New Year resolution – to find The Perfect Finger Technique!!!
It would be nice, wouldn’t it…..but do you believe this is really possible for you? Well, it’s totally possible if we approach our technical work in the right way. Whatever stage we’re at with our playing, it’s never too late to either change the WAY we play, or even to start over - developing and reassessing our playing is what musicians do over a lifetime, and the effort is always worth it. I am currently working on a book which will be based around the topics we’ve discussed so far in these articles, and which will include several technical exercises, so for today I’d thought I’d discuss the more general aspects of finger technique; I’d love to help you to become more aware of HOW you use your body, and in particular your fingers, so that it takes less physical effort and ‘stress’ to play the more demanding passages, and so that you can develop a fluent technique that will take you where you want to get to…..
…so let’s get started. When working on technique, we want to find a better and more efficient way of moving our fingers – the movements need to be very precise and controlled, and yet relaxed. It’s very tempting when we come to our ‘Technical Practice’ to dive straight into our favourite exercises and see how fast we can play them, but if we don’t address how each finger is moving, or how much tension we have, we will meet a brick wall at some point where it simply isn’t possible to play that particular passage with that hand position/with that much tension/with no support/with the instrument unbalanced etc. and it never will be possible unless we change something.
Here are some of the things I like to think about when practising Technique –
- Overall posture
We talked about finding a good posture and balance in the June issue, so it may be useful to read through the article again as a reminder.
- Holding and balancing the instrument
Here are a few points about holding the flute –
- There are 4 ‘contact points’ where we hold the instrument – the lip, the 1st finger of the left hand, the right hand thumb and the right hand baby finger.
- The pressure on these contact points should be light, and the weight of the instrument evenly distributed between them – we are trying to avoid all tension
- Think of the position of the keys in relation to the angle of the headjoint. Due to the weight of the keywork on the body of the instrument, the flute is actually balanced when the keys are more ‘turned out’ or forward facing – when the keys are facing the ceiling, the weight of the keywork actually wants to fall back into our hands, which puts unnecessary tension on our wrists. I’d recommend experimenting by turning the body of the flute towards and away from you, and then adjust the headjoint accordingly – we all have differently shaped hands, and our fingers vary in length, so find the compromise which feels right for you.
- ‘Letting go’
Try to be aware of any tension in your body – as you know, we don’t want any! We talked in an earlier article about the huge benefits for our flute playing of techniques such as the Alexander Technique and Body Mapping – again I’d strongly recommend these so that we become more aware of how our bodies are designed to work at their best. The key areas to think about when concentrating on technique, and to keep reminding yourself of when you are practising, are the wrists, elbows, arms, shoulders and the back of the neck - try to ‘let go’ of all these areas as any tension here will affect how your fingers move. But as ever, also be mindful of your feet, knees, hips, pelvis, and of course the lengthening of your spine.
We need to remember to support ALL THE TIME! It’s easy to forget this when our minds are working at something specific such as finger exercises, but by supporting in the right place and ‘letting go’ of the bad tension, our fingers will move more freely and we will be closer to achieving the ‘Perfect Technique’!
- Finger position
We want our fingers and thumbs to be as relaxed as possible, so they should be in the most natural shape when we play. To help find the best position for you, drop one arm down by your side and relax it. Look to see what position your fingers and thumb have fallen into and notice that your fingers have a gentle curve, while your thumb is almost straight – this is YOUR perfect shape to play with!
- Height of fingers on keys
Ideally, the fingers should be either sitting just above the keys, or actually touching the keys very lightly, ALL the time. The movement of the fingers should be small and economical, but always precise. See (8) for a suggestion of how to practise this.
- Lifting our fingers UP
It’s worth saying that the fingers should be moving up and down from the hand knuckles ie. the joints where the fingers meet the hand. The fingers should stay in the same shape as they move up and down. When working the fingers, we tend to focus on how to bring them DOWN onto the keys, but more often what holds back our technique is the way we bring our fingers UP. Therefore in all your technical exercises, give more attention to how your fingers move UP. Try to exaggerate the movement, and make it fast and make it light - as if you’re suddenly bringing your fingers up off burning coals! At the same time, try to let go of any tension in your wrists, elbows, arms, shoulders, back of neck etc. and remember instead to support from your tummy.
- Speed of fingers
By this, I mean how fast your fingers are moving every time they move, whether the music itself is fast or slow. To work at this, I suggest playing your technical exercises in two different ways -
- at a very slow Tempo, but with SUPER quick and light fingers. Also, just for this exercise, lift up your fingers as high as you can in order to make them work harder.
- at a faster Tempo, but this time with your fingers much closer to the keys again, and with more awareness of how quickly and how lightly your fingers are moving.
I hope some of these ideas might be new to you, and will help to make the most of your technical practice. I’d suggest making your own checklist on a sticky note and paste it to your music stand, so that as you practise, you can keep glancing at your list as a memory aid.
What to practise?
This is a list of some of my favourite technical books, and the ones I personally love to work at, but there are so many wonderful technical books out there. For me, the most important thing is keep practice varied, so feel free to change your routine every few weeks or whenever you feel you need to go onto something fresh.
Taffanel et Gaubert – Exercises Journaliers
Moyse - Gammes et Arpeges (480 exercises for flute)
Moyse – Etudes et Exercises Techniques
Reichert – 7 Daily Exercises
Trevor Wye – Practice Book no.6 Advanced Practice
Paul Edmund Davies – The 28 Day Warm Up Book
…and not forgetting……scales!
Armed with these books in hand, or with some of your own favourites, here are a few standard ways of practising them to make your time as efficient as possible -
- Legato, slowly.
Listen out for clarity of tone when you change fingers. Aim for perfectly synchronised and precise fingers when changing notes, but remember to support and let go of tension. Imagine space in your hands, arms, shoulders, back, ribs, neck etc.
- With different rhythms
Be careful that the flute is balanced well in your hands and doesn’t move as you play - dotted rhythms can be really helpful in practice, but can sometimes lead to more tension and unnecessary movement of the instrument. The flute must always be stable on our lips in order to produce our best and smoothest tone. Remember – focus on your support and let go of any tension.
- Start with a slow metronome mark, then steadily build up the speed by playing one notch faster every day.
- A variety of articulations
A note on Scales
Since most Western music is made up of scales and arpeggios, it’s worth seeing these as an integral part of your practice – during his career, James Galway famously practised scales for 2 hours every day so maybe it’s an idea for us to do the same! Once you have learnt the keys, practise them in different ways such as changing the rhythm, articulation, phrasing or colour to make them interesting – and always try to make them sound beautiful, as if they are a gorgeous melody in their own right. Depending what level you are playing at, also think about extending your scales up to top B and C, or even higher, and include scales in 3rds, 4ths and 6ths, as laid out in Taffanel and Gaubert’s Daily Exercises no.6. I will share more scalic exercises when the book comes out!
A note about the Top Register
This is the most challenging register technically because there are so many cross fingerings involved when changing notes, and yet we tend to neglect this register when practising. I would suggest regular slow work up in this register, after you’ve warmed up in the lower 2 registers, with precise, strong but relaxed fingers. We want to get rid of any sense of ‘panic’, which will lead to physical and mental tension and stop the notes flowing – lots of support will help this. Here are a few ideas of how to practise the high notes –
- Lots of practice without blowing.
Hold the flute in front of you and, without blowing, choose a couple of notes eg. top G and top A, and practice them slowly over and over, specifically concentrating on the perfectly clean coordination of the fingers and also letting go of tension. Then move on to another couple of notes, then try 3 notes which always catch you out, then 4 notes etc. Do this very calmly, and when it’s feeling good play them with your best sound and good support.
- What - me, rush…??!!!
It really is very normal to rush at the top! But if we do rush, the notes don’t speak clearly and we tense up both physically and mentally. To get out of this habit, one useful way to play scales is to deliberately try to do the opposite ie. slow down rhythmically when we get to the top register, and then gradually return to the tempo as you come out of the top register. This requires a lot of control, and not forgetting support, and is therefore an excellent exercise to improve the clarity of our top notes. Over time, as you feel your fingers becoming more coordinated and controlled in this register, you can increase the speed – but very gradually.
Another useful tip with a difficult passage is to stop and hold the first note that seems to be causing the problem. After doing this a few times, letting go more each time until your hands and arms feel very relaxed, and using more support, go on to the next note and do the same.
There will be lots more little tips which will be covered in the book.
Finally …..the request ‘Don’t rush’ is possibly the most commonly used phrase from teachers to their students, or from conductors to the orchestra - one of my favourite quotes on this subject comes from violinist Hugh Bean, the distinguished leader of Klemperer’s Philharmonia orchestra, who when asked later in life what he wished he’d known at the beginning of his career, replied
“I wish I’d known that there’s always TIME to play every note”.
It sounds simple, but as long as you have built up a good technique and WAY of moving your fingers, and you learn how to spread the notes out in your mind, this really does hold true …well, almost always!
Final thoughts ….
At the end of the day, the reason we need a fluent technique is so that we are better equipped to play all the wonderful music that we find ourselves playing. So practise all technical exercises musically – remember to phrase, use different tone colours and always have an emotion or feeling in mind. We want our fingers to sound smooth and effortless, the rhythm should be fluent but not mechanical. Everything we practise should always sound as beautiful and as expressive as possible….
….and of course, if you want that orchestral job your technique simply needs to be better than everyone else’s, so keep on with that practice - the prize is worth it!!!
All the best to everyone, I can’t wait to meet you all one day.
Laura Jellicoe has appeared as Guest Principal with the BBC Philharmonic, Hallé and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestral, and has performed as a soloist with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, amongst others. As a conductor she has worked with Manchester Camerata and the RLPO, with which she has recorded three CDs, and is currently Music Director of Cheshire Youth Orchestra. Laura studied at the RNCM (and Junior RNCM) and privately with Marzio Conti in Italy. Competition successes include the British Flute Society Young Artist award, chaired by James Galway, and reaching the final of both the BBC and Radio 2 Young Musician of the Year. During her studies, Laura was appointed Sub-Principal Flute with the RLPO, later spending three years as Acting Principal. In addition to her role at the RNCM, Laura is also a Tutor in Flute and Chamber Music at Chetham’s School of Music.