Saturday, May 05, 2012

How do I get faster fingers? (free pdfs)

Dear Jen,
What is the secret to getting faster fingers for flute playing?
I've been trying to play "Badinerie" by J.S. Bach and it's like my fingers are too heavy to move that quickly. Are there any secrets to speeding up finger technique?

Dear Flute Lovers,
Please help yourself to these gloriously interesting and totally NEW flute practice pages (sample jpeg above-click to enlarge it). They will give you loads of ideas for lightening and speeding up your flutey fingers.

Trills & Ease of Finger Lifting plus Intermediate's Chromatic Scales in 24 printable pages.

Download them here:

These new exercises in trills and chromatics are great for hole-punching and putting in your flute exercise binder and they include a full three-octave flute trill chart for those learning trill fingerings (which often aids and abets faster flute fingers), and it's all in this one 800 kb pdf;

Happy Spring (!) from me to you dudes! :>)

1) Questions for the self-diagnosing heavy fingered flutist:

a) Are there any leaks in any of the pads?

The most common reason for pressing the keys with heavy fingerings is that there are microscopic leaks in your pads. These happen every year. Take your flute to a much better flutist (a teacher, a colleague who plays well) and have them use the lightest possible touch on a slow chromatic scale downward. As each pad closes with no finger pressure at all, the tone should sound clear. If any note sounds like "Grrrr!" or "Whizzzzz" (ha ha) then you have a pad leak that you have been forcing closed.
Slamming and squeezing keys closed is a habit developed by those who don't get their annual pad maintenance. I'm not kidding about this. This is a problem particular to the flute, which has pads less forgiving than sax, clarinet or oboe. So an annual
clean/oil & adjust at a reputable repair shop (ask your teacher to recommend the best pad expert in town) is something you'll want to look into.
Leaking pads are the number one cause of heavy fingers.

b) Have you developed a Heavy Habit? Simple habitual body use is the other reason for heavy fingers.

If you used to play an ill-repaired flute with lots of pad leaks, but now you have a wonderfully zippy new flute, or are buying or play-testing a flute that has no leaks, you'll want to retrain your fingers to be as light as possible to increase your speed and ease of play (and to stop from denting the new pads in the old habitual way).

For this you'll want to:

i) Learn how to re-balance the flute with almost all the fingers off the keys except for the right thumb, the chin and the left index phalange. The idea is to free the fingers that are moving up and down on the keys so they are not taking any weight, and not having to hold the flute still if it's wobbling.
There are many articles about this on my site, but one of the key features can be as simple as how the right hand is placed on the flute.
Here's a really good drawing from Michel Debost's book of the right hand.
Notice the ease of approach of the thumb. Notice the finger moves from the basic knuckle shown inside the hand.

Debost's Thumb Position and Finger Joint Motion:

ii) Understand what key slamming is and its causes. You may want to read about re-aligning your headjoint or footjoint here as all flutes and players are individuals, and knowing how to balance a flute is all about your own sensitivity to change and improvement. And to break the "slam and squeeze habit" you may want to read Michel Debost's words on the topic of "Slam and Squeeze" the dreaded flutist's disease to learn more.

The "Trick" of Fast Fingers:

Yes, there is indeed a "trick". When you play a key, are you thinking about allowing the key to be lifted up again by the spring that holds the key up?
Can you lighten your fingers to allow the keys to spring up by themselves? Actually take the flute away from your lips and literally feel each key carefully in turn, to guage the actual force required to overcome its spring tension.

Do you find that the weight of the finger only has to be less than a gram, and then if you release that finger pressure completely, that the key bops up by itself?
Well that level of sensitivity is your best technique.

Experiment with it with the concepts and exercises listed below. Some of these are taken from other discussions on my website.

How to use almost no finger pressure so that the fingers don't have to undo the downward pressure of closing a key PRIOR to lifting up.

This concept may literally blow your mind as to how easy and how obvious it is, and yet how often overlooked. The only pre-requisite is that you have *no* leaks in the pads of your flute whatsoever, and that the key-closure-mechanics are in perfect adjustment (for those of you readers not able to know this as a fact, have your teacher check your flutes for leaks by playing chromatically with minimum pressure on every flute key.)

Concept of the Lightness of Springs:
Some flutist of brilliant perspicacity (don't remember whom, unfortunately) once said: "Use only enough finger pressure to overcome the spring tension holding each key up" and that is the simplest possible formula to comprehend. Take your flute down and
lower and raise each key, one key at a time, while watching and feeling the key action.
How much pressure does it REALLY take to overcome the spring tension that holds each key up? Almost NONE, right?

Now, put the flute up again and toy with each individual key in turn starting with a very slow F to G trill. Trill the F key so lightly and with so little finger-pressure that if feels as if you're playing by lifting the finger only. Think: "Lift---lift---lift" instead of "depress-depress-depress."

Then in turn play slow and then progressively faster trills between all other pairs of notes (G to A, E to F, B to C etc.)
Tell your hands and fingers that they never need to have any more tension than this, and that they can all remain relaxed and curved, with finger-tips very close to the keys ready for a tiny, relaxed and extremely light movement.

I find that as soon as students actually experience this lightness of fingering, they almost never go back to depressing the keys heavily or with more pressure, as it is just such a mental BREAKTHROUGH about how easy putting the keys down really is, and immediately comprehend it as: "Why ever do it any other way?!"

Mind you, if you have a fundamental flute-holding imbalance (Like your headjoint is misaligned, or your flute is rolling toward you every time you take your fingers off,) then that problem will have to be addressed first. Look at how you line up the flute, and use a mirror to discover if it's rolling inward as you play, or if the chin plate is moving around while you play.
A teacher can help with all these things, which is why professional flute players always recommend getting hands on help from a teacher who can spot what it is that's holding you back.

But you can use your own sensations to become more adept too, between lessons:

For example: When fingering a long slow series of notes (E to F, F to
G etc.), see if you could put your brain into your actual finger tips and sense the exact split-second when the pad actually closes the tone-hole.
You need to sensitise the finger-tips so they become microscopically aware of the moment when the pad is closed, and the note sounds clear, without finger pressure.
Only the weight of the finger itself, without any muscle-power, should be enough to sound a note. Imagine you're playing a clarinet in which the finger's pad seals the hole in the wood. At the moment of that seal, the note sounds clearly.

Finger Lightening for the Developing Flutist:

Exercise One: Without the Flute:

When I was 15, my flute teacher, Karin Schindler at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto changed my sensitivity to finger pressure with this simple exercise.
To enlarge jpeg, just click on it, then use the back button to return here.

The above "tapping" is almost so quiet as to be inaudible. You are not actually tapping, you are learning to make tiny lifting motions with each finger that are effortless.
Doing this several times in the first week you learn it will make huge changes to your perceptions of how to handle flute keys.

Exercise Two: Longtones using the balancing act of the Bb side lever:

The easiest method to begin investigating the balance of the flute is to do it when you're practising longtones with good posture and great tone quality. I like to introduce the use of the Bb side lever to help with this concept. (Free longtone printed exercises in pdf here.)

You know how you start your longtones on B and then slur to Bb? Well, if you use the Bb side lever (the one just above the F key, that's operated by leaning on it with the RH index finger) for the Bb, and then leave it down for the A, the Ab, and the G, you will find that you can lighten the pressure of your LEFT hand fingers, because the side-lever Bb allows the flute to stay very stable, with its keyboard still and upright, for left-hand only notes, prior to the addition of any of the other right hand keys (for F#, F, E etc.)

Advanced flutists do use these techniques to stabilize the flute in the hands during warmup.

You'll see that I suggest stabilizing fingerings in the new trilly practice pages when you print them out.
Here also is a picture of some of the common finger stabilizers that help the flutist sense the balance between the two hands during multiple finger changes. Since C to D is one of the most fingery, it's good to know that the right hand fingers can help to stabilize while your control and lightness of touch develops.

Introducing Stabilizing Fingerings for Enlightening Trillers (or C to D changers!)

To enlarge, click on jpeg.

Feel free to experiment.

Exercise Three:
Next, if you are learning chromatic longtones or scales that are ascending, you can use this trick:

Start a mini-chromatic scale, all slurred, ascending, beginning on low D, and go up five notes: This was also covered in my Moyse Daily Exercises Part I (free pdf of which begins with short chromatic scales) which are easy to extend to the full range of the flute. (see page 18-24 of newest pdf too.)

Slur slowly upward: D, Eb, E, F --- pause on F# --- and sense the balance of
the two hands. Breathe. Relax any excess tension.
Slur upward: F#, G, G#, A,--- and pause on Bb played with two index fingers---sense the balance of the two hands.

Slur: Bb, B, C, C#, --- pause on D -- sense the balance of the two hands.

When I first start students on these chromatics, I start with these shorter sets of notes of a chromatic scale pausing on the final note, and relaxing the hands and resting, breathing, then continuing on the paused note for the next chunk of chromatics. Eventually they are working toward playing a whole octave, all slurred, chromatically, with the two hands feeling equally relaxed and easy, and all notes even.

What daily chromatic mini-scales develop is eveness and finger independence, and at the same time ask the student to use extremely light fingers (more on this below.)

The balancing of the two hands, with neither one taking more weight than the other is something I practice when warming up with longtones and with chromatic scales and trills.

The daily, slow, longtone exercises I use are free to download in pdfs here.

The Chromatic Scales and Trills are in today's free pdf here.

As you progress from five-note chromatic scales, to eight, and then finally two octaves, the faster you wish to go, the more lightly you use each finger, never raising it very high off its key. When you pause on any chosen note,(add your own pauses depending on what speed you're playing) you use that pause to relax the hands almost completely so that your fingers, elbows and hands release unnecessary tension, and over several weeks the entire exercise of playing chromatics feels easy and balanced.

Some previous articles and handouts that may be of use are here:

All sorts of free pages of scales and exercises that can improve your flute technique.

How to Play Fast Trills

Practicing Flute Technique

Additional pdf Flute Trill Chart to print if you like larger format.

A Basic Flute Fingering Chart

A Blank Flute Fingering Chart (for special fingerings like minor third tremelos etc)that you can fill in when you're trying to learn a special new fingering.

Best of luck, and let me know whether the "trick" was totally mind-blowingly easy for you, or whether you had pad-leaks in your old flute.
This topic is a large one, but with many ways of practicing it, you'll soon see a difference in the lightness and speed with which you can play.
And P.S. Badinerie by J.S. Bach played at James Galway speeds is indeed a huge challenge!

You might want to start on something that's more appropriate to an earlier stage of finger speed development. (Chromatic Scales, Trills, Kohler and Garibaldi Etudes etc.)

Simple scale exercises that are short and fun and can be played at various speeds, with pauses to rebalance and increase the lightness of fingers individually, do indeed give faster results than playing a tricky piece of music.

(Badinerie has some F# issues which need special consideration too.)

P.P.S. Sheetmusic coming soon for those who've been dying to have it.
Just hold on, and it will appear here.

Best, Jen
Comments (8)
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These notes and pdfs are extremely helpful. Thanks! Calum, Scotland

Monday, June 04, 2012 7:10:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Thanks so much Calum; glad to help!
Best, Jen

Monday, June 04, 2012 8:52:00 AM

Blogger mtlt said...

I had started playing flute about 15 years ago in middle school and piccolo about three years after I first started on flute. I developed Bell's Palsy at the end of my junior year in high school and struggled through my senior year. I became so frustrated that I sold both my flute and piccolo. I was doing more research on Bell's Palsy because I still only have about 10% control of the muscles in the right side. I have been working for 11 years to regain any control of my lips that I can without much progress. I came across a website for musicians that had dealt with Bell's Palsy and got some encouragement to try playing again. Some of the flautists said that playing had helped them regain control of their lips on the affected side. I bought a flute a few weeks ago and a piccolo last week. Since I have started playing the flute again I have been able to actually drink from a straw again, something that I have not done for the 11 years of exhausting muscle exercises and therapies recommended by doctors that weren't working. I am so excited. I was actually looking up fingering charts to refresh my memory when I came across your website and found some really great information that I wish my instructor in school had read. He taught the military-style flute positioning and also had us to sit on the very edge of our chairs, which increased the discomfort. He believed that sitting on the edge of the chair would improve posture, when really all it did was cause tired neck and back muscles. I really appreciate the information that you have shared and will be back quite often as I refresh myself on playing techniques and retraining my fingers. Thank you so much! ~ Oma, Arkansas, United States

Saturday, June 23, 2012 3:02:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Oma,
So glad to have helped.
Alot of information about flute is available now that was not common knowledge decades ago. I'm very happy to help out.
Best, Jen

Saturday, June 23, 2012 3:58:00 PM

Blogger Euju Space said...

Dear Jennifer,
Thank you so much for such detailed and helpful post! I've been playing the flute for five years and recently I was getting frustrated because it was so hard to make my fingers agile when playing fast notes. I'm really glad that I was finally able to find a post that I was looking for. :) thank you!

Eunjung, S.Korea

Friday, August 24, 2012 10:19:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Eunjung,
Thanks for writing!
So happy to help.
Best, Jen

Friday, August 24, 2012 11:12:00 PM

Blogger Izzie said...

Hi Jennifer,
I've been playing flute for a little over seven years now. I have been frustrated with my chromatic scale for a long time, because I am indeed a "self-diagnosed heavy fingered flutist". The sound of the keys popping were just so loud, and it hindered with my sound. Today, I found this blog post and it's already given me a whole new outlook on playing! Looking forward to what is to come; thank you!


Wednesday, December 28, 2016 8:03:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Thanks Izzie! Can't wait to hear if you had leaks in your keys. That's usually the culprit that began the whole heavy-fingeredness. Remember when the flute comes back with perfectly sealing pads, to reduce your finger touch to feather weight and don't revert back. :>)
Best, Jen

Wednesday, December 28, 2016 8:17:00 PM


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