I recently moved to Denton, Texas. The process of packing, loading, moving, unloading and unpacking was pretty rough on my body, and I ended up with tennis elbow in both arms – especially my right arm. Both still hurt, but I couldn’t wait any longer to get back to playing, so as I began to play my flute yesterday for the first time in a while (I won’t say how long because it’s embarrassing) I really appreciated the work I’d done on my flute in the past to make it more ergonomic. I guess I had come to take it for granted, but I’m occasionally reminded how easily my flute handles whenever someone asks me to play their flute, and when try to do that all of a sudden I’m thinking “Wow, I forgot how badly designed a standard flute is for the human body!” Anyway, it occurred to me yesterday that it might be worth showing everyone the simple ergonomic changes I’ve made to my flute over the years that have helped me so much.
Before we go any further though, let me just say that everyone’s body is different, and some of these things may not work for you. If you spend your money on these items and don’t like them, don’t come to me and ask for a refund!
Basically this thing clamps onto the flute (gently) and gives you a secure, comfortable place to place the right thumb. The thumb goes underneath the tab as shown in the picture above.
Now in this next picture, the flute is upside down, and you can see how the Thumport wraps around the body of the flute, and then it has a little flange that points back toward you. When holding the flute, the little flange points down at about a 45 degree angle, and you put the tip of your thumb in the corner of the angle. (In the picture below, that is right where the black part gets narrow.) You can install it rotated to different angles, but I’m just showing you the way I like to use it.
There are a number of benefits to the Thumbport:
- It helps you put the thumb in the same place every time.
- It is covered with a nice soft rubbery material that is comfortable under the thumb.
- The little flange helps prevent the flute from rolling back toward your face so much, so overall the flute feels more secure in the hands, and you can then relax the fingers of the right and left hands for quicker, more reliable technical demands.
- For some people it can help you hold the flute with a more natural curve to the fingers.
Let me just clarify that last point. I believe that the best hand position for any/all woodwinds is as natural as possible. I remember my clarinet teacher showing me a great technique for getting the hands into a natural position for holding/playing the instrument: First, hang both arms down at your sides in a completely relaxed way, with no tension in the hands. Now without an instrument, just raise your hands to where the instrument should be. Rotate your wrists as necessary, but keep the hands and fingers completely relaxed. Memorize what that looks like. The shapes your hands and fingers are making at this point are the ideal shapes they should then make when playing the instrument. IMHO. So now just move your arms and forearms until you slide your fingers into place around the horn. (When I did this with my teacher, my unnatural hand shape was so ingrained in me that he had to hold the clarinet up for me while I slowly brought my hands up to it from the completely relaxed dangling position.) They may not fit precisely on the keys, but at least you now know if you are using your hands with unnecessary tension or bending/flexing of the fingers.
So back to the Thumbport and how it looks when I use it.
The picture above shows me holding the middle section of my flute (with Thumbport) with my right hand. This is exactly what my right hand looks like if I just let my right arm dangle at my side. In my case, my fingers are mildly curved, but not a lot. Notice also that with my hands in this shape, my thumb does not go up under the flute very far at all. (If I tried to hold the flute this way without the Thumbport, then it would fall out of my right hand because the thumb doesn’t go underneath far enough to hold up the flute.) It really helps create a hand position for me that is natural and comfortable, and this is why I really love my Thumbport! They are currently about $22 at Flute Specialists.
Okay, so how about the left hand? I’ve done a couple things here to make my life easier and more comfortable. First let’s talk about how the flute rests against the left hand index finger.
Here is what I’ve mounted to my flute. Against the body of the flute I have the BoPep saddle. It’s made of hard black plastic, and it might scratch your flute. It’s cheap – around $10 or $11. It helps by:
- Giving you a concave shaped place where the flute meets your left index finger/knuckle.
- Pushing the palm of your hand ever so slightly further away from the flute, so you don’t have to curl the index finger inward so tightly.
Here’s a picture of how it looks when holding the flute:
Notice that I don’t have to curl my index finger like I’m having a spasm – nice relaxed curve to the finger (albeit a little bit more curved than “at rest”).
Did you notice the grey blob on top of the BoPep? It’s not a tiny alien. It’s a REALLY comfortable rubbery “gel” cushion that is also very tacky (in the “sticky” sense, that is). It’s been on my flute for several years now and is still just as tacky as the day I bought it. One side of it has a super sticky coating, and that side goes against the BoPep or your flute. At first I tried stacking a couple of these gels directly onto the flute without the BoPep, but they don’t like to stick to each other very well. Besides, it puts the finger farther away from the flute if you just put it on top of the BoPep instead. Anyway, I really love this cushion. It’s soft, comfortable, and does a fantastic job of keeping the flute from slipping around or digging into my finger/knuckle flesh. I got mine from Flute Specialists, and he sells them for about $18 for a pack of 2 at the time of this writing. Indispensable!
Raised Left-Hand Index Pearl
Lastly, I did one other thing to reduce the amount I have to curl my left index finger. I raised the button underneath the left hand index finger. Here’s what it looks like mounted to my flute (with a good view of the BoPep and the gel as well).
This is nothing but a saxophone pearl that my technician friend in Meridian, Mississippi (Nichol Kadler) found for me. She got some super sticky double sided foam tape (very thin type) and just stuck it right onto the key. Here’s a picture that shows the sticky part, so you can get a better view of how it’s mounted.
Notice I have raised my index finger tip quite a bit with this button. At first it felt a little odd under my fingers, because with all the left hand keys closed, my index finger is higher than the next two fingers. But I quickly got used to it, and now it feel strange (and somewhat stressful) to play a flute that doesn’t have this. I got lucky and the very first button Nichol mounted for me ended up being great, but you might have to experiment with this until you get it right. (Caution: it will always feel weird at first, so give it some time before you give up on it.)
Now there are plenty of fancier versions of this kind of thing already out there for sale, silver plated, and they clamp onto the key, or can be soldered on. I have not used those, so I can’t comment on them, but I suspect if I did, I would still prefer this one because:
- It’s (a) cheaper.
- It sticks up higher.
- This is certainly lighter weight than a metal riser.
- It can be easily removed for adjustments, or resale of the flute.
Wrap-up, and a little bit of Philosophy
Now I know some of you are curling up your noses and sneering at me for not toughing it out with the unaltered flute, or maybe you just think these changes are ugly. So in my defense, I just want to explain my philosophy of when I should/should not make alterations to my instruments. It goes something like this: If it helps me play easier, better, quicker, longer, and it doesn’t compromise good form, technique, or ruin the tone or tuning of my instrument (and I can afford it), then I’m doing it. I don’t care if it’s ugly. I don’t care that Rampal and Taffanel would never have used such contraptions. Folks, I play every woodwind out there, and I am all about the practicality of it. Anything to make it better for me. I have never had even a single person come up to me and say “Hey, what’s all that stuff hanging off your flute?” And as far as I know, I’ve never lost a gig due to these alterations either (although I might have gained a few!).
I hope you enjoyed this blog post. If you have any musical connections in the Denton area, please let me know. I am actively looking for work – hoping to teach woodwinds at the middle school and high school levels in the northern DFW area. And of course, I’m always up for a gig, any style, any woodwind!
As always, your comments and suggestions are always welcome here. Happy fluting!