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Where to Stand or Sit

Michel Debost | May 2012

   Where should you stand when you play with piano accompaniment or collaboration? During my playing days, I experimented with various answers to that sticky question; none of them were totally satisfying.
   A few preliminary remarks are needed. The sound of the flute does not come out at the footjoint. Mostly the sound is taking flight at the place where the tone is produced, that is the lip plate and the breaking edge of the embouchure hole. Basically, the turbulence thus created is modulated by the length of the tube. As we all know, the longer the tube, the lower the note. There is a small amount of perceptible resonance at the level of the open keys, but, contrary to popular belief, there is no transfer of medium (air in this case). Hold a cigarette paper at the base of the foot joint. There will be practically no draft or movement.
   When I was playing solos with piano, I sometimes stood in the crook of the piano, squarely facing the audience. This is probably looks the best  and is the position most often used. The trouble with this position is that you are right in the path of the piano’s resonance. The immediate reflex as a performer will be to play louder in a hopeless effort to match the sound of the piano coming from behind you. This position can work if your accompanist is not banging his part, but another problem is that the pianist has direct eye contact with your back and gesticulations.
   Violinists usually stand near the right elbow of the pianist, and flutists should experiment with that position too. Of course, it is more logical for the violinist to stand there because the F- holes in the violins, from which the violin sound projects, point out to the audience. Flutists might want to stand by the pianist’s right elbow for delicate ensemble situations, like a soft attack (Poulenc Sonata, end of first movement or the pianissimo resolution of a long-held chord). In this position the flutist can match notes with the pianist’s finger movements, instead of the pianist guessing the outcome of the flute player’s pumpin’ and thumpin’. The ensemble might be smoother, and the flutist will not need to force the tone to project.
   When performing a concerto, facing the audience is logically most efficient for projection. This position also makes it easy for the performer to keep an eye on the conductor. Conductors are always happy to be followed, by the orchestra players, of course, but also by the soloist. In French it is called l’hommage des yeux, (the compliment of the eyes). When an ensemble problem occurs, such as the last entrance of the theme in the Adagio non troppo, 2nd movement of Mozart’s Concerto in G, K.V. 313, where the flute is in unison with all the first violins, a discreet glance at the concertmaster’s fingers will be even more useful than the baton.
   However, flutists are not always called upon to play standing. In fact, chamber music is always performed sitting, if only to emphasize that no player is more important than the rest of the group. The members of the ensemble should experiment with different positions. The flutist’s position with a string quartet will not be the same as when a harp or a guitar is present. When performing in a Baroque ensemble with harpsichord, experiment with seating to find what is the most flattering to each performer.
   Most importantly, flutists should find an appropriate and comfortable position for orchestra playing because this is so common a situation. For the seated flutist, I do not agree with assuming the military posture: chin up, shoulders straight, elbows high, buns on the edge of the chair, and knees close together. High school bandleaders favor this position for esthetic reasons. They do not want to risk any slouching. Feminine modesty plays a role too, but ample skirts or trousers can solve these issues.
   Try to sit with kidneys reclining loosely against the lower part of the chair back and push the tummy out for support. Feel the ground under the feet to complement this support.
   Sitting at square angles and facing the audience and conductor is not comfortable. Turn the chair to the right so your legs will be slightly apart with the left foot forward. The player’s back will not be parallel to the music stand but will rotate to the right about 30 degrees. This same position applies to playing standing. There should be no standing at attention or raised elbows. Jutting the chin is only useful episodically to tune a flattening intonation.
   Another issue is body movements. Far from me to advise holding a stiff-as-a-board position as a little movement helps loosen the flutist up. It can be natural and graceful. Some flutists seem to believe that their gesticulations express a torrid temperament.
   Go back to simplicity. When you read a bulletin board, do you lift your shoulders? Do you raise your elbows? Do you stand at attention? Do you swing left and right, up and down? Do you genuflect?
   Stand (or sit) as you would when waiting for the bus. Leave the knees alone. Fortunately, excessive motions are not easy in the seated position. Some orchestras require that for the ultimate test, audition excerpts be performed while sitting. Clarinets and bassoons often audition seated. Even for flutes, there can be a difference in sound perception. You should experiment performing excerpts both standing and sitting.
   Furthermore, I advise to use the legs (when standing or sitting) to provide added support, because when the powerful thigh muscles (quadriceps) are in action, the abs also work, almost unconsciously.
    In general, when playing, stand (or sit) as you would if you did not have a flute on your lips. Do not exaggerate movements, and use the ears as they are more important than any acting out. Besides – they cannot move.