A pressing matter!

Lets face it, the flute is an awkward instrument to hold. It’s one-sided, and causes twists in the body to accommodate the fact. We also have very little to rely on to keep it up in the air. It’s therefore unsurprising that many (most?) students, especially younger ones, have trouble coordinating holding the instrument up while also moving fingers.

When I was an undergraduate student I can remember hearing the term “Rockstro method” tossed about from time to time as if it was some magic solution to holding the flute. My lasting impression was that those who played the best mentioned it the least, and it never really got a hold of me (sorry!). But I still hear it mentioned quite often, and a blog about flute pressure on the bottom lip by Roderick Seed (https://rodfluteblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/22/depressing-the-flute-on-ones-chin/) got me thinking about it again. I started wondering why we feel a need to impose a “method” on grasping the flute, and whether it is actually beneficial.

Why does the flute move?

Looking at online forums the phrase I’ve come across a lot is “the flute moves around”. And followed by the solution: hold it firmer. NOOO!!!!! The flute does not move around by itself, something we do moves the flute. If the flute is moving then the solution is to stop doing what is causing it to move. There is no easy way of achieving this, except diligent and patient work – and perhaps for younger players the belief that it gets easier as you grow. But masking the problem through force is never the answer.

What’s wrong with a bit of firm pressure?

Looking back to my undergrad, I spend quite a few years playing with a very locked left arm. One of the consequences of this was that pressure at the front of the flute put pressure on my bottom lip. While I had a great finger technique (the flute wasn’t going to move!) I lost out in flexibility, tone and dynamics. The point of this is to introduce the fact that pressure in holding the flute has direct implications on muscle use in our wider body. And that some options are more beneficial than others.

Let’s take Mr Rockstro first. The right hand thumb pushes forward (out), the left hand 1st finger pushes back (in), and chin/bottom lip pushes forward (out), as shown in the diagram below.


This force is all lateral, and in an “away from the body” motion – this is important in determining what muscle groups are used.

Now take a more extreme version of this same movement – a bench press. It is the same lateral movement, with pushing away from the body. Notice the main muscles used in this motion, the pectoral muscles across the chest.


Now what if we use a less lateral motion? A front raise uses vertical force instead, and as you will see, does not engage the chest muscles.


By removing the lateral movement we can free up the muscles around the ribs and allow the lunges to function more freely. Surely this is of benefit, and suggests we should be supporting the flute more as shown below:


*I have found that for this to be successful the left wrist must not be held straight as in this illustration (it becomes held rigid) but rather cocked back slightly, allowing less tension and more support under the flute. A good example:



A firmer grip should never be the first solution to an unstable flute.

The idea of opposing pressures to stabilise the flute creates a lateral force that uses muscles around the chest – this is counterproductive. It also creates pressure from the flute on the bottom lip.

A more vertical support of the flute avoids this muscle use. It also happens to enable less pressure on the bottom lip from the flute.

My Practice Promises

As a musician, I think practice is often the most challenging part of our lives.

It’s easy to focus on the stress and excitement of performance and how this can become a musician’s biggest ogre. But, for many there is just as much emotional baggage attached to practice each day.

I’m not really talking about how practice can seem boring or unappealing, though this may be a symptom of the challenges faced in the practice room.

My point is that the desire to practice well does not always match the reality. There are time constrains. Other people’s lives. Mundane interruptions. The practicalities of finding a practice space. How we feel varies from day to day. Tiredness, stress, emotions and mental fatigue all influence a practice session. And in trying to do the “right thing” and battle on, the health of our practice time can sometimes suffer.

In a way, practice is reflective of the struggle to live life well.

For me, I have had to learn a practice room etiquette. This has been a commitment to be kind to myself, to avoid the unproductivity of “self-flagellation”, and always aim for the best quality of practice that I can manage each day.

To remind me of these healthy practice habits I have created my own “Practice Manifesto”, which is occasionally refined, but has remained essentially the same for the last few years. At times it has threatened to become the most neglected document in the history of the world. But, at other times it has pulled me back to solid, honouring, skilful, joyful practice habits.

It has been such I useful way of thinking that I thought I would share it. These are my own very personal practice intentions – each individual will have different ideas and not all my choices will be relevant for all. It may, however, get you thinking about how you think about practice.

Practice Manifesto

Finding Your First Flute

Possibly the biggest deterrent to starting on the flute is the price of a new instrument. A quick look online suggests that a quality new “student” flute retails for around £400 upwards.

Don’t be put off by this – there are many other options for finding a flute to begin your learning on.

  1. Flutes are everywhere. Start by asking around family and friends. Often someone has a flute tucked away that they no longer play, and have forgotten they still own. You don’t want to spend a mint only to find out a neighbour was desperate to hand on their unused quality instrument.
  2. Sites such at Ebay and Gumtree (and Facebook marketplace) have endless ads for second hand flutes. If you stick to reputable flute brand names (see below) you should be able to find a bargain without too much risk.
  3. If your school has a band program (or has had one in the past), ask whether instruments are available.
  4. If you are unsure about committing long term to owning an instrument, there are options to hire from instrument hire companies, or even some music stores. This is not a long term solution, but it will give you the chance to “try out” a flute.

Some flutes that you will find will have been kept in perfect condition. Others will be in need of a service before they are fully playable. It is preferable to “test play” a flute before purchasing it (new or second hand). That way you will know what condition it is in. Having said that, there isn’t much a good flute technician cannot fix in a service.

New Flutes

New flutes generally come with less risk of something going wrong. BUT, they still need services!!!. Ask if there is a warranty period on your new instrument. Many stores offer free services within the first 1-2 years of the flute’s life. This is what you (should) get for the extra price of a brand new instrument.

Reputable brands for new flutes include Yamaha, Trevor James, Jupiter and Pearl.

As well as the above, second hand brands commonly seen also include Buffet, Gemeinhardt and Boosey & Hawkes.

General advice for purchasing an instrument:

  • Watch out for cheap imitations. These are sometimes even made of plastic, or painted crazy colours, and very rarely work from the moment they are taken out of the case. These instruments have even been sold through major supermarket chains, and they DO NOT WORK!!
  • Keep your instrument well serviced. Like a car, flutes require regular services because parts wear out (I recommend getting your flute serviced at least every 2 years). Make sure a second hand instrument has been recently serviced. Or be prepared to pay for a service as the new owner. More than anything else, this will ensure that it will work reliably. Those hand-me-down flutes that have come from a relative or family friend, and have sat in the cupboard collecting dust for years, are especially in need of a service before being returned to duty. And they should work like new after it!
  • If you are a beginner, don’t be pressured into purchasing a more ‘upmarket’ model. These days, any beginner model flute from a reputable brand will work well. Spending more will simply give you more gadgets and options that you will not need for some time (and options such as open holes will make beginning harder). If you decide to commit more to your flute playing down the track, it is likely that you will face the need for a new instrument no matter what you purchased in the beginning. Keep it simple, and ignore the sales spin!
  • Do not buy a piccolo! It may be smaller and seem more suitable to a child’s small hands, but it is not a suitable beginner instrument.
  • Do look out for curved head joints if the instrument is for a particularly small child. This is a good option for reducing the awkward reach that young players encounter in the beginning. Try to ensure that the standard flute head joint is also included if possible, as your child will not use the curved one forever.

Some addition helpful advice from a reputable flute store:

The Poetry of Sound

I have an admission to make. I love words. Probably as much as I love the flute. And the wonderful thing about Wibb is that he is always combining both. (He is always singing too – I am less keen on that!) Whether it’s his famous “elephant”, “taxi”, “wonderful” or just “ah!”, there is a language of phrasing. There are so many imaginative possibilities in the shape, direction and meaning of words, something that we can all aspire to capture on our instruments. It is not a set of rules, it is the open tap to a natural, varied and personal means of expression.
In this fascination with language, there are even more possibilities. Lorna has her own poetic way of describing her approach to the flute. So much of phrasing is about conversation. Reacting to what has gone before. Playing into what comes next. There is possibility in the vowel sounds we choose to use (and where it resonates – I will get on to that in another post). How we articulate forms another means of being linguistical in our approach – even in loud passages we can articulate softly. How we orientate ourselves mentally towards the flute has a direct impact on the sound that comes out. That has been so exciting to not just know, but to experience this week. 
And it has also tied to neatly into an emphasis on compassionate language. So many of us can relate to moments (or even long periods) of self flagellation in our head. We say things to ourselves that we would never say aloud, and certainly never say to anyone else. And it does not achieve anything – it’s extraordinarily counter productive. I wrote a lot last year about learning to develop a compassionate and empathetic outlook, but to truely be a musician reflecting my worth, it is essential that I extend that grace to myself. Always! And especially in the practice room.

Mind as Anchor

The really unique part of the Pender Island Flute Retreat is the time given to nurturing a healthy mind and spirit. It seems to me that in the cut throat music industry this element of life and musicianship needs to be the most important foundation from which students can grow. And yet it is often neglected entirely.
This week has been a comprehensive exploration of healthy thinking patterns and habits. Some themes have stuck out in particular, either because they came up repeatedly, or because they are so important.
Firstly, we have a choice. No matter the circumstance, I get to choose how I will act and react. I do not need to be a victim of what happens around me.
We all can access creativity. A part of this is knowing what I want, what my dream is. 
Being firm in our identity is important. If I am comfortable with who I am, it allows me to make healthy choices, and also to engage with and help others around me.
Resilience. This is so important – it can be grown through the above ideas, through mindfulness, through caring for yourself (as well as a compassionate outlook), through positive attitudes and a willingness to honestly examine our emotions, thoughts and how our body feels. 
I feel like the last point is particularly essential to take away from PIFR. It is easy to carry on these practices in a supportive environment that has been created by others – it is much harder to take a confident resilience with me no matter what situation I find myself in. Yet what a tool of empowerment that will be!

Crafting a Process

This has been a recurring theme at PIFR this year. Practice, practice, practice is the mantra of any student musician. Indeed, preparation is necessary for any performance (and for living, for that matter). But there is more to this preparation than simply practice room punishment. It is a far more refined, absorbing and all encompassing journey than we often allow it to be.

Starting with the mundane:

Ritual is something I have often avoided. I resist the idea because it can be pointless, mindless, or restricting. But there is a place for routine that I have never embraced, and limits my potential on a daily basis. It can create structure, familiarity, help hold on to personal identity, and allow for new possibilities. 

I am therefore keen to find some small daily rituals that work for me over the next few weeks.
An organised technique (or practice structure):
Far more related to flute playing, I WILL be changing my approach to the structure of my practice. This is not so much a change in mindset, but a change in my thinking about how I grow my playing. After listening to Lorna share her approach to technique, I have been struck by how clear, simple and delineated it is. It does not allow room for confusion, doubt, or insecurity in the physicality of producing sound. To reduce flute playing to breathing, air and co-ordination means so much guess work is taken out of the process.

I am therefore going to unashamedly borrow ALL of her practice and technique approach which she has so generously and whole heartedly shared with us. Of course this may change over time as my needs and focus shifts, but it is a wholly good place to start.

I have also realised how much I have fallen into the trap of end-gaining. Something in Alexander Technique is that once a good result has been achieved, the next step is never to repeat the result. It is to repeat the process. This goes against so many little tendencies in practicing. The temptation to ‘check that note works’ for affirmation and security, the mindless repetition of notes to rote learn passages (muscle memory is developed at least as well in repeating processes rather than results), and broad retrials of failing passages in the hope that they will one day improve. Practice has become worry about the result, rather than focus on the process.

So lets get back to a healthy, calm and diligent process each day that nurtures rather than demands from life and musicianship.

Pender Island 2017

Pender Island Flute Retreat (PIFR)
My previous PIFR blogs have been an attempt to capture the essence of the transformations that I have encountered at Pender Island. This retreat is a week long course on a small island near Vancouver, Canada, organised by Gwen Klassen. Personal development, Alexander Technique, technique classes, masterclasses, individual lessons, amazing weather, scenery and great food (and wine!) are all part of the week. As is William Bennett (Wibb) and Lorna Mcghee, two great players and teachers (if you haven’t heard either get on it – these are musicians I admire more than any others). I won’t be necessarily giving a diary of daily activities, this will be more of a journal of what I personally get out of each day.

It is an age since I turned up to PIFR 12 months ago, with no idea what to expect. It was my first flute course beyond ones I had done locally with familiar teachers. It was my first time playing for a ‘famous’ flutist like William Bennett. I really hadn’t played in many masterclasses, and had certainly never done a week long intensive flute course before. It was also my first time travelling internationally by myself – not that I really registered that at the time.
I got so much out of that week. I found a way of playing and practicing that works for me. I found I could be happy with my identity – both as flute player and person. I found a supportive group that was non-judgemental, but also invested in each other’s development.

Fast forward 12 months and I am in need of another PIFR experience. I have had a challenging 2017, working so hard towards a dream that seems to get ever further away. It has been discouraging, disappointing, and confidence destroying. It happens so often that we lose perspective, and I am sure I am a better flute player than I was a year ago. But the process has been a bit soul destroying.

So this year I am turning up with a clear idea of what I want from the course. 

I want to fall back in love with the flute.

I want to know that my mind, body and instrument won’t sabotage my best intentions. 

I wan’t to find the gumption to play honestly and generously again.
Of course there is always a list of technical things I want to solve. Finding a darker sound more reliably in the low register. Ridding articulation problems. Using my body better for resonance – including removing tension and locking in my left hand/arm. 
And I am sure I will learn a lot more besides. 

Pender finale

I want to record some of the more important things I feel I have received during PIFR 2016.

Firstly, I am leaving Pender Island with a heart that is more open and happier. I am so grateful for this change, and hope that I can continue to choose to pursue more freedom and joy once I return home.

I have played for William Bennett. I have caught some of his passion, sat and talked flutes, and pulled open the simplest of phrases with persistent intensity. It has been wild, funny, bewildering and surreal. I also might need a new headjoint $$$$…

I have sniffed the essence of the transformation that Alexander Technique could bring to my playing. I will definitely be seeking out AT sessions when I get home. Gaby, I promise I will keep working, working, working towards less effort!

I have drunk in a lot of Lorna’s gentle poetic wisdom. Some of it has stuck, the rest of it has been scribbled frantically across page after page of notes. I will be returning to these many beautiful phrases many times in the coming months.

I have met so many wonderful people, all with a passion not for personal recognition and gain, but for learning how to communicate through sound a little better each day. Humility has possibly never been said in a sentence with flute before, but I think I can use it with absolute truth about my experiences at PIFR.

Thank you Pender Island Flute Retreat 2016!!!

Pender sidetrack

Lorna leaves such an impression on everyone she meets. For those who have experienced her wisdom and way with words, I want to leave this excerpt from one of my favourite British TV comedies. I always feel that Lorna has swallowed the fluter’s equivalent of the little book of calm!

Black Books 1