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Weak Points in Flute Teaching

Laurence Taylor | March 2020

From the September 1958 issue of The Instrumentalist.

    Until perhaps fifteen years ago, I could expect that most of the flute students who came to me for lessons came as beginners, whom I would start from the very first attempt at producing a sound on the instrument. This situation has changed almost completely now; most of those who come for lessons today have been started in their public schools and have played anywhere from five months to a year or two.

    By and large this is a good situation in many ways: something is being done for those who can never afford private lessons at any stage; those with no talent for the instrument can be screened out in their public school flute class; and those with no willingness to work and no perseverance are also revealed. The school instrumental teacher can then recommend for private study only those who have proven most deserving after a period of school instruction.

    It is with this latter group – those whom the school instrumental teacher feels able to recommend for private study – that I am now concerned. Despite the fact that they come from public school men who are trumpet majors, clarinet majors, violin majors, and the like, I want to emphasize that these young flute hopefuls are generally well-taught and well-grounded. There are, however, a few mistakes, or shall we say weak points, in some of the flute teaching done by non-flute specialists that I have noted through the years, and I thought that my calling attention to some of these trouble spots in this first column of the new season might be helpful.

Trouble Spots

    1. There is frequent failure to emphasize the use of the D# key, played by the little finger of the right hand. Why not call this the "balance key," thereby giving it a functional label that terms like "D# key" or "pinky key" do not point up? The flute is the only woodwind in which this key should be on for most notes; this is where non-flute specialists are often not sufficiently firm. This key is necessary to hold the flute steady, level, and free from "wobbling" under certain finger shifts.
     Let’s have the beginner learn to keep his "balance key" on for all notes except D natural in the first two octaves of the flute. (Also, the nearby E natural is not as clear and bright as it should be unless the pinky is on.)

    2. Fingering for D6 (high D, third space above the staff) is not the same as for D an octave lower, but "blown harder." The high D6 should be fingered by thumb, 2, and 3 of left hand; for this D the balance key need not be removed.

    3. The right hand thumb position is often bad. Having the thumb too far extended onto the far side makes the right hand fingers cramped, and clutching the flute to support it. Most flute methods suggest placing the right thumb directly under the flute and between the first and second finger keys, right hand. I would agree with the "directly under the flute" part of the statement, but prefer to allow some leeway in the latter part of the direction, depending upon the size of the player’s thumb.

    4. The high Eb6 (third ledger line) is sometimes taught to be played with the left hand only. The note is flat when so fingered. It appears so much easier to finger with the left hand only (thumb, 2, 3, 4) that I encounter great resistance when I endeavor to have the pupil play this note with all the fingers on, both hands. I often find it helpful to let the pupil convince himself by having him listen to the three octaves of the Eb and pick out for himself that the high one is flat in relation to the other two octaves when it is played left hand fingering only.

    5. Emphasize position of footjoint: the right hand little finger can and must be comfortable. The keys of the footjoint are not to be level with the row of keys on the middle joint of the flute. The footjoint is made as a separate piece in order to accommodate all sizes, lengths, and strengths of little fingers. Most people prefer to slant the balance key slightly down towards the little finger, meeting it part-way, so to speak. It must be comfortable and under no strain; when the most comfortable position is found, the student should be careful to set up the footjoint in the same position each time the flute is assembled. This position may alter gradually as a small hand and fingers grow larger.

    6. Fingers should come down on the keys with the flats of the finger-tips; not on the balls of the fingers, "tiptoe" fashion. (And certainly not in the middle of the second joint!)

    7. Where should the fingers be when not depressing their respective keys? Let me quote the example of John Wummer, solo flutist of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony, possessor of one of the most phenomenal and even techniques I have ever seen and heard on a flute. Wummer’s fingers appear to be touching the keys at all times; even while he is playing the open C#5, his fingers appear to be resting lightly on all the keys. In this way there is absolutely no loss of time. I mention this here because I see so many flute students removing their fingers, each time, an inch and more away from the keys. This is sheer waste motion, both "coming" and "going." If pads and springs are in perfect working order, no key has to be hammered with the finger.

    8. Check blow-hole position. The amount of the blow-hole which the lip covers may deviate from about one-third to one-half of the opening, being determined by thickness of lips, flatness of lips, tooth formation, jaw formation, etc. Somewhere between the one-third and one-half covering of the blow-hole should yield the best tone for practically all players. Less or more than this should be checked carefully.

    I am particularly against covering too much of the blow-hole; the tone is likely to be "smothered," smaller, not as bright as it could be. The amount of blow-hole to be covered by a particular player is a very individual and personal thing; teacher and student both have to be willing to experiment a little here to find the best tone. When the student has found what seems to be the right spot for himself, the teacher should emphasize the desirability of putting the blow-hole at just that angle each time the flute is assembled.