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Stand and Deliver

Mark Sparks | December 2011


   Imagine that while waiting in line at the bank, you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. Your hands are in your pockets, you slouch a bit, and look relaxed. A thought crosses your mind: if I could just be this relaxed when I play the flute.
   This is a good thought, but the relaxation you want is of a different nature. To play the flute you want a poised position that is fluid and ready for action. Study your posture carefully and learn to do a quick position scan as part of the practice routine to make sure everything is in the best position. To achieve your potential on the flute, your body must be balanced; this is the ultimate goal of the scan.
   At the risk of sounding like a passage from Alice in Wonderland, I always joke that 2 o’clock is the best time for flutists to practice because their feet should be at that hour on the clock. To make sense of this, imagine you are standing in the middle of a clock face. Point the left foot towards the 12, and the right foot towards the 2. Since flutists rotate their shoulders to the right, this stance aligns the hips and shoulders, and establishes balance and strength. Ask someone to push you while standing in this position (without the flute of course). They will have a tough time because you are balanced. This should be the default position.
   Do not stand like a tree. Move those feet to feel free. I like to change between the above position and standing with my feet equally apart at shoulder width, which is also balanced. Of course other configurations are possible, but these are the most balanced so always return to them. 
   Next focus on the knees. I have rubbery, hyper-extensive knees which easily bend too far back, and they occasionally cause trouble. Always one to grab attention, I fainted off of the risers in a grade school choir concert because I stood with my knees locked, preventing good circulation. (Brain damage must have occurred because when I awoke I claimed that I wanted to be an orchestral flutist.) Keep those knees in a passive state, neither bent forward or backward. This is something you can practice the next time you are in line at the bank.
   Many flutists suffer from what I call PSS (Pelvis Sabotage Syndrome). It is disastrous. If you stand with the pelvis and hips pushed forward, the spine cannot function properly. The ribs collapse downward, the head slides forward, and nerves start complaining, especially if the knees are hyper-extended as well. It takes abdominal and back strength to maintain a balanced position and problems arise when these muscles are tired. Vertically align the hips and shoulders. Again, seek a neutral position. Do not exaggerate by arching the lower back, or it will soon start aching as if you are flying coach class to New Zealand.
   On the surface playing the flute seems like such a simple, pleasant activity. Realistically, playing with proper support has a strong element of physical labor. You are engaged in battle. (If you are one of the many flutists who struggle for enough air, it is clear that the fight is about oxygen.) It is waged against the physical forces that constantly try to restrict air capacity, resulting in weak support (see “Supportive Advice,” Flute Talk, November 2011). With a balanced foundation in the lower body, the upper body can win the war because good posture frees the lungs and allows them to hold more air. Then playing actually does become pleasant.
   This battle is also fought against gravity. The problem is that the lungs are under the ribcage and breastbone, which are under constant downward force when we stand. Try the following exercise to feel a good upper body posture. Lie on your back on the floor. With your feet remaining flat against the floor, gently bend and pull your knees towards your body. Feel the lower edge of the ribcage poking up above the abdomen. Note the huge expansion in the ribcage and chest. Observe how the ribs expand not only in front, but on the sides and back too. Your body loves to spend time in this position, and since we sleep so much, that is a good thing. Stand up, check the lower body posture points, and try to achieve the same sensations. Repeat the exercise often, but do it in a low traffic area in case you fall asleep. Resist the urge to over expand the chest as this increases neck and throat tension. 
   If you have trouble maintaining the posture, you need to have your head examined – it is probably off-balance. Blood flow to the brain is crucial, as hopefully you will be using it when you play the flute. The challenge is that the head is quite heavy, weighing about 10 pounds. The head balanced on the spine is like a bowling ball atop a pool cue. (Do not try this.) Experiment with various head positions, and notice the effect on the rest of your body and your balance. Even a slightly misaligned move results in compensation from muscle groups throughout the body, especially in the neck. When you play, turn and tilt the head as little as possible to avoid neck and back stress.
   Stand in front of a large mirror and find a neutral head position. Bring the flute to your lips, but do not play. Bring the flute to you; do not go to the flute. If you bring the chin forward, you will not only look like a chicken, but effectively destroy your tone by closing your throat, collapsing the ribcage, and locking the jaw into high position. I believe this is the number one postural problem among flutists. If you are not sure whether you do this, make a video of yourself. If you fix this common posture error, you may notice your sound takes on a whole new identity.
   Avoid looking even more like a chicken by raising the elbows. Keep them down to avoid those strange looks from the audience. A rather floppy feeling is best for the arms. This allows the nerves to transmit freely, and discourages stiffness in the hands and fingers.
   When sitting in orchestra, I angle my chair slightly to the right to maintain good shoulder to hip alignment and see the conductor with relaxed vision. If you are comfortable and poised in your posture, it helps conductors and colleagues to relax also.
   Successful professional flutists are  expected to play without signs of fatigue for many hours at a time, and these postural tips can really help. By following them, the overall presentation will also be more attractive. When you perform, stand up straight, with good head position, and a positive, authoritative demeanor, like a great actor delivering a Shakespeare soliloquy. Refine your posture and listen to the natural wisdom of your body. Remember that good posture is not only a requirement for mastery of the flute, but a vital part of any compelling performance.