Ergonomic Considerations in Flute Teaching

Ergonomic Considerations in Flute Teaching by Phyllis Avidan Louke 

Some helpful hints for teaching students to play in a more ergonomically correct fashion

The current trend towards teaching a more ergonomically correct method of playing the flute has become essential with the increase of repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and other performance injuries caused by poor body position while playing the flute.  Playing an asymmetrical instrument makes flutists prone to postural and positional problems because of difficulties in observing one’s own hand and body position while playing.

Over the years, with the increase of players experiencing performance injuries, there has been an increase in organizations and methodologies dedicated to preventing performance injuries through education and body awareness.  Three such methodologies are Body Mapping, Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method®.  Body Mapping is a scientific study of anatomy and its relationship to the movements that musicians use, and can be a valuable tool to help individuals analyze and optimize the position of the body when playing a musical instrument.  The Alexander Technique is a method for changing tension habits and improving coordination that can be especially beneficial for musicians dealing with excessive stress, injury or pain, and for musicians wanting to enhance performance skills.  The Feldenkrais Method® increases the awareness of one’s body to improve movement and enhance human functioning.  More information on all of these disciplines, group and individual instruction and locating trained instructors can be found on the internet.  If you or one of your students are finding it painful to play the flute, I would strongly urge you to get more information and seek out a trained instructor or classes in one of these disciplines.

Many players unwittingly develop poor body positions in their flute playing despite proper instruction, or from lack of correction by teachers, rather than from poor instruction of proper position.  Despite repeated correction of hand and body position, many students are unable (or unwilling) to change ingrained habits from many years of practice.  Many flute teachers prefer to focus on development of repertoire during lessons rather than the mechanics of playing the flute.  Some teachers think that if a student is able to play lesson material adequately, that changes to position or embouchure might disrupt the student’s success, feeling that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  In addition, sometimes students are not being monitored for potentially detrimental hand or body position, either because the teacher doesn’t notice or because the teacher lacks the necessary skills to evaluate and correct positional deficits.

While a few teachers in the past 50 years figured out how to verbalize and teach the mechanics of how to play the flute from an anatomical point of view, many have subscribed to the teaching methodology of demonstration rather than explanation.  Lacking practical and factual explanations of tone production, vibrato, tonguing, etc., many students were left to figure things out on their own by trial and error, or were given vague platitudes about playing the flute which were conjecture, rather than based on fact.

“Commonly held perceptions” about playing the flute have been passed from teacher to student for generations with little thought about their validity.  In college, I was personally taught by a highly respected instrumental music professor about “intercostal diaphragmatic breathing”, only to find out over 30 years later in a Body Mapping class that this term is a misnomer, as neither the intercostals nor the diaphragm can be consciously controlled during the process of breathing.  I had memorized this very impressive-sounding term without the foggiest idea of what the intercostals were, nor exactly what the diaphragm does, while very authoritatively repeating this term to students and perpetuating the myth.  Despite readily available anatomical information, there are band directors and flute (and other wind instrument) teachers throughout the United States who continue to advocate this method of breathing without question.

So how do we teach a more ergonomically correct way to play the flute?

Teachers need to recognize that every student’s body is shaped differently and that a student’s hand and body position, as well as embouchure, should be adapted to the individual.  Variations in hand size, finger length and arm length make it impossible to have a “one size fits all” hand position for every student.  Likewise, variations in face shape and the size and shape of the lips make a uniform embouchure impractical.  In addition, some students blow naturally in the center of the lips, while others blow naturally slightly off-center.  Facial muscle strain can inadvertently occur when teachers insist that all students blow from the center of the lips despite physical attributes, such as a teardrop, that hinder this embouchure.  As flute pedagogue Patricia George says of embouchures, “Students should play the flute with their natural face”… rather than in a standardized position.

To teach more ergonomically correct methods of playing, teachers need to look first for elements of hand and body position that could be causing muscle tension or inhibiting free movement in some way.  Fingers need to be able to move freely and wrists should not be flexed.  The body should look aligned with the shoulders above the hips and not twisted at the waist, and the head should be balanced on the neck.  Teachers should use common sense as a guide, as well as the following list of commonly found positions that should be corrected.

Start with correcting the things that seem obvious:

Wrists:  Left and right wrists should be bent only at a slight angle.  Obviously flexed wrists should be corrected.

Right hand position:  Fingers should be slightly arched with the pads of the fingers on the center of the keys.  If the fingers are curved excessively, the right thumb is probably placed too far forward.  Fingers move most freely in a naturally arched position—if curved too much, there will be tension in the fingers and the back of the hand.  The back of the right hand should “float” above the keys, rather than hang downward causing the right wrist to flex.

Right thumb placement:  Encourage students to arch the fingers of the right hand in a position natural to their hand.  The right fingers should be placed on the keys first, and then the right thumb should be brought up to the flute to be placed in a position that maintains the natural hand position, usually under the first or second finger.  The right thumb does not help support the weight of the flute and does not need to be under the tube of the flute—it is merely an anchor for the right hand fingers.  Depending on finger length, the right thumb may be placed on the side of the tube toward the student.

Flute is parallel to the ground:  The flute should be held at a slight downward angle.  When the end of the flute is held too high, stress is put on the right shoulder.  Lower the right elbow slightly to correct this position.

Flute is at too low an angle:  When the flute is held at an extreme downward angle, it is usually because the right elbow is pressed against the right side of the body and/or the student’s head is tipped to the right.  When the end of the flute is too low, the lower lip cannot make proper contact with the embouchure plate.  Move the right elbow slightly away from body like a bird slightly raising its wings.

Head position: The student’s head should be balanced on the neck so that holding it up is effortless.  Make sure that head is not tipped to the side and that chin is “level” and not tipped too low as if the student is looking down.

Posture when sitting or standing:  Students should not slouch or twist at the waist, nor sit or stand with back arched and chest out.  Students should sit or stand comfortably erect with shoulders aligned above the hips.  When sitting, the student should sit slightly to the front of the chair, rather than leaning on the back, with feet flat on the floor.

If in doubt about how to correct (or whether to correct) an unusual hand or body position, consult with a more experienced colleague, who may have suggestions on how to proceed.  In the meantime, any action that can be taken to adjust hand and body position to become more ergonomic will be beneficial to the student by lessening the risk of performance injury.


© Copyright 2006 Phyllis Avidan Louke.  All Rights Reserved.