for both the Hurting and the Presently OK
by Pauline Mancuso
People are built in all sizes, and the flute essentially is built in one. Although there are different key styles possible, and to some extent some slight differences in placement, each of us might want to consider making our flute more comfortable to play. This will allow us more facility in our playing, and also allow us to play longer each day, and longer into our careers.
First of all, there are choices that can be made about the fundamental flute body we purchase. The traditional closed-hole, offset G is still a choice for many professionals, as well as students. If we chose open-hole, for whatever reasons, we must decide between inline and offset G. If we have an aching left wrist, shoulder, elbow, or even neck, we might want to consider an offset G key. Those few fractions of an inch may help us to reconsider our hand position, which affects the nerve impulses up and down the line. While were in the neighborhood, consider adding some height and/or length to the G# key. A piece of cork, glued on and sanded (with an emery board?) to shape will help. Easier and faster yet is a saxophone palm key riser. They pop on but may wiggle a little. Their impermanence is good for experimenting. Plugging the G key, offset or inline, is also something to think about nobody says that the fingers MUST fall in the center of the key. If the "touch" of this is bothersome, glue on a "pearl" sax key button, in just the position that fits you well. True, there are elegant silver, or functional plastic, inserts that snap into the hole of the G key, and have an extension, but as long as we are experimenting with comfort and position, we might as well do it with handy, inexpensive materials, until we get the alignment we want. Next week, we may change our mind anyway.
Those little pearl sax buttons are also handy for repositioning the touch of the C key. I have used them when my LH position has changed due to a plastic support sleeve, my most effective "flute orthotic". Since our hands naturally fall open to a relaxed position larger than the outside diameter of the flute tube, adding some increase to the diameter of the tube, in the two areas where our LH knuckle and RH thumb support the flute, is very helpful. Directions for making these appear below. I have seen these little plastic hose sections, fashioned into these supports, sold for the equivalent of $20 on the Web but there is no substitute for the self-discovery of making your own. And for a few dollars only, you can buy enough materials to take care of all your students, should they need these.
In the same category as the above are BoPeps, which are hard plastic devices that snap onto your flute. I have not had success or comfort personally with them. I have also tried corn plasters, Molefoam, and various home-supply bumpers, cushions, and whatnot that adhere to the flute. My choice at this time is still the plastic hose and it requires no glue or adhesive to attach. It just clings.
But with the added weight and damping, we must compromise. Something has to come off the flute to make up for this weight, or something must be done to the headjoint to retain or improve response. At first, I noticed that my flute sounded better when I removed the crown less weight. I now find that the Bigio stopper configuration more than makes up in improved response for the plastic and cork additions I use.
Sometimes perspiration causes our normally secure grip to slip. Beyond facing the supports with cork or moleskin, or a sharkskin substance advocated by some, I have also, once in a desperate situation, glued those tiny white 3-hole notebook page reinforcements onto the five open keys, and sections of these onto the closed keys, as well. Much like putting a postage stamp or similar mucilage-backed paper onto the lipplate, these helped in that one very, very sweaty-hand performance.
Most of these additions are just about invisible, weigh very little, and make a great difference in comfort and/or pain reduction for some flutists; some of us have prescriptions for glasses, contact lenses, hearing aides, shoe orthotics, fitness regimens, and other things that make our daily work and play better. Some people need NONE of this, and have never had an ache or pain, and are truly puzzled by the need of the rest of us to pursue this. Lucky them. Some flutists might try these suggestions, and find that they still hurt or are worse. Then its time to seek a specialist in Music Medicine. But if any of us can be helped by suggestions from the rest of us, then we are fortunate.
I have not experimented with alternate angles of headjoints, or even "recurve" headjoints for the flute. I know that if I were to play alto or bass flute, I would definitely look into this, but I personally do not have, nor do any of my students have, a problem that needs the "shorten" the flute, change the angle radically, or make it vertical. Doing this, of course, would mean that a new area of potential hand comfort and/or pain was open for perusal.
There are many fine flute builders who will fashion whatever changes you can think of, and many that are their own terrific devices, borne of research and perseverance. They results will be functional, elegant, and either permanent, or professionally reversible. I personally am never "done" with things; I feel the need to keep changing my approach to what I do, always seeking an improvement, no matter how slight or the growth found through investigation. Clear plastic tubing and a couple of pearl buttons, plus a sliver or two of cork, hardly makes my flute unsightly, and greatly improves my comfort.
Of course, another step is the intelligent assessment of body alignment (another huge topic), and sensible and economical fingerings. I love the Walfrid Kujala "Vade Mecum", because of its emphasis on economy and intelligence in the fingering of knotty passages. I also would love to know who categorized fingerings into "classes": Class 1 has one finger moving (F to G, 1st and 2nd octaves). Class 2, one finger (or more) in each hand moves, but in the same direction (F to A, 1st and 2nd octaves). Class 3 has fingers in one hand moving in opposite directions (E to F#, 1st and 2nd octave). And Class 4 has finger moving in opposite directions in both hands (E to F#, 3rd octave). Just as we are told when pregnant, "Dont stand of you can sit, dont sit if you can lie down, and dont stay awake if you can be asleep", I tell my students (and myself!) that we should always try to find a fingering that moves us DOWN a category.
Sometimes the best advice is to put down the flute and take a walk. Set a timer if you have to, but make sure you practice less than one hour at a time. Leave the room, check the weather, pat the dog, and let muscles rest. Your brain will continue to process, on the subconscious level. Your whole body will benefit.
To simplify the basic building of these since no two flutes and/or hands are alike I have devised a one-size-fits-nobody template. At least it is a START, and from there, everybody has to whittle their own unless they live within driving distance of me, and Ill do if for them!
The tubing I used for these appears to have an OD (outside diameter) of 1 1/8", and an ID of 7/8", for the set that has the tab in the middle of each piece. I also made a set with a smaller OD (which might need less trimming, actually), and moved the tab down on that set, but they all appear to have similar wall thicknesses. I have made a simple diagram, and make the things in a very few basic cuts.
I start with a section of tubing about 1 ½ inches long. With ballpoint pen, I mark this on the front, turn the tube 180 degrees, and mark the same thing again (diagram #1). When cut thru, I have two identical pieces. I have tried with the tab dead center , and with the tab about 2/3 down the section it depends how big your hands are, and where you like to extra thickness to "land" on the flute tube. If I were to flatten them out, they would each look like this (diagram #2).
One of these is for the LH, and needs to fit around the C hole/key; the tubing needs to be thinned considerably, so the key will close. Surrounding the C key helps keep this in place. The "tab" side goes up the back of the flute, and usually must be trimmed to avoid any keys back there. Trim too much, and this will not stay on. You need at least SOME of this to go nearly 180 degrees around the tube. The length may be too much and the tone suffering from added weight and damping so you will end up trimming more away, until you find you have trimmed too much then you will know how to make the second one! If the tubing piece is out of round, and has gaps and will not cling, a few minutes with a hair dyer will soften it so that you can hand mold it.
Now, for the RH piece. The "tab" will fit between the F and E keys, and the notch will miss the kicker but not without trimming. Again, if any shaving (a leatherworker told me this process is called "skiving" , a great old Anglo-Saxon word) is needed, go ahead. I also trim up the "sharp" edges a little. Same advice about softening with heat to hand mold. Another way it to put the notch around the E key, and the tab still is not in the way of the kicker. I find the RH piece to be just as important in relaxing the hands as the LH piece. These cling very well, and I find that my hands do not slide on them, unless they are really, really wet with perspiration which seldom happens to me. I have tried gluing sheet cork to them, but sticky-backed flannel or Molefoam/Moleskin would adheres better. If more thickness is needed, I have made these out of whittled wine corks and velcro, and of gray foam water pipe insulation (REALLY thick, and not so secure in the hand, slippery-wise.) These are cheap, adjustable, clear, comfortable and need no adhesive.
Alexa Still has taken photos of some of these attachments on her flute, for an article she has written for Pan magazine. I sent her some of these in their rough stages, before they were individually trimmed and thinned. That way, you can see the basic shape, and then whittle away until you get the best feel and hand comfort, and best tonal response.
I use these when I feel the need and often remove them to see if the need still exists. There is no "free lunch" anything you do to your instrument compromises something else about it, for better or worse. I have no training in flute building or medicine my music degrees are not even in flute performance. I have done what works for ME, and other people have told me that it also helped them, too. The masses that got no benefit have not bothered to tell me so. And no one has ever told me that my advice made it worse - just that they cut their finger making these.
I thank Alexa Still for her faith in my ideas, and the impetus to put these thoughts and diagrams together to assist her in writing an article in this area. I also thank her for the photo of my flute support, in its one-size-fits-somebody rendition. And I thank Larry Krantz for thinking my ideas worthy of a little digital space on his website.Pauline Mancuso
845-339-3848 (Kingston, NY 100 miles north of The Big Apple)
published with the permission of Pauline Mancuso
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