Document 182030

Getting a grip: how to hold your flute
By Alexa Still
cannot begin this discussion without reliving a vivid memory; I asked a famous
player, 'How do you hold the flute?' He threw me a very direct look of amazement and disbeUef. Following a pregnant pause, where I was evidently supposed
to feel embarrassed, I chose to pursue a different question. I wish I had instead asked
why he found that so difficult to answer!
I've asked other great players the same thing and received a few fabulously wellconsidered replies, but it is true that most of us pick up our flutes as reflexively as we
pull on a T-shirt. After cogitating on this for years and struggling with explanations,
I hope this article goes some way to explain different concepts so that others may
review their own unique situation with an understanding of pros, cons and possible
The one-size-must-fit-all-flute simply suits some people's physical structure better
than others. One individual's hold on the flute might just work out to be terrifically
comfortable and functional, whereas the next different-sized person might have to
deal with real difficulty and discomfort albeit perhaps at a subconscious level. Much
of this has to do with body proportions as well as general size, but another vital
component is the tone the player desires.
Do you press the flute into your chin and or bottom lip? Some of us play with considerable pressure on the lip-plate and some of us don't. This is one of those polarising 'can of worms' issues, which I'd really prefer not to get drawn into, but cannot
ignore either in this discussion. Pressure at the lip-plate is created by pushing the
flute firmly onto the chin—pushing from the hands and arms versus pushing from
jaw and neck.
I grew up playing with so much pressure that my flute actually showed tendencies
of imitating a banana, but graduate study with Thomas Nyfenger' persuaded me to
try alternatives. Now I prefer to reduce the contact pressure at the chin and lip as
I feel I have more flexibility in embouchure shapes resulting in more flexible tone
colour. On occasion, I even pull the flute away from my chin to increase volume
despite the resultant instability. For many of the flute players I admire, however, a
very firm contact at the chin area is fundamental to their concept of tone and the
control of the sound. This type of the pressure at the lip-plate varies immensely.
For some, that pressure may be so vital a fundamental that the degree of pressure
doesn't change.
Thomas Nyfenger was a most influential teacher in the New York area. To get
a better idea of his teaching, his book Music and The Flute (^9^6, self published) is most
illuminating. This was reprinted by his sons and is obtainable from Flute World in the USA.
Alexa Still records for Koch
International Classics, and tours
regularly, mostly to the US. Based
in Australia, she is the Sydney
Conservatorium of Music's Chair
of Woodwind (University of
Sydney) and enjoys that research
environment. You can read about hn
recordings, concerts, teaching and
more, at her website: www,alexasiili
com. Alexa invites comments and
queries at any time; you can email
her directly from her website
Alexa thanks her students and her
colleague James Kortum for being
gracious models.
One of the two generalised types of flute-holding positions I am going to outline
here better suits the pressure on the chin while the other better suits the desire for
less pressure. And of course I've also seen many variations. This article could also go
on for years so I'll limit myself to just a few.
Understanding these two very generalised approaches should be helpful to diagnosing and remedying causes of discomfort, and discovering easier ways for the
hands to function (smoother technique!) in addition to providing different possibilities for further development of tone.
Why worry about it? Walfrid Kujala' expresses the need for fingers to be free of
the effort of holding the flute steady in order for good technique to be more easily
attainable. Even Quantz devoted a chapter to 'Of Holding the Flute and Placing the
Fingers'. This concern isn't new.
My observation is that, again, a few players' hands just fit the keys beautifully,
probably without any conscious effort but perhaps as the result of careful training. Then, some of us manage to play with impressive technical brilliance despite
obvious extraneous work for the hands including excess lateral motion to reach keys.
tineven timing of fingers due to some collapsed joints and obvious areas of tension
(for example, the little or 'pinky' fingers of each hand often feel more tense and difficult to move than index fingers). These flute players have made huge investments
in practice time to pull off the brilliance! And then, some of us really struggle, and
even suffer pain and injury. Slender and personality-type-AAA+ individuals often
slot into this latter category. Besides not being fun. practising is not a good idea when
it hurts!
So, regardless of how you actually hold the fiute. we are all after the same ideal.
We can't disrupt the connection between flute and face for fear of damaging tone,
and we want predictable, minimal, as-absolutely-uniform-as-possible finger motion
in order to get the best technique with the greatest ease. This amounts to a steady
grip of the flute that requires the least contribution from moving fingers.
I will concentrate on the position of the flute in the hands, but first one general
Ar^gle of head to body. If we orient our bodies while standing or sitting facing
directly forwards when playing the flute, weird contortions of the back occur in
pulling the right arm back far enough to accommodate the fiute. and the right side
of the chest area can feel constricted with that stretch. Younger American students
often have to unlearn this posture from their marching band experience. Most of
us do some degree of neck-turning to reduce that back constriction and to get a
more relaxed chest and feeling of space within the circle created by the fiute, arms
and body. I like to suggest that the player look at least a quarter-turn to the left and
elbows should be situated forward of the waist. The neck is much better .suited to
turning and tilting (most of us lean the head ever so slightly to the right) than the
back, but health professionals agree that the neck cannot sustain a turn, a tilt and a
Walfrid Kujala, renowned piccolo player and teacher, retired recently from the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra and still teaches at Northwestern University in Evanston,
Chicago. His book The Flutist's Progress (Progress Press, 1970) provides a comprehensive
instruction on holding the flute complete with photos. His later book The Flutist's Vade
Mecum (Progress Press, 1995) further demonstrates the depth of his thought regarding
the mechanics of flute-playing technique.
December 2008
forward-re ach ing crane. It is very important to always bring the flute all the way up
to your head rather than reaching your head to the flute!
'Pressure' hold. I don't name examples of famous individuals here because I am
worried about offending someone through omission! In any case, this is a ver\
popular style of holding the flute, easily observed looking around any group of fluii
The flute's lip-plate is firmly fixed into the chin area, or further up the lip
which may require more pressure to stay put. The base of the left hand index fingn
pushes the flute on a horizontal trajectory towards the player's right shoulder area
I understand some Italian players have great success moving the flute down a littK
further into that small notch you can feel in the middle of the index finger-knuckle
joint. Some players back up this horizontal push with arm power, lifting the left
elbow somewhat, and even positioning the left wrist higher as if the whole hand is
pushing from the forearm.
Along with the chin or jaw, the right hand thumb provides the best opposing
force to the left hand, pushing the flute forward horizontally. A player who really
understands this holding position will move the thumb right up the side of the
flute to the area right helow the rods. From here, the thumb can exert the necessary opposing force very effectively and all of the other fingers are completely free.
Possible problems include thumbs that don't lite pushing (for example, the 'hitch
hiker' type thumh shape with a pronounced curve may hecome painful in the joint
after exerting pressure for any length of time). Sometimes thumbs just aren't the
right length. A long thumb in this position may mean the fingers are almost straight,
which isn't best suited to fast motion.
A more common position which I would probably have to call 'pressure and
squeeze' has the right hand thumb under the flute. Sometimes a thumb placed under
the flute can still work; a very fleshy thumb may still have enough mass to exeri
some force forwards, horizontally. But if the right hand thumb cannot exert enough
forward force, the right hand little finger usually has to help. Immediately, the little
finger will form a vertical opposing grip with the thumb in addition to exerting
pressure forwards, which usually requires a collapsed joint or two in the little finger.
The httle finger in this position is simply overcommitted and unable to move easily
or with great facility. And any reaching beyond the Di key (Ci and lower) will mostly
likely require a hand shift because the little finger is already fully extended due to
the collapsed joints. (The only way to reach further is by moving the hand.) Any
lateral hand shift means that all of the right hand fingers have a new position from
which to 'find' their keys. Any extra 'searching' equates to more technical difficulty.
There are many wonderful players who play this way, but in my view, they work
mtich harder.
Where the player is able to limit the tension or pushing sensation to the bits of
their anatomy that do that activity, this hold can achieve a wonderful stability and
consistency. However, this holding position can be problematic for players who don't
have good body awareness and can't control or limit the tension (we do not want
any more body involvement than is required to keep the flute in position and steady
James Kortum's relatively
big hands handle
technically challenges with
aplomb despite what I'd
describe as a 'pressure hold'
and an 'overcommitted'
little finger.
My iiuii.ri . much
smaller hands fare much
better with the flute tilted
forward into a balance
position. Note that the grip
is more relaxed-loo king
and the little finger is
curved. Adoption of this
hand position dramatically
improved her technique in
a matter of weeks.
The placement on the face is also related to head size. Sometimes those
concepts of planting 'A' on point 'B' Just don't work out anywhere near achieving the
desired effect on a student with a smaller physique.
To find the point of balance
for each instrument, place
your hands into a karatechop shape with fingers
absolutely horizontal as
that físh that got away.
Place the flute across your
hands, so that your hands
are lifting the flute and
contacting somewhere
around the foot joint and
the barrel. Of course, your
headjoint will need to be
placed differently so that
your head isn't forced into
some ridiculous angle. To
increase the accuracy of
this balancing exercise,
try to estimate where
the headjoint needs to
be moved to (the same
orientation to your head
as previously, now looking
rolled in compared to the
flute body). If that seems
too difficult to figure out,
adjust it so the lip-plate is
facing downwards to the
floor or take it off the flute
body altogether.
when the fingers move). If this isometric force increases (any
extra push needs to be counteracted with more push from
an opposing force), the pressure can become so intense that
discomfort can quickly result in any of these areas: base of left
index finger, knuckle joint, left wrist, right hand and wrist,
base of neck, tendons controlling the jaw (TMJ syndrome"*)
and even the shoulders. Too much tension also restricts circulation and can even impinge on nerves. We are generally
familiar with the carpal tunnel syndrome (compression oí
nerves in the carpal tunnel at the wrist). Thoracic outlet syndrome* happens in the collarbone area, and of course anything
is possible with compression of the vertebrae of the neck.
'Balance Hold'. Any of the aforementioned tension can happen
in any type of holding position if the player allows it, but
because this 'balance hold' balances the flute to achieve stability rather than using pressure to hold the flute steady, it is naturally easier to maintain a lower intensity of body involvement.
However, whereas the pressure grip can accommodate a flute in almost any rotation, the crucial aspect here is that the flute key work must be rolled forwards to
the point at which it will stay put. The rods in the flute mechanism make the flute
far heavier on the player side of the keys. If the upper tone holes face towards the
ceiling, the flute will roll directly backwards towards the player, unless the player
exerts some pressure.
The flute is most often placed on the chin so there is a feeling of resting the lipplate on the face. If that doesn't work well for the purpose of sound production due
to the player's physical dimensions, then the point of balance becomes even more
crucial and the feeling of instability makes this holding position more difficult to
The left-hand contact is still on the base of the index finger, but that spot is
brought down to a lower contact onto the flute, so that the hand is more underneath
the flute and the trajectory is of a gentle lifting upwards motion. The keys will probably be rolled so far forward that reaching them (the ring or third finger to the G key
is often a stretch) will be even easier despite the hand being lower.
The right hand thumb attempts to find the comparable spot on the tubing to the
left hand—an opposite position contacting on the bottom third of the tubing. This
is not so much about providing an opposing force but another contributor to lifting
for stability, something like the third leg of a tripod.
With the orientation of the keys being forward, the footjoint may need to be
rotated closer to the player. With this hold, the little finger may contribute to control
the degree of roll, but that control is very light indeed, and should not require any collapsed joints. The little flnger should be able to maintain some curve when touching
the Et lever, and straightening for the lower notes. (No hand shifts are required.)
Temporomandibularjoint syndrome can be caused by stress-related grinding
the teeth or other excessiVe jaw motion that may occur when moving thejaw forward for
pitch control or higher register work.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is constriction of nerves and arteries underneath the
December 2008
With this 'balance' holding position, the main problem is
left wrist discomfort. To get the hand sufficiently below the
flute and into a lifting position, the wrist generally requires
more bending. Depending on arm length, this wrist bend
might seem too extreme and a high elbow will make that
sensation much worse. The left arm is best as relaxed as
possible, with the elbow falling downwards and close to
the body. (Well-endowed ladies may need to turn the head
more to the left to make this more easily possible.) The wrist
needs to form a bent but 'inline' extension from the forearm,
akin to the position where the wrist will flop up to if one
were bouncing a basketball, and even curling the fingers
up as one would in raising the hand before bouncing the
The second problem is the right hand wrist position.
Regardless of holding position, we work the right hand at the
tips of the flngerswithsome weight of the Hute on the end of the thumb, so the right
hand wrist orientation is always very important. Thumb length makes a diflerence
here too. A very long thumb many mean the fingers are straighter than we'd like,
and at that point, it becomes difficult to get comfortable.
The best working range for the right hand wrist is somewhere between having
the fingers in line with the forearm, or thumb in line with the forearm. This is
more easily achieved if the fingers are curved as if hanging from a bar rather than
holding an overstuffed hamburger where the fingers would be flat. A wrist bend
outside this range will probably result in discomfort near the base of the forearm,
towards the elbow area, where the muscles that work the hand are located. With
the keywork rolled forward, the right elbow may need lifting to get the wrist to a
good angle. Unless there is pre-existing rotator cuff damage in the shoulder, lifting
the elbow should not be difficuit or problematic beyond using some previously lazy
muscles. Shoulder discomfort in flute players is most often related to poor mnscle
tone or slumping in the upper back, letting the shoulder blades and everything else
slop around until the shoulder joints don't work properly-—easily fixed with simple
exercises from a physiotherapist.
So, to discover the potential of your technique, you might want to evaluate how
much you use pressure and how much you use balance to keep the flute steady. A
very quick playing test can be done in front of the mirror: play Cfl (second space
down on the stave) using no fingers at all, even leaving the right little finger ofl^.
Alternate this with the D. a half-step higher.
You'll see if you instinctively keep a finger or two down on the C? to stop the
flute rolling, and you'll also notice if the flute wobbles when you change the note.
In either holding position, if you cannot move all of your fingers freely with the
flute remaining stable, you are using a finger or two to hold the fiute steady and
those fingers cannot be working smoothly at speed—in other words, you have a
technique problem that you must work very hard to overcome. Figuring out which
holding position you want to emulate will help you figure out what to change. It
may well be possible to make a very small change and get a lot more comfortable
and productive.
This shows a relaxed
hand position with the
mechanism turned quite
far forward or out, putting
the flute body into a
balanced positiori.
Long slender fingers are,
in my view, predisposed
to excess tension and
collapsed joints. This
student is using a piece
of plastic tubing to add
width to the flute around
the left hand contact
area. The extra diameter
seems inconsequential
but in fact tilts the hand
slightly towards the G key
and reduces some of the
hyperextension of the index
finger. I prefer students
with this sort of hand
shape to maintain distinctly
curved fingers to minimise
unnecessary tension.
Bad: the hand is turned
to accommodate the end
of the thumb, placing the
third or ring finger at a
greater distance from the
G key
Good: the thumb is
contacting the key in a
way that accommodates
the best position for the
fingers. The ring or third
finger is reaching the G key
comfortably, in a curved
A few more thoughts I'd hke to share concern isolated digits for either holding
Hyper-extension of the left index ñnger. I hyper-extend my left index finger and it
has never bothered me, hut this tan be really problematic for some people. Making
the tubing of the flute wider really helps—Bo-Pep type clip-on gadgets are common,
as is the application of moleskin or some type of self-adhesive foam {applying these
sorts of things is also popular for dealing with pain from pressure). My favourite 'fix'
is a piece of nylon water pipe of slightly smaller diameter than the flute, cut open
and trimmed down to fit around the keys right where the base of the index finger
should go.
Spacing of the left hand and reaching the left hand keys. Making the tubing thicker
here can also tik the hand orientation just a little SÍ) that the knuckles are closer to
parallel with the flute tubing. This brings the fourth or ring flnger closer to that key
and has surprising results. This very slightly different angle can free the left hand in
a miraculous fashion, enabling greater facility in fast passages and especially so for
people with narrower hands.
Adding height and perhaps sideways reach to the index finger's C key is an obvious
improvement. Many flute makers now have experience of placing that key at the
player's request. Short of an alteration of a permanent nature, a do-it-yourself extension can be made and glued on, or you can purchase the Brannen plastic C? extension'' or use one made by Sandford Drelinger especially for his UpRite© headjoint.
Any of these are terrific for people with smaller hand widths as they effectively place
the whole hand a little further down the fluce and bring the G and Gj keys more
within reach.
Right thumb. There are a number of right thumb position 'aids' that have come on to
the market in the past flve years. Each design has great merits, but in my view, due
to the difference amongst our thumbs (just take a look amongst your close friends;
thumbs come in an amazing array of shapes and sizes) it isn't possible to endorse
one design to help with the 'pressure hold'. The gadget has to match the hand.
Especially for the 'balanced hold", my favourite is tlie Thumbalina by Roger
Holman'. This is a very simple piece of shaped cork stuck on to the flute with double
sided tape. It is light, inexpensive, doesn't damage the flute, and because the goal is
only to provide a larger shelf or contact area, it does suit ail thumb shapes.
Left thumb. Here, the diversity in thumb length can quietly cause havoc. For many
players, it works well for them to use the thumb near the tip. For others, to use the
tip would require a significant bend at the first joint. Some might feel inclined to
bend the thumb because we are accustomed to using the tips of our fingers and
thumbs, but if the bend approaches a 45 degree angle, it is too extreme and can
cause tendon problems. You'll note that the keywork for the Bb is carefully shaped
out of the way, so that the thumb can contact the B lever almost anywhere and not
run into the keywork for the B|,.
Brannen Brothers Flutemakers create extensions that are applicable to all flutes,
but built to match theirs; beautiful, very functional and priced accordingly. You can view
and order these at
Roger Holman's Thumbalina can be viewed and obtained from http://home.
Another interesting aside: this gadget is particularly popular with alto flute players.
December 2008
It is very helpful to understand that where the thumb contacts the thumb
key can often dictate the left hand wrist angle, whereas the wrist angle (much
more important) should dictate the thumb position.
Right little ñnger. To risk stating the obvious, the less pressure required to
depress the El, key, the better. On student flutes in particular, the spring on
this key can be so strong that it requires a clamp! A good repair person can
take care of this in short order by reducing the spring tension and seating the
pad more carefully to ensure it will still close properly.
Furthermore, the best mechanical advantage is gained by depressing this
key near the end closest to the player. While it takes a while to get confident
enough to do this in fast passages, the difference in effort required between
depressing the key at the end and depressing the key at the top near the rods
is easily apparent.
Collapsed joints. I usually hear a left hand collapsed middle finger in someone's technique before I see it. We often hlame this type of finger position on
the person having 'double-jointed' fingers and resign ourselves to living with
it. A finger with a collapsed joint or two requires great effort to close a key
compared to a curved finger; the collapsed joint means that the finger first
contacts the key and then is pulled down further to where the collapsed joints
are at full collapse and then the key feels closed. At speed, this action from
even one finger can make technical passage-work quite muddy. Curved fingers
are stronger and faster (and much less likely to collapse) so using such a finger
in a deliberately curved position helps substantially. If the fingers aren't strong,
the curve needs to be distinctly more curved to feel controllable. With correct
use, strength will improve and the curve may be reduced in time. For very
small hands or very weak fingers, adding key extensions so that a finger can
be curved and reach easily will shorten the training process and it may well be
possible to remove extensions in time if the hand size is adequate.
I often ask students to tape offending fingers into the curved position^.
When they hear the technical aspects of their playing being cleaner as a result,
there is much more incentive to play this way!
Tools. That we cannot see how we play is a very serious handicap! A mirror is
priceless. A computer camera set up so you can view yourself while playing
from another angle is dramatically better. A flute-playing buddy with whom
you can share your darkest secrets, and who can look at you from every angle
imaginable and let you concentrate on the playing sensation, is the most
To finish this brief and generalised overview, as an owner of ridiculously big and
exclusively fiute-suited hands, I'd like to thank my students who led me to ponder
solutions and graciously indulged my experiments. I'd also like to thank some colleagues who have been very open and frank with me in discussing personal experience. I hope that some little piece of information here is helpful to my fellow flute
Three views of a
comfortable, balanced
hand position that reduces
tension and promotes a
good technique.
A piece of athletic strapping tape, supporting a curved joint in a figure of 8
pattern around the curved joint, or sometimes a stripe stuck on the inside of a curved
finger and anchored by two bands, can help the player learn altered hand positions that
enable fingers to curve when operating the keys.