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Symmetry and the Flute

Michel Debost | December 2009

        We have a lot to learn from art in general and from the fine arts in particular. Take one of my favorite paintings – Botticelli’s  (1445-1510) “La Nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus)” as an example.

    It combines purity of feeling with subtle sensuality, the bliss of spring and the forlornness of the human condition, dream and reality, even a demonstration of puffed-cheek-blowing six hundred years before our time (but more on that later). It also shows mastery of color and technique at the service of expression and poetic sentiment.
    But does symmetry take part in this masterpiece? Not at all. Venus’ neck, arms, and hands, even her face and eyes, are out of proportion, like the limbs of the scene’s other elements.
     More recent periods of painting, Piotr Mondrian (1872-1944), Russian Constructivism (1914-1930), Ameri­can Geometric Abstraction (1950-now), Josef Albers (1888-1976), and Frank Stella (b. 1936), deliberately used geometry as basic to their work. Symmetry, however, is never completely present in their designs. Even if they had used more or less geometric shapes, pure symmetry is moderated by asymmetric intervention.
    Other painters and sculptors, Cubists (Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Léger), Abstract Expressionists (Pol­lock, Rothko, de Kooning) treated asymmetry as the epitome of expression and painted with everything except symmetry.
Why such a long winded introduction on my part? Because symmetry does exist in the world around us. However, it is my contention that symmetry and the flute, in spite of appearances, do not coexist.
    The human body’s configuration during the playing of most instruments (strings and certainly the flute) is asymmetrical by nature. Even the oldest and most exotic representations of flute players show their apparently awkward and off-center positions – arms to the right side, broken wrists and elbows, and tilted necks. Modern flutes have kept that basic position, because experience has proven that it is the best, or at least the least bad.
    Actually, many human activities are asymmetrical: there was a time when it was considered a curse or a perversion to be left-handed. Young lefties were forced to learn to write with their right hand, their left arm tied behind their back. “Sinister” comes from the latin word for “left” and bad, whereas “droit, dritto” was for “right,” honest and good.
    There is sort of a fixation among flute teachers about the symmetry of the embouchure. I do not totally agree with this preoccupation, and I would like to explain why.
    Of course, a teacher should urge a beginner to place the embouchure as close as possible to the center of the mouth. However, when a young person’s sound begins to gain personality and reliability, it might move away from the exact center. Forcing a beginner or intermediate flutist to change their position may delay their progress and pleasure. In my experience, the battle to change an advanced player’s embou­chure to the center has led flute players to doubt themselves and led to psychological problems.
    Assuming a flutist’s position is efficient and the sound does not need improvement, remember the famous words of that unknown American philosopher: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
     It is very rare to see a face that is symmetrical. You might find it amusing to cut someone’s picture down the middle and reassemble it with two left sides or two right sides. It shows quite a different person, mostly because the eyes and the lips are generally not symmetrical.
    Jawbones and tooth shapes, hidden from view, are also predictably asymmetrical. The lips can be thin and linear, which helps the straightness of the embouchure, or fleshy and curved making centering a problem.
     In my view, the quality of tone comes from the way we hear, more than from the symmetry of our embouchure. Many great flutists played from the left side of their mouth: Georges Laurent, Marcel Moyse, Jean-Pierre Rampal, and, more modestly, the writer of these lines. Roger Mather even made a study of this matter.
    What teacher has not been impressed with a perfect position and disappointed by the sound, and vice versa? To teachers, I would say: Don’t torture young people about playing exactly in the center. Pleasure and comfort are more important than symmetry.
    Hand position is more important for flutists of any level. It is extremely important, even for the sound: if the fingers’ action rattle the embouchure, the lack of stability jeopardizes the focus and the articulation.
    The fingers must not pinch the flute. If they do what I call “slam and squeeze,” lifting them is harder and slows down the technique. The flute should be held with fingers that are not trying to create notes.
    How about flappy cheeks? As usual I would say: if it works for you, do it, but I find that it accentuates the asymmetry of any embouchure as usually only one side flaps about. It mimics the vibration of the air, but sound is created by resonance, not by vibration or vibrato. Even if flapping cheeks seem to have an effect in the middle range, they are a hindrance to p/pp attacks in the high range or f/ff attacks in the low range.
    I suggest that young flute players should use the lips, but most of all trust the ears. They tell you what you like better than gimmicks and taboos. Listen to the feedback from the space where you are playing, be it your practice room, the band room, or Carnegie Hall. Listen to yourself and play the room as much as you play your flute. Stop analyzing what you see in the mirror. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the crookedest of them all?”