Flute Technique and the Awkward Right Thumb

Flute Technique and the Awkward Right Thumb

As anyone who has ever taught beginning flutists knows, the flute is an awkward instrument to hold. Posture and hand position issues often linger well past the first few years of instruction, and perhaps none are as ubiquitous as the protruding right hand thumb. A protruding right thumb causes shortened tendons in the right hand, which can both restrict a player’s flute technique, and result in future hand problems..

Even though instructors and students both recognize this fault, it can be notoriously difficult to address. This protruding thumb is actually symptomatic of larger postural imbalances. If these root causes are not addressed, it is no wonder that so many students revert back to their old habits. Thankfully, by learning to recognize and address the following posture causes, instructors can quickly get the right hand in check.

Problem 1: Slouching

Flute Technique and the Awkward Right Thumb - image 2

In the above photo, Nola is demonstrating a typical slouching posture. Notice that she is using the side of her body to support her right arm. This causes an almost 90 degree bend in the right wrist and a shorting of the tendons. It is difficult or impossible to keep the right thumb in line, or to play anything fast, while holding the flute in this manner.

Problem 2: Straight and Narrow Posture

Flute Technique and the Awkward Right Thumb - image 3

Here, Sarah is demonstrating an overly straight posture. Since slouching posture contributes to poor breathing and sound production, instructors often encourage students to sit up straight. Sarah’s wrist is straighter than Nola’s, but the thumb still protrudes and the tendons are still shortened. Also notice that her left arm is compressed against the left side of her chest and that her shoulders are tilted. This posture is uncomfortable, and many students will not remain upright without constant reminders.

Solution: Point your Feet to the Right

Flute Technique and the Awkward Right Thumb - image 4

The solution to both of these issues is to have students rotate their lower bodies approximately 45 degrees to the right, while keeping their flutes parallel to the front. For the slouching student, this provides a sense of balance by keeping the legs underneath the flute. For the overly-straight student, this allows room for the right elbow and wrist. It also levels the shoulders and frees the rib cage for better breathing.

Problem 3: Securing the Flute

The weight of the mechanism of the flute is also unequally balanced towards the back side of the flute where the rods are. This creates a tendency for the flute to rock backwards whenever the student uses the left hand thumb key. Since this key is used frequently, students will compensate for the instability by gripping the flute with the right hand. When a student has this issue, the shifting movement is often visible from the side and may cause small breaks in the sound. This problem is often seen in combination with problem 4.

Problem 4: Over-Rotated Wrist

Flute Technique and the Awkward Right Thumb - image 5

In the above photo, the wrist is rotated too far to the player’s left. This causes the right thumb to protrude and puts extra strain on the ring finger and pinky. This issue is visible and will also prevent a student from reaching the other pinky keys.

Solution: Rotate the Headjoint or Get a Thumbport

Flute Technique and the Awkward Right Thumb - image 6

While it may seem obvious that the solution to problem number 4 is to stop rotating the wrist to the left, the change will not stick if problem 3 isn’t addressed as well. Traditionally, the solution is to ensure that the flute is properly balanced between the right thumb, the side of the left index finger, and the chin (some teachers also include the right hand pinky when it is not in use).  In order to achieve this, the headjoint position must be adjusted to ensure that the student can achieve proper balance and proper sound production.

The difficulty that I have experienced with this is that without a constant supervision from an instructor, students will revert to their old hand position, only now the headjoint is in the wrong position. Lately, I have been having students buy a thumb guide like the one in the photo above (the Thumbport by Solexa). They function much like the thumb rests found on other instruments and go a long way towards keeping the flute secure.

Although it can be a challenge to change a habitual way of playing, addressing a protruding right hand thumb is well worth the investment. A natural and relaxed right hand position can do wonders for a student’s technical facilities, and by addressing underlying postural issues, students can achieve this with much less physical effort.

Carolyn Keyes, author of Flute Technique and the Awkward Right ThumbDr. Carolyn Keyes is a flutist, educator, and arts advocate whose love of performing has taken her around the United States: most recently to join the faculty of Cameron University in Lawton, OK.

She has been a member of the Longmont Symphony (CO), the Lone Star Wind Orchestra (TX), and was a frequent performer with the Cheyenne Symphony (WY). A finalist and prize winner in the Bruce Ekstrand Memorial Competition, Carolyn also received honorable mentions in the National Flute Association Masterclass Competition and the Texas MTNA Woodwind Young Artist Competition.

She received a D.M.A. in Flute Performance and Pedagogy from the University of Colorado, a M.M. from the University of North Texas and B.M. from Bowling Green State University. Her teachers include Christina JenningsTerri SundbergElizabeth McNuttLeonard GarrisonNina Assimakopolous, and Judith Bentley.

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