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A New Year’s Resolution

Patricia George | December 2014

    According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology (University of Scranton), 45% of us usually make New Year’s resolutions. The top ten 2014 New Year’s resolutions were losing weight, getting organized, spending less/saving more, enjoying life to the fullest, staying fit/healthy, learning something exciting, quitting smoking, helping others with their dreams, falling in love, and spending more time with family. Of these, at least five could relate to playing and teaching the flute: getting organized, enjoying life to the fullest, staying fit, learning something exciting, and helping others with their dreams.
    A more important statistic, however, is that only 8% of those making resolutions will be successful in their endeavors. This is a staggeringly low number. What if we could change that percentage, and make a resolution as a flute community to come together to solve one of the most important issues facing the school-aged flutist: how to stand and play the flute in a marching band.

Current Marching Band Position

Correct Standing Position

Side View with End of Flute Forward

    Susan Fain wrote in Flute Talk in January 2011, “Each year flutists across the country play their instruments while marching (and sometimes running) in intricate patterns, holding the flute out to the side and parallel to the ground. The right shoulder is lifted slightly higher than normal to raise the flute to this horizontal level, and the end of the flute is brought back to keep the instrument in the same plane as the body. The left shoulder is curled forward and around so that the left hand can reach the keys of the flute. In addition, marching band frequently calls for the head to be lifted, which in turn requires the neck to bend backward more than normal. Ouch! I ache just writing about it.”
    Flutists know this scenario all too well. During the fall marching season, students complain of aches and pains from playing the flute in this position and worry about the continuing worsening of their tone quality. As most teachers have known for years through having either experienced marching band themselves or with students, playing flute in a marching band has little to do with playing the flute artistically. Correcting this should be an obvious and easy fix. It may be one of the most important things flutists should do pedagogically as a group.
    The question through the years has been how did we get into this predicament? I asked a well-known marching band director and the reply was, “directors are looking for uniformity in the shows and forget that the flute is played off to the side and needs an asymmetrical set up starting with the feet, up through the torso, arms and head. However, I think if the situation is clearly and simply explained to them, there can be change.” Of course, the biggest benefit for the entire band program will be that flutists will sound better for concert season, and for flutist, that they can play pain free. 
    Some marching band programs solve this issue by having all the flutes play a percussion instrument or the piccolo. When marching with the piccolo, the slight deviation from the marching band position is less obvious to the adjudicators and spectators. However, unless flutists provide their own piccolos, many school systems do not have the resources to provide one for each student.
    To enact this New Year’s resolution, flutists should start at the grass roots level and work their way to the top. Since marching band season has concluded for most organizations, this is the time to take local band directors out for lunch or coffee. Discuss your concerns for flutists’ health and performance issues and solicit their help. It is the directors who go to district, area, regional and state meetings and will be able to get this topic onto the agenda. Once there is a commitment from each state, competition promoters hopefully will redesign marching band adjudication sheets to reflect how the flute is actually played well and healthily, and presenters will retrain adjudicators to evaluate flutists in a different way.
    So, I invite you, the flute community to make this New Year’s Resolution to help change the marching band world. Flutists have talked about this for years; now let’s do something about it. As a resource, Susan Fain’s article is available here.

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Marching Band Guidelines for Flutists
1. The flute is played asymmetrically to the right side of the body. Unlike symmetrically-played instruments where the feet can be side by side, an asymmetrical instrument should be played with the left foot in front and the right foot in back as if serving a volleyball.

2. The flute is not held parallel to the field, but is held at a slight downward angle.

3. The flute is not held parallel with the shoulders. The end of the flute is forward. This is necessary because the embouchure hole is no longer an oval, but is an asymmetrically-shaped hole with upper- and under-cutting. Finding the sweet spot in the sound usually requires the air stream to hit the blowing edge slightly to the right on the embouchure wall.

4. Arms should be hung rather slightly away from the body. The elbows should be pointing toward the field.

5. The head balances on the spine. A slight nodding motion will help the flutist find this spot. When the head is in the correct position to achieve a good tone, the air will be blown toward the flutist’s left big toe when standing with the left foot in front and the right in back.