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.