Pauline MancusoWorking hard, even willing to play through discomfort to reach one's goal, is no substitute for working smart. The flute as it currently exists for most of us is potential discomfort, injury, or at the least musical compromise, due to ergonomically unfriendly "workstation" relationships with our instrument and the environment we play in. So, we change what we can, do the best with the rest.
Ergonomic Design Features
for the Flute
Increasing the diameter of the flute at its grip points will assist in diminishing some of the hand and wrist discomfort experienced by many. Let us consider each hand separately, although they certainly must work together, and many principles pertain to both. The RH often gives people problems, because at the current outside diameter of the tube, plus its keys, 1. the fingers do not want to spread far enough apart to cover the holes well (changing to a closed-hole flute may be an option - but finger may still rub or collide with the trill keys.) As we open our grip, so does the space between our fingers. Also, 2. unbending the major knuckles ( at back of hand - I'm no physiologist!) create a smoother nerve and ligament pathway - hence, faster, less tiring technique. 3. As the hand opens, the pinky tends to roll to its side, eliminating the painful collapsing tiny joint as we now play on the outer nail border. Our pinky no longer "straight-arms", involving forearm muscles, and when bent can be trained to be much more independent of the ring finger.
For the LH, consider the deviation of the wrist joint, cramping nerve paths and straining muscles. Consider the similar deviation of the LH index finger "shelf" knuckle, and the resultant bend in the terminal joint, which make C to C# trill such a slow affair - not to mention the "bunion" we create in the LH!
So, after many experiments, and with the blessing of the Powers That Be, musically and medically of the highest rank in New York City, I have come up with the following.
Finally, the meat and potatoes. Get a length of gray foam pipe insulation - most hardware stores will have pieces about four feet long, for very little money. Cut a section about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long - you can always trim it later. Cut this in half, so you have two semi-circular sections, each of which has approximately the inside diameter of the flute's outside diameter (well, not a perfect fit, but it's foam and squishy.) On the inside surface, attach a piece of self-stick Velcro - I use a medium weight, since the delicate won't hold, and the heavy-duty won't bend. I also put the hard, scratchy half inside the foam, and attach the soft, loopy piece to the flute, where my support finger rest in each hand. This is so that I can play the flute with and without, as I am comparing, learning, testing, etc. Firmly wiggle the foam onto the Velcro receptor on the flute - you can micro-adjust, the pieces don't have to be 100% in alignment, but major misalignment will cause them to shift when you play - so you can peel and re-stick when you find your "sweet spot". I usually have both pieces the same thickness, since I feel the need for symmetry on this most non-symmetrical of instruments.
Similarly, attach your foam to the LH support spot. You will now find that your reach to the C key has changed - so I glue a pearl saxophone button to the C key, offsetting it at my correct position. This can also be done in cork - my current material of choice, since the foam does not absorb perspiration on those hot outdoor wedding gigs! I carefully split a wine cork lengthwise; this is not easy to do, so I am careful to not wield a sharp knife too close in time to the actual selection of the cork (usually from a nice Merlot - and it is not necessary to settle for the first or second cork you find, either!) I hollow out a concave trench in each piece, glue paper inside (I use the same white or brown label paper that I use on my lip plate), and attach the Velcro as above (I found it did not stick well directly to the cork.) Proceed as above. The cork can be a little smaller, since it does not compress at all, but again, a certain outside diameter must be maintained to achieve muscle release. And smaller hands don't always need smaller additions - consider how much percentage of additional spread the fingers of a small-handed flutist need in the RH.
By now, the flute may feel like a salami in your hands - and you will need to experiment with the placement of the foam. Persevere. Think of all those ergonomic kitchen utensils; look at a catalog for the handicapped. Smaller additions, such as corn plasters, are just not thick enough to get us past that release point we need. You will find that the flute now hangs in the LH by FRICTION on the knuckle, not a bunion. Everything should start to get a freer feeling, once the initial oddity has passed - kind of like wearing Birkenstock sandals, or a new contact lens prescription! The balance of the instrument should be similar, but now the LH wrist can be moved to a more neutral position, the RH should uncramp - working in front of a mirror is helpful. The reach to G# should be easier, too - I have an offset G, but I advocate any one of 3 methods for bringing G# closer to a comfort position, if moving the wrist out of deviation didn't already help enough: 1. glue on a double thickness ( single thickness bends) of fake fingernails. 2. glue on cork - sculpt to correct height/length. 3. buy a pack of saxophone palm key risers, in black rubber. Pop one on. Depending on your G# key's height and length, and that of your pinkie, one of these should help.
None of these things weigh much, but grams are grams. So you may want to experiment with your crown - another topic. And you may whittle away at the size of the foam, and also the size of the Velcro that holds it on - many folks talk about additions to the flute creating dead spots or notes, so what good is hand comfort if now we are blowing our brains out? Another related ergonomic topic would address seating - seat tilt, height, etc., and proximity to other musicians! None of the above is worth a hoot if you cannot position your body well.
So, Larry and folks, there it is. It has been a help for me, and I am very gratified that this has also helped others. I have been fortunate to get as least as much as I give from this wonderful list - may your tribe increase! Anyone who wishes additional info - or the "long story", as if this wasn't long enough - can e-mail me.
by Pauline Mancuso
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