Playing Low Flutes: Part 3 - Hand Positions and Posture

In a series of blogs, alto and bass flute specialist Carla Rees talks about ways to get the best out of low flutes.
We have seen in Part 2 how to set up low flutes for the best balance of the instrument. The next stage in the process is to consider playing posture and the optimal hand positions for holding the instrument. Getting posture and hand positions right on low flutes is essential for many aspects of good playing, including tone, breathing, intonation and stamina, as well as for avoiding physical damage. What you are aiming for is a comfortable set up with good balance, fingers free to move and minimal stress in the hands/arms/neck/shoulders/back. It is important to remember that low flutes are heavy and can be tiring to play, especially in the early stages, so you can expect fatigue in the hands after a certain amount of time, but learning the difference between damaging pain and muscle fatigue is also an important part of playing low flutes (or any instrument!)

Hand positions
Hand positions can be extremely variable on low flutes, as a result of a combination of different key positioning between makers and differing physical attributes between players. It is important to develop good practice to suit your hands and body size, and I would recommend a lesson with a specialist player in the early stages to check that you are using the right set-up for you. As always with low flutes, remember that you have to adapt what you do on the C flute – don’t automatically do the same as you would on a smaller instrument, as the physical demands on alto and bass are different and require individual handling.

Start with the key positions, and put your fingers on the keys. For closed hole instruments, it is important to remember that it is not obligatory to position your fingers in the touch plates that the maker has added - these are often positioned for general use, but if they cause additional stretching for the fingers, don't use them; instead place your fingers on the keys where they feel most comfortable. If you are playing an open holed or Kingma System instrument, the chances are that the holes will be as ergonomically positioned as possible, and you can discuss the positioning of the open holes when you order the instrument.

The positioning of the thumbs is important in forming relaxed hand positions on low flutes. For the left thumb, place your fingers on the keys, keep the thumb straight and let it touch the thumb keys wherever it feels most comfortable – you can use any part of the thumb to close the key, and the width of the tube might mean that the key touches the thumb naturally in a slightly different place than on the C flute. As usual, make sure that the bottom of the left index finger is making contact with the tube as one of the main balance points. If your bass flute comes with a crutch for the left hand, use it only if it is more comfortable to do so. Otherwise take it off and create a custom support with blu tack if you need it. I definitely recommend trying to play with the crutch and without; personally I find on the majority of bass flutes the instrument is easier to balance without it.

I have found that the right thumb works best on its side, slightly to the left of the right hand fingers. Place your fingers on the keys and see where your thumb NATURALLY falls, and move it upwards until it makes contact with the flute. Keep it on its side, and use it as a pivot to turn the whole arm towards the foot joint when you have to play low C. It is also highly likely that the spacing of the keys will mean that it is more comfortable if the hands can be a little more open than the C flute, which may mean adding hand supports to the flute. I use blu tack, as it can be moved easily and doesn't damage the flute (but make sure it stays clear of keys and the mechanism!). Put a small lump where the right hand thumb naturally meets the tube with the fingers in place, and experiment with different amounts to see where the hand is most relaxed. The same can be done at the place where the side of the left hand first finger meets the flute.

As I’ve said before, there are no fixed rules. Find hand positions that balance the instrument carefully and allow the fingers to move freely and without tension. Above all, remember the hands are there to balance and support the instrument but should not grip the flute or be taking the weight – save that for the bigger muscles, such as the shoulders and the arms.

Balance is an important part of low flute posture, but can sometimes be difficult to achieve. Firstly, balance the flute with good hand positions, as suggested above. Then, I find it can be helpful to feel that the left hand is pulling the flute in towards you, while the right hand is pushing away from you. The right hand should be slightly further forward than the left to help balance the weight of the instrument and to give room for chest expansion when you breathe. Arms should be away from your body, but keep your elbows down, and ideally aim to have the wrists either straight or bending upwards – definitely not down below your fingers! Keep your shoulders as relaxed as possible, and on low flutes I recommend NOT holding the instrument parallel to the floor – the instrument is heavy and by holding it up you can create extra strain. Find a comfortable position where the flute is slightly tilted downwards towards the footjoint, and make sure you tilt your head gently by the same amount to ensure you maintain contact with the bottom lip along the lip plate.

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