Health and Wellness

A Story About a Claw, a Flute, and Two Flutists

A brand new flute student came through the door for his first lesson. Overflowing with excitement to meet his new teacher and demonstrate his wicked flute skills, he starts playing away on one of the fast movements from a Telemann fantasy. His enthusiasm and attention to details like dynamics and shaping phrases are wonderful. However, his new teacher notices that he is squeezing the flute keys so hard that his fingertips are turning white and his right hand resembles a the claw of a sea creature, gripping onto the flute for dear life. After she points this out, the young flutist realizes that he had no idea this was happening. The flute is also unhappy because it’s being squeezed to death. Why is this happening?  What do we do about it? Why do we need to do anything???

Let’s start with the last question – why is this a problem?

1) It’s noisy. The key slaps are distracting for audience members. It makes the musical performance immediately less musical. This is the same category as noisy, gasping breathing. We don’t want the audience to be thinking, “Why is he working so hard?”  We flutists know this is hard stuff to pull off.

2) This squeezing could be a problem down the road in terms of repetitive injury and excessive tension. We know that using more effort than necessary is not helpful for anything. I work with many high level flutists who grip too hard, especially in their right hand, and are having pain, discomfort, and, in some cases, nerve and tendon issues.

Why is this happening?

  1. Check the student’s flute and make sure it is adjusted properly. If there are leaks, we often push harder without being consciously aware that we’ve made a decision to do so. Many times, younger students have flutes that are mechanical disasters and we need to regularly hold the instruments ourselves to see what’s going on. Wash your hands or use an alcohol wipe to make this practice sanitary.
  2. A tense, clawing right hand happens because student flutists are allowed to get away with it, especially the precocious ones who love to play everything as fast as possible all the time. It is our responsibility, as teachers, to check for this altered hand position and stop it.

What do we do about it?

  1. Ask the student to put the flute away in the case. Have him open the case and look at the flute with a sense of wonder, awe and exploration, just like he did was he was a baby flutelet and opened the case for the very first time. Gently press a key, any key, and see exactly how much pressure it takes to close the key. Try a few different keys. Try a few different fingers. If the flute is adjusted well, this should be fairly consistent amount of pressure:  NOT VERY MUCH. This is a time for the Goldilocks rule – not too much pressure, not too little pressure, just enough. Once the key is closed, there’s no point in pushing harder! This “pushing problem” is not flute specific – it shows up in pianists who continue to push past the bottom of the key bed and for string players who continue to mash their fingers into the string after they’ve successfully modified its length. 
  2. Have the student put his flute together and hold it with fingers on the keys, but not in playing position. The foot joint can rest on right knee, similar to beginning band rest position.  Have the student gently finger some different note combinations without resorting to the use of the claw and being really grippy. Start slowly and have your student use his eyes to look at his fingers – using visual information to help inform tactile and kinesthetic information.
  3. Using appropriate effort (Goldilocks rule), have the student play a long tone middle Eb or D, doesn’t matter, just some note with a lot of fingers down.  Ask if the student can feel the vibration of the flute through his fingers, which is asking him to monitor tactile information.  If he can feel this, have him play the same note and squeeze really hard. He should notice that the vibration information is unavailable when he’s squeezing too hard. The lack of vibration can be considered a clue that he’s squeezing too hard.
  4. Encourage the student to notice when the claw first starts showing up to the Telemann party. Is it the scale sections? Is it the arpeggios? Is there a pattern to the madness? In my experience, the claw is always worse when fingers are unsure or trying to go faster than they really can. Is this is finger problem or a note reading problem or a rhythm problem?
  5. Check to see how high the fingers are as they come up off of the keys. Often, you will see major fly away fingers happening with the claw. The fingers should be hovering right over their keys, like space ships getting ready to land. The closer they are, the less distance they have to go, the less possibility they have to be in the wrong position and the faster you will be able to go.
  6. Check out the position of the student’s right hand thumb. If it’s too far forward and they are pushing the flute away, this can contribute to the presence of the claw. Look at “Why So Many Flutists Have Right Hand Pain from FE issue…..???)

For many clawers, their currency is speed.  If you can convince them that they will be able to play even faster when they’re not squeezing so hard, they will buy in and do the necessary work to retrain their movement. This is hard brain work and it’s much easier to correct this problem with the baby flutelets. It is our responsibility as the teachers to train not only WHAT our students are doing, but HOW they are going about doing it.

Back to the story…

After a few weeks, the new student is delighted to have his flute adjusted properly, tweaked his thumb position slightly, and completely overhauled how he thinks about bringing his right hand to the keys. The claw is just a memory and he’s on to playing the Carmen Fantasy add dizzying speeds.The flute is happy because it’s no longer being held in a death grip. The teacher is thrilled to hear her student shine and deliver his music authentically with appropriate effort.  The claw, fortunately, is never seen again!  We hope….

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