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Left Hand Only

Patricia George | February 2018

    Several flutists have written recently asking what can be practiced with an injured right hand. Actually, there are many fundamental playing issues that can be practiced using the left hand only. These exercises are simple but effective and may even find their way into regular practice sessions once the right hand is healed. 

Headjoint Only
    Holding each end of the headjoint (crown and tenon) with the thumbs and index fingers, bring the headjoint into the chin. When playing, the embouchure hole should be level. Use a mirror to check this placement. The embouchure hole should be centered with the opening or aperture in the lips. If you play off-sided, then the embouchure hole is still centered with the aperture. Before playing the first note, nod your head a few times to be sure the head is balanced on the spine. Always bring the headjoint to you, not you to the headjoint. Drop the jaw making sure there is space between the wisdom teeth. 
    Play one note, a lower A, for a duration of about two counts. Play like a pro. Think before you blow. The attack is the first thing the audience hears in your playing so work to have a clean attack free of chips and fuzz. Repeat several times assessing the sound. Repeat this exercise again, only this time play the note beginning on the and or on the off beat. Compare the quality of the note that starts on the beat with the quality of the one that starts off the beat. I was surprised that the quality of the note that started off the beat was markedly better. The reason probably has to do with preparation. Musicians start many more notes on the beat than off, so when starting off the beat, they tend to count more carefully and plan when to let the air out. This is something that many players have gotten sloppy with when playing on the beat. Repeat this exercise on the upper A. Notice that the two A’s on the headjoint are not exactly in tune. This has to do with the shape and the length of the headjoint. For this exercise, intonation is not the goal. 

Even Air
    After the attack, the second part of a note is its duration. To have good intonation, the air speed should be even. Practice playing long notes with the tuner, not worrying whether the note is sharp or flat, but trying to keep the needle still while playing. This exercise develops an even air stream. Extending your legs out in front of you with the heels about 12 to 14 inches off the floor while playing a note improves the quality of the sound. This exercise is a brass players’ trick but works equally well for flutists. When the legs are extended, this is as tight as the abdomen should be when playing. 

The Release
    Notes can end in several ways. A staccato note ends when the breath stops. Some notes end with a slow diminuendo or taper. This is done by slowly pushing the lips forward to make the aperture smaller as the air is slightly decreased over time. Care is taken to keep the air stream high so the pitch does not decline with the taper. Notes that are played as a bell tone require a very quick taper. Practice all types of endings so you have a vocabulary of possibilities when making music. 

    Practicing vibrato on the headjoint offers excellent benefits as there is more resistance when playing these exercises on the headjoint only rather than on an assembled flute. So, for the same amount of practice time, the accomplishment is greater. My favorite vibrato exercise is to practice varying numbers of cycles per beat so in my regular playing, I can speed up or slow down the vibrato cycle to match the emotion and character of the music. Put the metronome on 60, and on the first beat pulse two vibrato cycles, the second beat three vibrato cycles, and the third beat two vibrato cycles followed by a rest. This pattern is written as 2,3,2 rest. Repeat with the following patterns: 2,3,4,3,2 rest; 2,3,4,5,4,3,2 rest; and 2,3,4,5,6,5,4,3,2 rest. Vibrato is produced in the vocal folds, so there should be no movement in the jaw, chest, or abdomen. First play Hah, Hah, Hah rest and then slurring to produce Hah, ah, ah rest. 
    To enhance the vibrato cycle take your right hand (if it is not in too bad shape) and either pulse the vibrato cycle by moving the hand up and down (like an elevator) in front of the headjoint or make a letter O with the right hand in sync with the vibrato cycle. Both of these visualizations help in creating a great vibrato cycle. 

    Play various dynamic designs (pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff) on six repeated notes. Practice making crescendos, diminuendos, and sfz. There are endless possibilities. Use both octave A’s, and you may alternate the A’s to make the exercise more challenging. 

Assemble the Headjoint and Body
    Since the following exercises have the right hand placed on the barrel (nameplate on some flutes), there is no need for the footjoint. Practicing without it makes the flute lighter in the hands. There are many benefits to practicing with the right hand on the barrel, but the most important is that it positions the lip plate in the chin and stabilizes the flute. The flute cannot be moving around on its own, but should be a part of your body. 

    Play two harmonic partials above each of the fundamental left-hand notes: G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C, and C#. Practice tongued first and then slurred. The goal is to move from one harmonic partial as cleanly and smoothly as possible. Use a mirror to watch how the embouchure is used. Make the aperture smaller as you ascend. Each fundamental note has a slightly different need in overblowing up the partials. This placement and movement is something to be practiced and memorized. 

The Notes
    Chromatically you have at your disposal the following notes in the first and second octaves and then the overblown notes at the third partial. 

    Diatonically you have the following notes in the first and second octaves and then the overblown notes at the third partial. 

    Be creative in making exercises, finger twisters, and embouchure flexibility exercises along with vibrato, articulation, and dynamic design exercises. The possibilities are endless.     

    If you write, I will send eight pages of melodies to download and practice playing using the left hand only with the right hand on the barrel. This practice method is equally helpful if your right hand is not injured.