Rockstro on holding the flute



From time to time, the topic of the "Rockstro Grip" surfaces, so I thought it would be useful to hear Rockstro himself on the topic of how to hold the flute.  As you'll see below, it isn't Rockstro's idea at all - indeed he not only backs away from ownership but reverses the situation - if we are to believe him everyone held the flute that way until about his time, and he criticises those who were moving away from it.

The text comes from Rockstro's massive tome A Treatise on the Flute, 1890.  I've made a few changes to punctuation and layout to clarify the text, and snipped material not directly related to the topic.  I've retained Rockstro's section numbers so you can easily correlate it with the original.  Any comments of mine will be [in square brackets].  The "old flute" is the 8-key conical, the "modern flute" is the Boehm or a variant thereof.

The Supporting of the Flute.

712.  In order that the flute may be held at all times steadily and firmly, one of the essential conditions for good playing, its support must not be allowed to depend on any parts of the hands which are required to act, either directly or indirectly, on the finger-holes.

[Good to have a concise and logical reason behind the approach recommended.]

It must therefore be pressed against the lower part of the under lip by means of the base of the left hand first finger and the tip of the right hand thumb. The pressure of the finger and the thumb must be nearly horizontal and exactly opposed. The left hand first finger, being placed against the outer side of the flute (at a short distance above the c"# hole, or the touch of its key), will press the upper part of the flute inwards. The tip of the right hand thumb, being placed against the inner side of the flute (almost between the first and second fingers of the right hand), will press the lower part of the flute outwards.

The flute will thus become a lever of the first order [i.e. a lever with the pivot-point in the middle e.g. a see-saw], the left hand first finger being the fulcrum, and the right hand thumb the power. It will be evident that if the right hand thumb were placed under the flute, exercising pressure in an upward direction, depression of the head-joint could only be prevented by the downward pressure of one or more of the right hand fingers, or by the upward pressure of the left hand thumb. Either of these correctives would necessarily violate the primary rule for supporting the flute. The thumb will have no tendency to slip if its pressure be directed exactly towards the centre of the bore.

The thumb should always be placed to the right of the first finger, otherwise the action of the fourth finger on the open keys of the foot-joint might cause the first finger to act as a fulcrum, and the thumb would thus acquire a tendency to move the head-joint on the lip at the moment when the steadiness of the flute would be of the greatest importance.

713. It will be found convenient to allow the left hand thumb, and perhaps some of the fingers of both hands, to aid in holding the flute previously to its contact with the lip. There can be no possible objection to this temporary use of the thumb and fingers, but during performance the flute must depend for its support entirely on the three points before mentioned. Players on the eight-keyed, or any other flute with the old fingering, may rest the left hand thumb against the flute, being careful that no support shall be thus given to the instrument.


714. It would be impossible to hold the flute according to the above directions, without adjusting the head-joint in the manner recommended in the last chapter.

[Going back to this, we find: "the outer edge of the mouth-hole shall be rather within than without the line of the centres of the finger-holes".  Expressed differently, it suggests that the far edge of the embouchure hole should be on the player's side of a line through the centres of the finger holes.]

As I have frequently been accused of introducing unwarrantable innovations by recommending the turning inwards of the mouth-hole (or, more correctly, the turning outwards of the other parts of the flute) and the placing of the point of the thumb against the inner side of the flute, I cite some authorities for my opinions and my teaching whose weight few will venture to call in question. It may be noticed that the name of Boehm does not appear on the list: he was one of the very few who placed the mouth-hole in a straight line with the finger-holes, and, because he did so, he was unable to hold his flute without the aid of his "crutch."

[This is clearly an overstatement, and partly an opportunity for Rockstro to put the boot into Boehm, one of his favourite preoccupations.  But it is an interesting observation.]

715.  Authorities for turning the Mouth-hole inwards.

  • Quantz. (1752) " In order to hold the flute without affectation, it will be necessary to join its parts together in such a manner that the holes of the second and third joints shall be ranged in a straight line. . . . The head-joint must be so adjusted that the mouth-hole shall be turned inwards, towards the mouth and out of the line of the finger-holes, to an extent equal to the diameter of the hole."
  • Devienne. (1795) "If the mouth-hole of the flute be placed in a straight line with the finger-holes, the player will be compelled either to raise his [left] elbow too high, or to lower his head. . . . The mouth-hole should therefore be turned inwards."
  • Devienne's diagrams show the mouth-hole so turned, but only to half the extent recommended by Quantz.
  • Berbiguier (1820 circa) makes no remarks on the adjustment of the head-joint, but his diagrams show the mouth-hole turned considerably inwards.
  • Drouet. (1827) "The mouth-hole should be turned more inwards than the finger-holes." In the English edition of Drouet's book (1830): the head-joint is directed to be "turned inwards so far that the outward edge of the embouchure is very nearly in a line with the centre of the first hole of the left hand."
  • Dressler. (1828): "The Embouchure. . . [should be] inclined inwards a little, so that the line passing through the centres of the finger-holes may touch the outward edge of the embouchure.''
  • Lindsay. (1828) "The first masters of the day recommend the mouth-hole to be turned inwards to nearly the extent of its own diameter."
  • Tulou. (1835 circa) ... The mouth-hole should be turned so that its outer edge may be in a line with the centres of the finger-holes" (que le bord exterieur soit sur la ligne qui partage les trous).
  • Nickolson (1836) gives no directions in words for the adjustment of the head-joint, but his diagrams show that he adopted the method of Quantz.
  • Coche (1838) gives directions which, though differently expressed from those of Drouet and Tulou, have virtually the same meaning.

Authorities for pressing the Tip of the Right Hand Thumb against the Side of the Flute.

716. Before the intro­duction of the "extra key" [i.e. back in the days of the 1-key flute] the place and the action of the right hand thumb were of no great importance, because the equilibrium of the flute could be maintained by the otherwise un­employed thumb of the left hand, even when the right hand thumb was placed underneath the instrument.

The first author who recommended the placing of the tip of the thumb against the side of the flute was Tromlitz (1791). Since his time the only authors of any importance who, as far as I am aware, advocated any other position for the right hand thumb were Tulou and his pupil Walckiers. Tulou adopted an extraordinary position for the left hand thumb, placing it on the middle of the closed Bb key, and never removing it except for the shake. When he required to use the key for other purposes he slipped, or rolled, the thumb on to the touch of the key. By this inconvenient means he was enabled to hold the flute much in the same way as Quantz held it when there was no thumb-key, but while little can be said in defence of Tulou's custom, it should be remembered that he constantly used the fork-fingerings in rapid passages, and therefore his left hand thumb would probably have been chiefly used in supporting the flute, that is, in counteracting the upward pressure of the right hand thumb.

The rational system of holding the flute was thus explained by Drouet in his Methode: "The flute should be supported by the. . . . first finger of the left hand; by the thumb of the right hand, and by the lower part of the under lip. It is necessary to practise holding the flute perfectly steadily, and supported only by the three points indicated above, so that when it is placed to the mouth every finger, with the exception of the right hand thumb, may be free to move without endangering the steadiness of the instrument...." The tip of the thumb should be pressed against the inner side of the third joint of the flute, between the fourth and fifth [of the six open finger-] holes."

No one ever wrote on the subject of flute-playing whose opinions are entitled to greater consideration than those of Drouet, and his directions, though not original, have been more or less closely followed, until lately, by flute-players of all nations, but I regret to say that a most reprehensible movement has recently sprung up, amongst a certain few English players, against the true system of holding the flute. I consider it my duty to protest emphatically against this innovation.


So, there we go.  Rockstro is not promoting some wacky new method of aligning and holding the flute, but in fact fighting a rear-guard action defending the old method.  For this reason, we shouldn't call it the Rockstro grip, but something more accurately descriptive, perhaps the "19th century grip" or something similar.

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