Flute Grip

Flute Grip

Hi all,

Lately I’ve been bothered by a few technical aspects of my playing that seem to be be connected to my grip on the flute. I’ve come here looking looking for advice. I’ve been playing flute for about 10 years and currently play a keyless Hammy Hamilton. I play "right handed," with my left hand closer to the head joint.

Here are my issues:

First, after I’ve been playing for a while, I often notice that the flute starts to slip down my left hand, and away from my mouth. When I start playing, the flute sits just above the big knuckle of my left index finger. By the the end of the set, the flute might be half-way down the knuckle or even below it. Not only is this uncomfortable, but it really impacts the sound I get out of the instrument.

Second, I’ve always had a hard time playing B rolls on the flute. And, when I do get the B rolls out, they’re not as crisp as I would like. I can’t help but think that this problem is connected to the slipping described above. I should note that I also play the whistle and have never had problems with B rolls there.

Finally, I sometimes have issues with E rolls. I think this might be connected to the slipping too, because the issue here seems to be air stream and maintaining a clean, steady sound. When I play the E roll, I think the flute drops away from my mouth, weakening the sound.

So, any thoughts? Are my problems with B and E rolls caused by the the flute slipping? Is the slipping caused by an improper grip? How might I go about fixing the issue? Is there a recommended grip out there?

I should also explain that the Hammy flute has a fairly wide bore and my hands aren’t exactly humongous (I’m 5’6" and my hands are fairly proportionate to my height). I had the opportunity to play a Grinter flute at my local session yesterday, and I found the narrower bore easier to handle. Having said that, I’m not keen on simply going out and buying a new flute, as I’m happy with the sound I get and don’t have a spare $1000+ sitting around.

For reference, you can take a look at the following clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8U1h6yQeF0 The view of my hands is not the best, but there are a few close-up shots throughout the video that might be helpful. This video is from about 5 years ago.

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It looks to me like you lean forward, rest the flute on your shoulder (NO!), and bend your right wrist downward to the front. All of this puts the flute into a precarious position. Your left hand appears fine. Both elbows should be at the same height, with the right wrist cocked back just slightly, rather than drooping forward. I like the right thumb at the bottom of the flute, with the pinky at the back, pressing forward. This position is counterbalanced with the embouchure hole pressing against the area right below where the line below the lip meets the skin of your chin. This braces the flute and then it can sit on the surface supplied by your thumbs, so there’s no need to use your shoulder for stability. And sit up!

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I think you mean the left wrist, Ailin.

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No I did not, Ben. Watch the video.

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Sorry, Ailin.

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I agree with all of Ailin’s suggestions and would only add that if you had a flute with smaller right hand holes you might not have to use a ‘piper’s grip’ (that said, many fine flute players do the same although I think it is preferable to use the pads of the first joints of your right hand fingers (see the picture in Conal O’Grada’s tutor (actually the left hand, but the points of contact are the same for the right hand fingers) or look at Matt Molloy or Kevin Crawford playing. Apart from the more secure closing of the holes that the standard right hand ‘grip’ affords, it also means that less weight is banging down on the bottom end of the flute, which again means more security of fingering. I think E rolls and B rolls are difficult for all flute players. Unless you are Matt Molloy, who somehow manages to keep his right hand pinkie down when he does an E roll, you need to lift the pinkie off to execute the roll, and this results in some instability. I don’t have a good solution for this problem and will be interested to hear if others do (other than the ‘Rockstro’ thumb position (putting the right hand thumb along the side rather than the bottom of the flute; my thumb won’t bend to allow this). For the B roll, try raising the finger a bit so that you close the hole more with the tip of your finger than with the pad. This works for me. Finally, and unfortunately, I don’t have a solution for your ‘flute slipping down your left hand index finger problem’ other than increasing (slightly) the pressure of the flute against your lip.

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moving the thumb more to the side of the flute rather than under it (the Rockstro grip, as cac said) should allow you to hold the flute securely between your right thumb, left index finger and chin, without it slipping, even when no other fingers are touching the flute. if your flute has keywork on it, you may need to experiment with the ideal alignment of the body to the headjoint to prevent it tipping over from the weight of the keys when you remove R4.

that grip is mostly useful for operating the E-flat key without relying on R4 to keep the flute steady, but even if you don’t have an E-flat key (or you have one but don’t use it) you might still find it works better - in particular if you’re using pressure on R4 to keep the flute steady and then raise it for rolls, that could affect the angle of the entire flute. most people can’t raise R3 very far without also raising either R2 or R4, so you might be doing that without realising it.

if you’re not able to put your thumb in that position, you could try the Thumbport: https://www.justflutes.com/thumbport-ii-flute-thumb-rest-product45001.html?sku=45001. this is basically a little handle that clips on to the flute body and rests on your thumb. however, they’re designed for modern silver flutes and i don’t know if it would fit onto the wider outside body of a wooden flute - perhaps someone else has tried that…

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There are definitely a number of physical issues to overcome when learning the flute (or other instruments). On my journey, some of them took more than a year to improve. Others issues, like stability and gripping too hard took longer than that. Embouchure? That’s a life’s work!

Solving ergonomic issues is a good thing to work on sooner rather than later. For that, a classical flute teach would be just as good as one from ITM. Get some embouchure training at the same time.

( I just noticed that you’ve been playing for a while. In that case I’m not sure I can offer any advice. )

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Make sure that you’re not gripping the flute. Apart from balancing the weight at the fulcrum, so as not drop it on the floor, the main effort should be directed to the horizontal rotation (pushing the lower part of the flute away from you to keep the head firmly pressed to the lip). If you had a Bb key that’s where your thumb would be. You should be able to play without any finger ‘gripping’ the flute (lift six fingers off and see). If you’re gripping with your index finger those B rolls will be hard (but they’re hard anyway). Lots of people use the shoulder to rest, it’s not a crime, but it’s really awkward and may be a sign of not holding the flute up. Sit up, sit back, flute horizontal, push the bottom end forward.

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I was at Ceardlann Earraigh in Celbridge at the weekend for Conal Ó Grada’s workshop. Brilliant day and most entertaining teacher BTW!

He was very clear about pipers grip (avoid) and the "right" way to hold the flute which is per various instructions above - three key contact points (a) chin, below lip; (b) left index finger pressure as fulcrum with flute balanced just above base of finger knuckle; and (c) right thumb on side with thumbnail pointing back up the flute.

I am now working on adjusting my thumb underneath grip to the correct one which Conal demonstrated - but like all these habits they take weeks or months to become comfortable and habitual.

Perhaps this article might also help from Terry McGee’s great site: http://www.mcgee-flutes.com/Rocksto_on_holding_the_flute.html

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In my experience people have more trouble with B rolls than with others.

I think there are at least three issues involved

1) the B roll is executed by the fingers of one hand. Most people find rolls that divide the work between the two hands easier.

2) the C cut is the most difficult to get crisp if the player is using the normal flute hold, where the weight of the flute rests on the base of the upper-hand index finger, and that finger is curled around the flute body.

3) pats done with the upper hand tend to be more sluggish than pats done with the lower hand, especially with beginners.

Using the piper’s grip allows playing with all three upper-hand fingers straight (more or less) which frees up the upper-hand index finger for better cutting and patting.

Using the more normal flute hold, it requires practice to overcome these upper-hand ornament issues.

Nevertheless I’ve only used the normal flute hold and IMHO the piper’s grip hold, resting the flute on the shoulder etc throws the neck, shoulders, and wrists more out of alignment than the normal flute hold does.

About E rolls, in my experience people’s problems with those aren’t with the finger-action of cutting and patting but with the tendency of that note to be weaker than the other notes of the flute. It’s a matter of breath support, a good embouchure, and a good flute.

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As others have mentioned, sitting upright and keeping the flute as horizontal as you can may help alleviate the problem of the flute slipping from your grip in a downwards fashion. Gravity and the continual hammering up and down of six or seven fingers on sloping flute will often conspire against a firm/stable hold. :)

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Hi Danny,
Have you tried to leave more fingers down on the B rolls?
I think being flexible with fingering (different ways to achieve the same note or effect) makes all the difference.
Also some of the best flute players play on the shoulder (Tansey, McGoldrick, Conal OGrada, Harry Bradley) so I wouldn’t worry about that. It is a common traditional Irish flute playing technique which though influenced by has grown separately from western art music technique and pedagogy. This is a key factor a lot of folk forget.
Play like the folk you want to play like not the folk you don’t.

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Patrick, I must disagree. Playing with the flute on one’s shoulder is to be studiously avoided. There is nothing positive to be said for the practice no matter who gets away with it. Dizzy Gillespie plays trumpet with his cheeks puffed out, but I wouldn’t recommend that, either. It appears to me that part of the OP’s problem stems from his body posture, but even if this were not the case, leaning the flute on the shoulder is a terrible practice and should be strongly discouraged. It most certainly is not simply an alternate way to hold the flute. You can certainly play the flute in this position, but why do so with poor body mechanics that make the process ultimately much more difficult and possibly lead to physical problems later?

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We have disagreed much over the years . I was having issues with my hands that made it painful to play large holed flutes. I switched to using the shoulder and the hand issue went away. I can play both on and off the shoulder. I find it helps me execute ornaments better and have better tone perhaps due to my own physical characteristics.
It’s important to note that everyone has a different physiology.
I don’t think Tansey arrived at playing in his way without similar experiences. He’s not “getting away” with anything. He’s a master. And being in his presence is something else.
Some folk on the board in particular seem to have a notion that the fantastic masters of tradition are playing ‘incorrectly’ because they are somehow uneducated or lacking training.
I find the opposite. Holding the flute a certain has grown out of the countless tireless work they have put in. Holding it a certain way is part of their sound. It’s probably quite a considered thing whether conscious or not for all players.

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Patrick, as you say, we have had our disagreements. However, in contrast to some, I believe we share a mutual respect. You are aware of my hand issues, so you will understand that I cannot deny the efficacy of using one’s shoulder when done as a workaround to another issue that would inhibit your ability to play, or play well. I had not considered that possibility. My concern was focused on your giving the go-ahead to a practice that - all things being equal - should be avoided. If it can serve a useful purpose, then, of course, that changes my opinion. Your elaboration is very helpful. Thank you.

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Absolutely Alan. How’s the Radcliff treating you these days?
Sure if we all agreed on everything what would be the point of the discussion bit of this site.

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Not using the Radcliffe. It’s too heavy and the tone lacks punch. I also don’t like the middle Cnat fingering. My trusty Siccama and I are getting along famously these days. Please take a look at my receņt post. I’d love to get your insights.

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Very thoughtful and insightful observations, dunnp. Much appreciated.

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I’m really interested to see this discussion as I’ve played silver flute pretty much effortlessly for 45 years, and whistles, and have recently been lucky enough to have been loaned the most beautifully toned English flute circa 1830. It’s much bigger than I’m used to, the spread of the right hand is much wider. I can play it quite well and it sounds gorgeous, but when I’m tired I find it quite hard to wrap myself around it and I’m constantly adjusting the line-up of the five sections during the session, as I get more tired and more sore-limbed! I’m also getting used to the different left hand position possibilities, deciding where best to put my thumb, balance of the flute etc. I’m more a fan of the flute being my servant, and not my body being a servant of the flute! What I am interested to know is whether most players have the left and right hand holes lined up, or whether this differs from flute to flute and player to player. It seems that the keyed parts of this flute would like it better if the holes lined up, but I think my hands prefer when the right hand holes at the bottom of the flute are twisted a little further away from my body. I play with the first pads of my right hand, not with a piper’s grip. I am interested to re-read all the advice in this thread when I have the flute out, but in NZ where I live it’s late at night right now! Also, please don’t be discouraging about the silver flute playing haha! I’ve played since I was young, and wooden flutes are few and far between in NZ and not readily available at my budget. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to play such a beautiful old baroque flute, any advice welcomed!

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Now when you say "right hand" do you mean your lower hand?

It’s customary when discussing fingering of the uilleann pipes, Irish flute, Irish whistle, Highland pipes, etc to say "upper hand" and "lower hand" because on all those instruments people might have either hand on top.

I play flute with the lower-hand index, middle, and ring fingers having a slight gentle curve, and using the end-joint pads of the index and ring fingers, which places the middle finger a bit closer to its first joint. (My fingers aren’t strongly arched and I’m not playing on the actual finger tips.)

A curious lower-hand hold is that of Matt Molloy, who has the endjoints of all three of those lower-hand fingers flat/horizontal, the whole of the index finger and ring finger being straight. The curious thing is that because the middle finger is longer Matt has the 2nd and 3rd joints forced up into an inverted V like the roof of a house. It looks unnatural but obviously he does just fine with it.

About the alignment of the fingerholes, many 19th century London 8-key flutes and many modern Irish flutes have all six holes on one section so you can’t change their alignment. On flutes and whistles and pipes I’ve always had them in a single straight line. I’ve never got on with flutes that have offset holes. Casey Burns makes a lot of flutes with one or more of the fingerholes offset, say Hole 3 and Hole 6.

But as you say your flute should serve you, so if it’s more comfortable and your flute has the upperhand and lowerhand holes on different sections why not experiment.

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Here’s Harry McGowan, who has likewise been playing effortlessly for some time (well it certainly looks effortless).

His flute hold is like mine, lowerhand fingers flattish (mine have a slight curve) and using the lower-hand endjoint pads, and the upper hand being more or less the standard transverse flute hold.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1HOqz4FcWw

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With that Harry McGowan video you can go to 4:30 for a better view of his finger positions. His lowerhand fingers aren’t stiffly ramrod straight but utterly relaxed.

Here’s Matt Molloy where you can see his lowerhand middle finger forced into _/\_ shape due to him keeping the middle-finger end joint back in line with its neighbors.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1SPfXOGXEQ

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My first vintage flute was in five sections and I did experiment with different positions for each hand, but ultimately kept the holes aligned.

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I have the right hand section rotated forward some what
xxx
o xxx
This is I think how Nicholson did it I think which is why you sometimes see long Fs with touches going opposite of what you would expect.
I arrived at this only due to my own hands and grip and then afterwards read about Nicholson.
I played for 20 years with the holes lined up previously.

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I keep my holes in line between the upper and lower section on my main flute, but slightly rotated out on my other flute so that the keys (well, the G# vs F Key) are in a better location. I don’t feel that the slight differences matter very much.

I don’t know the silver flute at all, but I think the holes on a wooden, simple system flute are less ergonomic and slightly farther apart - lower hand, finger 3 (ring-finger) in particular. That felt a little stretched when I started, but it was just one of a number of awkward things. Three years on, things feel pretty normal. I do notice when I hold my hands up, that my right-hand ring-finger naturally rests wider than on my left hand.

I transitioned from D-whistle to flute. I’ll bet I had more soreness than you do with your long-term flute experience, but it works itself out eventually.

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Agree B rolls are unreliable with that grip.
You could try the tap with two notes ( the "A" and the "G" )
You need the tap to complete, tricky.

You could try a 1.5 CM ring of bicycle tube around the flute above the B hole, might give a bit of needed traction at the knuckle ? I’m trialling that idea myself right now. I noticed Jennifer Cuff has a similiar patch on a metal flute for the same reason I suppose.

BTW your video was great.
Pat

Pat

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Thank you everyone for the advice! It’s awfully nice to be able to tap into such knowledge and experience.

I found your comments very helpful, particularly those concerning my right hand. Having considered my technique, and experimented a little, I think the problem was a lack of support to the ‘bottom’ end of the instrument. Without any proper support from the right hand, the flute was slipping and my tightened left hand grip wasn’t giving me enough flexibility to properly execute a B roll. Feeling much happier about things now (though I still have plenty to learn).