We're often told that the
flute is among the least ergonomic of musical instruments, and its
detractors have ample argument. The instrument is played
off-centre to the body, and in the case of wooden flutes, the hole
spacing and location is a crude compromise between stretch and tuning.
Mostly, we turn a blind eye to these criticisms, and dismiss them
out-of-hand. A sore hand, as it sometimes transpires.
Interestingly, our attitude
to these problems varies with our time of exposure. When we first
pick up wooden flute, we are appalled at the stretch, and wonder if we
will ever get to accommodate it. Fortunately, we mostly do, and go
on to enjoy many fun-filled years. But, then old age lays her hand
upon us, and we start to revisit our concerns. How long can I keep
this up? No coincidence that I'm writing this late in my 65th
Fortunately, there are
solutions for when that time comes. I'll be looking to Mr
Siccama's solution - normally-open keys to extend the third fingers of
each hand, and the first and second fingers relocated for better tuning
and comfort. Easy blowing, with a naturally full and strong tone.
I reckon that's going to see me out in style.
Siccama flute from the McGee-Flutes
If you look closely at the Siccama flute above, you can
probably make out that the holes and normally-open keys are not quite in
line. The savagely-derided Siccama was not just on top of tuning
and power, but comfort also. For shame, Mr Rockstro!
But, we resort to keys with less than full enthusiasm,
or we would have made the jump long before now! The 6 open holes
of the wooden flute are a delight. One's hand is on the music, not
on the key that operates the music. Is there nothing that can make
the open-hole flute even just a little more ergonomic, to put off the
day of capitulation? I decided to do a little tinkering....
All been done before
Now, before I go on, you're probably thinking "this has
all been done before", and are ready to let fly with the names of a
dozen modern makers of ergonomic flutes of all kinds. And you
would be right. But let's see if we have all come to the same
My starting point was, as not uncommon, the old
instruments themselves. I've said it before and I firmly believe
it. If we want to know more about flute making back in the day, we
need to immerse ourselves in the only significant body of evidence left
to us, the instruments themselves. Flute makers during that
remarkable period where "one gentleman in ten played the flute" were
generally not in the business of writing about them. (Although
again, Siccama is a bit different here. But he was a professor of
languages, so writing was his day job!)
I'd noted over the years that there were many
instruments where the holes were not in line. Sloppy workmanship?
Maybe, but it seemed that it was the better makers whose holes were less
likely to be in line, and we would hope they knew what they were doing.
Also, if you have a setup on your lathe or drill press to hold the flute
firmly while cross drilling, the holes will be naturally in line unless
you intentionally change the setting.
I've already mentioned the good Professor Siccama who
made the flute above. Rudall & Rose and Nicholson flutes are also
among those where the holes are often subtly out-of-line. Snooping
around the flutes in my collection, and my extensive records of flutes
in museums around the world, there seemed to be a few areas of general
The top hole is pushed a little closer to the
player's body than the others
Some right-hand holes are further away from the
player than the left-hand holes
At least R2 should be further from the player than
Easy does it!
Now, above, I used the expression subtly
out-of-line. And it's a key word. The deviations from the
expected straight line are on the verge of being unnoticeable to the
casual observer. The question arises - is that because a small
deviation is all that's needed, or that's all that is acceptable
technically, or that's all that's acceptable visually? These are
questions we'll have to grapple with.
You knew that it was going to come to this, an
experiment, didn't you. And yet you keep coming back here!
You can't blame me!
I decided to try out the principles
above on a keyless flute - my "typical large hole" Rudall 5088 model.
And I determined to be just a little bolder than the makers of the
original flutes I'd seen. If I just replicated their measurements,
I'd be left wondering whether I'd gone far enough. If I went
really bananas, I'd probably come to grief for reasons that would become
painfully obvious. So a cautious bold approach seemed appropriate.
As you can see from the image below, the left hand is more boldly
deviant than the right. L1 is a few degrees closer to the player,
and L3 a similar amount further away. My aim here was to reduce
the twist of the wrist and hand commonly complained about by players
with small or damaged hands. I believe that was the aim behind the
first principle we saw above.
Left and Right hand sections of the experimental flute
The second principle is largely met in this experiment by having a two
piece-body flute. The player can rotate the RH to their
satisfaction. This I believe is important in being able to make
use of the 19th century flute hold espoused by the teachers of the time.
See Getting the hard, dark tone
and the several links to original sources.
principle is met by having R2 further away from the player than the
other two holes. When I look at my hand, I note R2 is the longest
finger. So it would seem was Mr Rose's and Mr Nicholson's.
If the hole is moved a little away, that finger can be a little
So how was it?
Good, I reckon. Not startlingly different, but
immediately comfortable. And when I compare it with my own 6-key
version of the same model, more comfortable. What's most interesting is,
if I try moving my top finger back towards the middle of the flute, I
can immediately feel stuff "bunching up" inside the finger. Yet if
I try to move it further towards me, that doesn't feel good either.
The right hand change is similar.
Nothing dramatic, just a general slight easing of internal pressures in
Perhaps the least significant change was moving L3 out a
bit. I find my left third finger is a little inclined to return
towards the top of the flute. But that could be just 40 years
flute playing experience talking. And it might suit others more
than me. Either way, I find it the small offset no disadvantage.
The finding that L3 is the least critical is perhaps a
reflection that, at least in my case, L3 is the straightest of my three
left-hand fingers as they fall upon the flute. The test might be
to try it on someone with a smaller hand.
The movement of
L3 towards the outside is not generally seen in original flutes,
although it is very common in modern ergonomic approaches. I can
see two disadvantages in overdoing this. Firstly, it means that
any G#key has to be shifted further around the flute, which then makes
pressing it inwards that bit more difficult. Secondly, I feel that
having any holes too far off-line introduces the risk of momentarily
rotating the flute as that finger comes down, upsetting the embouchure.
An issue with R2
It's all very fine bumping R2 over a bit on a keyless
flute, but keep in mind that, on a keyed flute, that would put R2 on a
collision course with the Long F guide block. So really, we should
be talking in terms of pulling R1 and R2 back a little, and then
rotating the whole RH section a little more to compromise.
Go on too far like that and we're going to need
one of Mr Nicholson's Long F keys with the touch bent back the
opposite way! History repeating itself?
Nicholson's Long F key, bent upwards instead
I mentioned above that rule 2 was satisfied in this
experiment by the simple expedient of having separate left and right
hand sections. But what happens with one-piece-body flutes like
the Prattens and the Siccama? Obviously the maker has to determine
on behalf of the player how to set up the rotations. In old flutes
of this type, you can often see evidence of subtle tweaking.
A worthwhile experiment, and one I'll probably play more
with. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the benefit to be obtained
by the slight relocation of the top hole.
I'll be interested to hear what players and other makers
think and have done.