thumb further back on the flute (straightening your wrist in the process), until you start feeling more stability when you are playing (be aware that you may have to push against this change with slightly more pressure toward your chin from your left hand crutch). Don't change the position so much that you get to the point that your thumb pushes on the key rods ever! Your right hand position will naturally start to flatten out, because you will be holding the main part of your hand more behind the flute, instead of under it.
Your right elbow will likely be held much higher than it used to be (a better position for breathing, anyway), and you may need to adjust your foot joint to compensate for the fact that your right-hand pinky now pushes down instead of forward. Overall, this hand position should feel more relaxed, once your get used to it. Your right-hand pinky will thank you for the adjustment!
Try practicing with your updated hand position for about a week, and then reevaluate how stable your flute feels. If, during that week, you experience pain or tension that do not go away over the period of a week, then immediately go back to your old way of holding the flute. At that point, you will need the input of a private teacher, who can then try out other methods of changing your hand position to improve the stability of your flute.
Hopefully, the above alterations have managed to help you stabilize your flute, and relax your hands. And now that you have found a little more stability in how you hold the flute, we will move on to that “fingers up and down at the right time” thing in the next blog entry. Check back soon for my new installment!