Hey there :)
It's time for my first post specifically for flute learners!
Being a flutist myself, I spent about 10 first years of my adventure with the flute practicing quite intensively but without a proper understanding of how flute technique works. For this reason I would often get frustrated and feel that I had little control over the results of my practice. Only after I had started studying at a music university, did I learn more about the most rudimentary and thus absolutely essential aspects of a good flute technique.
In this post I want to share with you, flute players, all I know about stabilizing the flute — about how it works, what you can do to make it easier and turn it into a useful habit, and also why it's so important. You can make a significant improvement to your technique by learning this essential skill, whether you are a beginner or a more advanced student, so read on :)
Step 1: Contact points
First of all, the way you hold the instrument can make a huge difference. Basically, it's vital to understand that there are only 3 main points of contact between the flute and you. These are:
1) your chin,
2) the first part of your index finger in the left hand,
3) your right thumb.
You don't use any other fingers for holding the flute — they open and close particular keys and that's their main job. They need to be free from any additional tasks and tensions, so that you can play effortlessly even the most difficult passages using the smallest possible and the best coordinated motions.
There is a really effective exercise that can help you to make sure that you hold the flute securely, in a well-balanced and stable way.
Exercise | Just put the lip plate of the flute on to your chin and hold the flute as though you were about to play something. Make sure that the first part of the left index finger supports the flute by pushing it towards you, while your right thumb pushes the flute away from you, making the headjoint sit even better on your chin.
All your fingers which usually open or close a particular key/keys hoover now 1-2 mm over them, so that you can be sure that it's only the 3 main contact points that stabilize the flute in your hands and on your chin.
You might notice that when the instrument is out of balance, it turns slightly in your hands either outwards or inwards.
Take 15-30 seconds for finding the best position for your thumb and index finger. Experiment also with the strength of pressure of the thumb and index finger on your flute. Do you need to push one of these 2 contact points a bit stronger in order to balance out the instrument and make the headjoint "stick" to your chin? How much pressure is too little or too much — where are the limits?
Remember to stay optimally relaxed when doing this: being alert is necessary in the case your flute starts rolling in your hands, so you can react quickly — by the way, if you're wondering, I have never heard of anybody dropping the flute while doing this exercise ;) It's important that your neck, shoulders and arms stay tension-free.
As this exercise requires a lot of attention and awareness, it's best to do it for short amount of time but more often, at least a few times during one practice session. For example, you can take a moment for balancing out the flute before you start playing scales, before each etude or piece you play, or whenever you feel that you need to stabilize your flute better (e.g. before difficult passages). This way you'll also create a new good habit.
Step 2: Stickers
The next idea for stabilizing the flute is very simple yet immensely helpful, especially for:
beginners who have not yet got used to finding quickly the most optimal positions for their 3 contact points,
those who live in a hot climate or simply tend to get sweaty hands/chin when they are hot,
those who have a tendency to get sweaty hands and chin when performing publicly, dreading that their flute might get too slippery to hold it properly, let alone play beautifully.
The solution here is to stick onto your flute — onto the 3 contact points — small rectangular paper stickers.You can use a half of a post stamp or a piece of a thin paper tape that would absorb excess moisture and make your chin, index finger and thumb feel that they are exactly where they need to be.
Ensure that you cut your stickers to a suitable size. The one on the lip plate is usually smaller than the other two — they should give you a little more room than necessary so that you don't feel restrained an don't start holding your hands in a stiff manner in order to stick to a "perfect position". What we strive for is finding an optimal way of holding the flute, one that allows for some flexibility and gives you a feeling of comfort.
You'll need to change the stickers once per week. When you do that, make sure to clean your flute from any residue of glue before you use a new set of stickers. It's advisable to use for this purpose a polishing cloth instead of your regular cleaning cloth, for instance one by Trevor James or one of these sold by Beaumont Music if you are looking for something more fancy ;)
Step 3: The frame
Our faces are full of muscles which in our everyday lives help us to express emotions and speak. As a flute player you also use your facial muscles in order to focus the stream of exhaled air and so produce sound. Only one step away from that you can find a secret function of these muscles — they can help us stabilize the flute on the chin.
Especially the area right under your lower lip plays an essential role here. When it's relaxed, you can move it in pretty much any way, which also causes your whole lower lip to move. However, if you activate the muscles around your lips so that they create a sort of frame, the flute on your chin won't move even if you play a passage with the most complicated fingerings. Your lips stay flexible while the muscle frame not only stabilizes your embouchure but also holds in place the instrument.
Let's go from theory to practice: How can you activate your facial muscles so that they create the frame you need?
Exercise | The easiest way to do it is by visualizing these 3 pictures and reenacting them in front of a mirror:
1. Toothless witch
What does it look like when you pretend that you have no teeth? What happens to your lips? Just do it and then observe what happened to the muscles around your lips.
2. Your lower lip is a straight line
In which direction(s) is your lower lip pulled by muscles to do that? Imagine two points under your lip — one at the left and one at the right. Are they pulled towards or away from each other?
3. "Touch" your gums and your teeth
Can you "touch" your teeth with the muscles around your mouth by pressing them against your gums? If you can do that, you not only create a muscle frame but also find its most natural support.
If I would have to choose just one of these pictures, it would be the last one, but for optimal results I recommend thinking about all of these 3 pictures in the given order. Firstly, you make sure that your teeth are hidden so that it's always your lips, not your teeth, that focus the stream of air. Then you make sure that the area right under your lower lip is smooth and has a perfect shape for the flute to put it there. To finish with, you find some support for the muscle frame to make the whole process less tiring for your muscles.
Your flute has no way of moving on your chin when the muscles around your mouth are suitably activated.
And this is it! You can stabilize your flute in these 3 steps — they are all you need to create perfect conditions for ensuring that your flute stays in the right place when you are getting ready for really tricky, really cool music pieces.
Now take 5 minutes for experimenting with your contact points, putting stickers onto your flute, and activating "the frame". During practice get back to the exercises I wrote about in this post, just for 15-30 seconds. It might take a while before you notice that your flute stays well-stabilized also when you play — give your muscles as much time and repetitions as they need, they will eventually learn what to do!
Good luck and have fun :)