Flute Ergonomics




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 year.

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 Research Collection

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 conclusions.

Original flutes

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 agreement:

  1. The top hole is pushed a little closer to the player's body than the others

  2. Some right-hand holes are further away from the player than the left-hand holes

  3. At least R2 should be further from the player than R3

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.

An experiment

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.

The third 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 straighter.

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.  Subtlety rewarded?

The right hand change is similar.  Nothing dramatic, just a general slight easing of internal pressures in the fingers.

And L3? 

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.  Subtlety, again.

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 of down

One-piece-body flutes

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.

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Created 9 December 2013