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Slam and Squeeze and Grasping

Michel Debost | October 2010

    The effect of stage stress tends to make us feel like different people. I often hear, “This passage went beautifully yesterday at home, I was sure I would nail it.” It went so well because you were not under stress. If this happens to you, know that you are not alone or the victim of a curse. Amongst other things though, your fingers are, more than yesterday, tightening on the flute.
    This phenomenon is what I call Slam-and-Squeeze: the fingers fall rapidly and feel like they are glued to the flute. This is especially true for antagonistic movements, when one or more fingers move in one direction while others must go the opposite way. I mean, for example, middle C to D, or vice-versa. E/F# in all ranges is another example.
    Firemen and lifeguards know that during a rescue victims grab at anything, including their rescuers, to the extent that they occasionally have to knock out a victim to save them. This is an instinct built in our genes. An infant, teetering as it learns to walk, grabs at anything with its small hands, usually the fingers of his parents.
    Grasping at our flute slows down our playing facility. Falling fingers come naturally. Even when we are resting our hand on a flat surface, it is already a little harder to raise the fingers than it is to lower them. Of course, this is amplified when they are slammed into the keys. You can feel that your stress-generated grasping (or slamming) adds to the problem because the muscles that lift fingers (called extensors) have to fight, or at least counteract, the downward muscles (called flexors). The result is a noisy technique, a minor but revealing defect, and more seriously, tendonitis, carpal tunnel, TMJ, shoulder, and neck pain.
    I admire the benefits of Alexander Technique, Felsenkrais, and others. Their premise is that tension and consequent pains start at the neck vertebrae (Alexander discovered his technique by working on his voice). With all due respect, I beg to disagree for the specific matters of the flute. I think that tension starts at the fingertips as they slam-and-squeeze and struggle to lift. The extensors (upwards movements) fight the flexors (slammers/squeezers), and this struggle goes right up the forearm muscles, all the way up to tension in the neck area.
    In the cure of any kind of dependence, realization of a problem is the first step. To improve finger technique and avoid slam-and-squeeze, start with an awareness of the slamming. It is not a difficult task but it takes a bit of patience, on a daily basis, to acknowledge and attempt to control your finger action.
    Technical exercises are very useful; scales (The Scale Game on 17 Taffanel-Gaubert #4) are indispensable. I am not suggesting that any part of your daily study be discarded or even slowed to a stand still.
    From experience, I think the way you can come to terms with slam-and-squeeze is to play some lovely melodies slowly for 10-15 minutes, paying attention to your finger movements, especially in the downward action, avoiding slam-and-squeeze. The upward action in the resolution of an accent is smooth and natural by comparison.
    Take for instance the simple connection from G to A or from E to F: because the concerned finger is lifting, there is no roughness but simple musicality. When you play the same notes in reverse order (A to G and F to E), watch how the downward finger tends to slam-and-squeeze if you don’t hold it back.

    An excellent book to use for this slow and loving process is 24 Petites Etudes Mélodiques by Marcel Moyse. Work mainly on the themes of #1, #6, and #8. That would be a good start.
    Slowly work without nerves or frustration, listening to your fingers. That’s what I refer to as finger phrasing. Of course, when you feel in control of your addiction to noisy technique, you can apply what you have learned with care to Bach Adagios, Mozart Andantes, and all the music we love.
    Obviously, a little snap to help a difficult note along is a good thing, and finger-snapping staccato with no sound, required by some contemporary composers, is a necessity. I don’t think, however, that constant slam-and-squeeze is a sane technical and musical idea. The flute is not a percussion instrument. It’s like a cat: when you pat it, it purrs. But when you brutalize it, watch out for bites and scratches.