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Flute Alignment

Michel Debost | March 2021

   Aligning the body is a term that refers to lining up the outer edge of the embouchure hole, the leading edge on which we blow, along an imag­inary straight line that runs through the middle of the tone holes. Some players aim down the flute as though looking down a rifle and change the alignment as little as a millimeter, as if that would make a meaningful differ­ence. After experimenting to find the best spot, some players mark this with a drop of nail polish both on the head­joint and on the ring of the barrel.

   Experienced players find that turn­ing the flute out produces a more open sound, while turning it in covers the sound. Placement is a matter of taste and convenience. Without being fanatical about it, do whatever works best for you. A good alignment affects not only the sound but also the fingers. The best alignment allows the fingers to come down with effective precision and avoids a crooked right hand, pinched fingers, or protruding thumb. If the amount of yaw one way or the other produces a sound that is too thin or reedy, chances are the hole is cov­ered too much; if the tone is too breathy and out of focus, the em­bouchure opening is probably too wide or exaggerated.

   One of the advantages of playing the open-hole, French-system flute is that, when the headjoint is properly aligned, the fingers cover the holes correctly on the key rings. If students first learn to play on instruments that allow sloppy finger or hand posture without affect­ing the tone, when they graduate to the French-system flute, they find it painful and difficult to correct the hand position. It would help if more flute makers would produce affordable French-model flutes so beginners could learn proper finger placement. A common advantageous feature on the less-expensive plateau models is the offset G-key, a deviation from the inline models that allows a more com­fortable hand position with a less­angled wrist.
   Once a player has learned the proper hand and finger posture, an open- or closed-system flute will not matter be­cause the open holes do not affect the sound under normal playing condi­tions. With an open-hole flute, players can feel the vibration of air as it moves through the tube and tune the notori­ously bad notes or lift phrase endings by venting a hole. They can also play such contemporary techniques as quar­ter tones and multiphonics.
   No longer do I rely on marks on the headjoint and barrel, but I roughly align my flute and correct it a bit one way or the other. When I am nervous before a performance, I tend to fidget with the alignment more than under normal playing conditions. Aligning the flute should not be a fetish and, because the flute is not a precise ma­chine, simply correct it as needed.
   The footjoint rod should also be aligned according to that imaginary line that runs through the middle of the tone holes. Because hand and fin­ger shapes vary, some players turn the footjoint more inward; but the D to Eb trill is easier to execute when the right-hand little finger is farther away from the rod. The longer the lever arm, the lighter the action.
   The alignment affects shifting quick­ly between the three lowest notes or up to D4. Even if the little finger barely touches the D #/Eb key, neither the lowest notes nor the D4 will respond, regardless of the amount of chinning or foot-stomping. Either nothing will come out or the sound will crack. To help overcome these fingering obsta­cles, some players grease the right­hand little finger (little devil # 2) with a little skin oil from the side of the nose. Realigning the footjoint, how­ever, will help avoid touching the D#/Eb key.
   In this respect the shape of the D#/Eb key can be a hindrance because its placement is too close to the C# key:

   Contrary to current flute designs, the C# key should be separated from the D#/Eb. The old teardrop was more efficient because the right-hand little finger could go over the C# key and roller without causing the D#/Eb key to leak. Even the C-gizmo, located on the B-key roller of the B footjoint, can impede the little finger as it reaches for the C key. Whereas closing all three (two rollers and one spatula) low-B keys facilitates such notes as Ab4, A3, and B3, simply touching the B roller is just as effective. For more comfort and care of playing, the curve of the gizmo should turn away from the right-hand little finger placement, not toward it.
   Ideal body alignment is very per­sonal for experienced players. Young players should follow their teacher’s recommendations until they have a reason to alter their alignment. Pro­ductive and enjoyable flute playing is invariably based on common sense, comfort, and pleasure.