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Ergonomics of Holding a Native American Flute

What is the best way to hold the flute? The answer for beginning and novice players is simple:

  • whatever feels comfortable, and
  • allows you to reliable seal the finger holes.

However, there are some additional goals that crop up as you gain more experience:

  • As you begin to play heavier flutes, your grip needs to support the weight of the instrument;
  • As you begin to play larger flutes (typically, those in lower keys), the finger holes will tend to be farther apart. Reaching the finger holes can be a challenge;
  • Can you reliably pick up your finger from the hole and return it to cover the hole without missing or partially missing the hole?
  • Adjustments in grip can dramatically affect how quickly you can move your fingers away from and back to the finger holes.
  • Various effects and ornaments are affected by how you grip the flute and orient your fingers over the holes.

Background

Quite a bit of research has been done on the ergonomics of musical instruments and performance-related musculoskeletal discorders (PRMDs). In particular, the recent work of Karen Lonsdale, although it pertains to the Western concert flute, is relevant. See [Lonsdale 2011], [Lonsdale 2014], and [Lonsdale 2014a], and in particular the slide from her 2013 presentation at the NFA convention ([Lonsdale 2013] Peak Performance: Understanding and Managing the Physical Challenges of Flute Playing).

I have based the recommendations on this page, as much as possible, on prior research as it applies to Native American flutes, combined and my own personal experience with the instrument.

Plunger vs. Flat-Fingered

Plunger grip Flat-fingerd orientation

The “plunger” grip (left) and a more “flat-fingered” grip (right). Large image  Large image

The first grip new players often use is what I call the “plunger” grip (shown on the left above). The tips of the fingers are used to seal the holes. This is generally frowned on by most players and teachers, because it defeats many of the goals listed above. In particular, reliably covering the holes becomes “iffy”, at best.

Most players are quickly guided to a grip that uses the flat, fleshy part of the tip segment of each finger. The blue circles drawn over the right photograph above outline the location of the finger holes under my fingers.

A good way to demonstrate this during a lesson or a workshop is to press reasonably hard on the finger holes of your flute, then show folks the round indentations in your fingers. Here are photographs I took after drawing blue circles around those round indentations (with a Sharpie® pen … not the best idea, actually):

Outline of the finger hole locations when using a “flat-fingered” grip Outline of the finger hole locations when using a “flat-fingered” grip

Outline of the finger hole locations when using a “flat-fingered” grip. Large image  Large image

Finger Angle

The next thing to consider is the angle between the finger and the body of the flute. Compare these two photographs:

Fingers square to the flute Fingers angled to the flute

A “square” orientation (left) and a more angled orientation that “cradles” the flute (right). Larger image  Larger image

In the left photo above (the same one shown earlier for the flat-fingered example), the fingers are almost perpendicular or “square” to the body of the flute. Personally, I prefer a more angled orientation shown in the right photo above, because it:

Brent Haines and Robert Mirabal performing at the Native Rhythms Festival, 2010.

Brent Haines and Robert Mirabal performing at the
Native Rhythms Festival, 2010. Larger image

  • allows you to “cradle” the flute, providing much more support to the instrument and even allowing you to take all your fingers off the flute without dropping it;
  • increases your reach;
  • improves your speed (which is useful for ornamentation); and
  • encourages you to keep your fingers close to the finger holes, which makes it more reliable to re-cover the finger hole accurately.

The photo at the right shows a combination of these approaches. Notice Brent's right hand on the lower holes of the flute — he uses a significant angle to facilitate reaching the holes. Also note the raised elbow …


Pinkies

Adding the pinky onto the body of the flute

Adding the pinky onto the body of the flute Larger image

Next, look at the photo on the right. I am using the cradle grip, but do you notice anything different?

Both pinkies are on the body of the flute. This is recommended by many experienced players to add more stability. If you pinkies are not on the flute, they typically hang out there in space and don't really add much to your playing, so this puts them to use.


Thumb Support

What is the recommended orientation for your thumb?

A locked and “overstressed” thumb joint a straighter thumb

A locked and “overstressed” thumb joint (left) and a straighter thumb (right). Large image  Large image

The two photographs above are based on the advice of [Musikerhalsan 2014] Musician Ergonomics. In section 3.7 of their Musician Ergonomics web site on Recorder Ergonomics, they advise:

The placement of the right thumb on the rear of the instrument is crucial for the strain on the right hand/arm/shoulder. For the thumb to be in a position directly opposite the index finger usually decreases tension in the hand and wrist. If the thumb is overstretched in its joints while playing, muscle tension will also increase around the base of the thumb and around that area of the wrist.

However, if you are going to use a more angled and cradled grip, the photo on the right is not feasible. In practice, this is how I tend to hold the flute to minimize tension — notice that the thumb is still relatively straight and is directly opposite the point where the index finger contacts the flute:

Relaxed thumb position with a cradled grip

Relaxed thumb position with a cradled grip. Large image


The Piper's Grip

Finally, we look at a grip that is common use on many other ethnic wind instruments: the Piper's grip:

The Piper's grip

The Piper's grip. Large image

While this may look unusual for playing Native flutes, there are some real advantages in reach and speed. It did take some practice to develop — about two weeks of playing for 5 minutes a day — but after that, it felt comfortable and natural.

The key is to learn to use the middle segment of both index and middle fingers to cover the holes. Compare the finger hole location for the regular grip (upper photo, blue holes), and the finger hole locations for the Piper's grip (lower photo, red holes):

Finger hole locations for the cradle grip
Finger hole locations for the Piper's grip

Finger hole locations for the cradle grip (upper photo) and Piper's grip (lower photo). Large image  Large image

End note: it takes quite a while for blue and red circles drawn on your fingers with Sharpie markers to fade.

 

 
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