Jennifer Cluff ~ Flutist's pinky problems & their solutions

Canadian Flutist and Teacher





Three questions about the Right Hand Pinky (little finger) and the flute

Problems with pain, locking finger, 'double-jointed' right hand fingers etc. and answers, exercises, and suggestions.


Question: I have a young (10 y/o) student who has the "locking pinky" problem. The strange thing is that she actually has quite long, slender fingers. I have experimented with turning her footjoint in a little more (towards her body), moving the right arm towards the body more, pushing it away more, turning the right wrist towards the end of the flute more... I've run out of ideas and her pinky still locks up!
As soon as she notices it jarring, I have trained her to stop and
relax her hand, but this is interfereing with getting consistent
practise. She is so young, I want to rectify this problem soon so
she doesn't have more problems later on. Ideas?

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Answer:

Do view this video first, to make sure the headjoint is aligned ergonomically for the face shape:

This is a video addressing hand position, and may help baby-finger balancing issues.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXIVPwdmEfI


Locking pinky is a common a problem that interests me. I once tried to answer this question in Flutetalk Magazine, and the answer was published (!) and STILL am not sure I covered all the basics of the "locking pinky conundrum", so I'll keep trying to gather more ideas:
 

 
Here's a check list of other possibilities: 

1. Have you checked her flute's footjoint for mechanical problems yet?
The C and C# typically, for students putting on footjoints too
roughly, may have pad leaks or be out of adjustment.

And, another typical one to check for: those student flutes with an
overly hard-sprung Eb pinky key, requiring force to keep it open.

You can slightly ease the tension on the Eb spring using a pen lid to unhook the spring, and gently bend it (be careful and slow) to a less sprung position. ;>)
Ask for more help if you haven't done this before, because too light, and the Eb key blows open.
Or have the repair-dude see to it, if not brave enough. :>)

2. Most important point I've been experimenting with:
RIGHT THUMB:

The thumb position is really really key to the pinky's freedom to
un-lock. If the right thumb is too far forward, the pinky naturally locks. You can prove this to yourself by pushing your own right thumb too far forward under the flute. The pinky gets locked at the base of the palm
where the thumb's muscles bunch up when the thumb is too far forward.
You may want to suggest a square of grippy foam (Dr. Scholl's foot
padding-adhesive back-buy at drugstore, cut with scissors and apply on
the back side of the flute.), or you may want to try a "Thumbalina"
with this student.
Long slender fingers often do wonders with a Thumbport or Thumbalina, as do folk with very short thumbs, or very slender thumbs.

But mostly, thumb needs to be around the player's side or "the back" of the flute more, until
the pinky gets its freedom back.

 Have a quick look at the student's alignment of the actual footjoint on the student's flute. and then compare with the alignment of the foojoint in these photos:  pdf article on footjoint alignment

Often the problem is that the footjoint is aligned poorly for the student's hand size and finger length, and the pinky finger is being forced to reach too far.

3. Tried using first aid tape on the pinky?

I've heard (Alexa Still has recommended) that a piece of first-aid
tape can be used to keep the pinky more curved. Tape one long piece along the INSIDE of
the baby finger with a 3-4 inch length to remind pinky to stay curved while
learning a new position. Tape is more secure if it travels down the palm of the hand.

Instructions: Cut a piece of first aid tape (sometimes called "adhesive" tape) that is about 1 1/2 inches longer than your little finger. With your finger properly curved, stick the tape to the *underside" of your little finger and down into the palm of you hand. If this is done properly, you will not be able to straighten your little finger without a great deal of effort. Use the tape whenever you practice.

I have used this successfully with a number of students over the years. They were able to train the finger this way and eventually did not need the tape. --- P.Sm.

Jen adds: However students can be over-zealous while using tape, so remembering the "Schumann syndrome" of injury caused by over-zealousness, I do not myself recommend tape or splints.

It's fairly easy enough to experiment with a curved right hand pinky. The student can also discover, by taking the flute down and visually inspecting, what action that their newly curved pinky actually can make.

- it has less drag because only the small tip area of the pinky is touching key
- it only has to slide from Eb to C# and then roll forward, there are
no other mvmts. required of it.

4. If you think that the headjoint position could be tweaked still in
order to redistribute the weight of the flute between the two hands of
this student a bit better then have a look at the possibilities here:

lineup.htm

When I changed my headjoint alignment to stop the flute from rolling
inward while I played, I noticed that it unlocked MY pinky in a
noticeable way. Other readers have stated the same miracle cure (2009):

See VIDEO on youtube:

Lining up your headjoint by Jen Cluff
This is a video addressing hand position, and may help baby-finger balancing issues.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXIVPwdmEfI

 

Other suggestions:

5. Pinky strengthening exercises (see below)

6. Keeping pinky on its side more than on its front pad. (Pauline suggests this: see how your pinky naturally lands when you lay your right hand down naturally, with fingers curved, on a table. Also, use your left forearm as a flute, and see your pinky's natural position.)

7. Make sure the right hand is not slantwise in its approach to the flute. Knuckles should approach parallel to the flute's tube. Any angling can also be corrected by changing the thumb position. Rotating the wrist also helps.
For correcting the alignment of the foojoint on the flute itself to ease pinky problems see this pdf article on footjoint alignment (with photos.) 

For more on hand positions in general see article on hand pain, aligning the headjoint, and on posture and hand position.

Hope these ideas help.
If not, give more info. and we'll keep guessing. :>)
Best, Jen :>)
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Question: I was hoping someone here could answer a question for me, though. (I asked my teacher, but he did not know the answer.) My fingers, especially on my right hand, tend to hyperextend (my sister calls it being "double jointed" since the knuckle actually bends backwards a little). Unfortunately, they also lock in that position when I'm playing. I notice it most in my pinky finger, since I tend to press hard (probably too hard) when using that finger, especially when I'm using it to balance the flute (ex: when playing C).
Not only does it slow me down trying to change fingerings (because I have to unlock the joint), but it also tires my hand out quickly.

If anyone has any suggestions of exercises to strengthen the surrounding muscles to compensate and prevent this, I'd really appreciate it. Alternatively, if there is some sort of "wrap" or something to artifically prevent the hyperextension, but that won't interfere with flexibility, I'd love to hear about that too. Thanks!!

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Jen's Answer:
There are three things to look at when your pinky is locking while playing the flute.
Firstly, there's a simple exercise you can do to strengthen the "curving inward" muscles of the pinky.
_________________

PINKY EXERCISES:
1. You put a coin, like a quarter, on the table, and use the right pinky
to push it in small easy circles, around and around.
You can do this while watching a movie, with a coffee table in front
of you.

Make a few circles clockwise, and then change direction.
Make the movements small and very gentle.
The heel of the hand can rest gently on the table and the rest of the
hand and forearm tendons can stay completely flacid.

Continue for about 30 seconds at a time.

You'll notice that you're isolating the palm-side or concave-side
"contracting" baby finger muscles and that they are gradually
strenghthening while increasing rotational finger tendon flexibility
in all directions.

Repeat next time you watch a movie. :>)
__________________
2. The second thing to do is to determine whether your pinky-key's spring
has been set too hard, holding the pinky open so strongly that it
takes too much force to depress the key.
Apparently some student flutes have the pinky key for the right hand
set at a spring tension that's truly hard to depress. This can happen
when the flute is being finished, because the pad-setter has made the
pad-impression by setting the pinky key's spring really stiff, and
then neglected to back off the spring tension again before sending the
flute on to the place you bought it from.

A flute repair tech. should re-set this spring's tension for you ,to
be very light, and easy to hold down, and they could do it in about 5
seconds flat, and probably not charge you.
What kind of flute are you playing, and how long since it had a quick
trip to the repair shop?

If you've never had a flute that is in a perfect state of repair, with
all the keys and pads closing easily and properly, you'd never know if
you're being forced to clench your hands to get the keys to seal
properly, and then your hands would be all stiff and you'd wonder why.

Have your teacher test your flute for pad leaks, and an overly tough
Eb RH pinky key, at the very least.
_______________
3. Finally, a flute that's in good repair is much easier to hold if you
align the far edge of the blow hole to the center of the keys, I find,
than if you align the center of the blow hole to the keys (as some
people advocate.)

With the far-edge alignment, the keys tilt slighty forward, away from
you, very very slightly, instead of parallel to the floor, and you can
rotate your footjoint toward you until your finger lands naturally on
the pinky key.

If your flute is put together wrong (how do you align your footjoint
to the lowest key on the middle section, and how do you align your
headjoint?) then you can CAUSE hand-pain.

Do write back and give more details as per the above queries.
Best,

Jennifer Cluff
Principal Flute; Vancouver Is. Symphony
Webpage:

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Question:
> Is there a way of playing the lowest octave C, C# &D (where the right pinky is not on the Eb key) to playing the lowest octave Eb, E, F without having to move the pinky back and forth to the Eb key. If there is no easy way, what is the best way to move the right pinky from the C or C# key to the Eb key easily? Thanks in advance for your help.
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Answer:
Good question!!!
This is an area of pinky-work that takes some thought and some
experimentation.
First the "thinking" part:
________________
Thinking part #1:
Sharp corners or bumpy edges:
________________
Many student flutes have a very sharp edge, or even a non-parallel
edge to the Eb key that makes it difficult to slide easily between the
Eb key and the lower C and C#.
If this is the case, that your pinky actually gets sore or caught on a
sharp edge of metal sticking up, you might want to either take it to a
technician and have them try and smooth out the transition between the
two keys, or you might want to try an altogether better flute to see
if the problem is really the flute or you.

The only way to smoothly move the pinky over a painful edge is to jump
it 'up and over' which means that you'll never gain any speed when
changing from note to note on the footjoint. So rule out this problem
first, and/or get it changed or repaired, then go on to the next
suggestion.
_____________________
Thinking part #2:
Sliding the pinky lightly.
_____________________

On a footjoint whose keys are parallel and even, the object is to
learn to move the pinky quickly from low C# to the Eb key, and the
only way to do that is to lighten off the downward pressure of the
pinky BEFORE you move it.

If previously a student has used a great deal of pressure on the pinky
key there are several reasons why they've done so:
- poor balance of the flute in the hands; solution: check over all
flute-holding points with your teacher to ensure that you're not
putting too much pressure on the RH pinky, but are evenly distributing
it.

- locked pinky; Solution: readjust the RH thumb position until you
feel that you've released all the tension across the back of the right
hand. By careful experimentation you may find that the pinky is
released to move more easily when the hand is made slightly "wider"
across the back.

- Too tight Eb key spring: Solution: up to a point the tension on the
Eb key spring can be lightened. Some student flutes have a ridiculous
amount of force required to open the Eb key, because the spring wasn't
reset after pad impressions were made at the factory. Have your
teacher check your Eb key if you find you are forced to use excessive
pinky force.

- Flat fingered approach to pinky keys:Solution: Check hand position
to see if it's possible that you can keep pinky more curved when
operating pinky keys. Check C and C# keys for leaks (from being
man-handled during assembly) which also requires a flat approach by
the pinky finger, as the C-roller should close BOTH the C and C# keys
all by itself (you shouldn't have to use a flat finger to hit BOTH C#
lever and the C roller to get low C to come out.)
___________________

Now the thinking part is done; here comes the practicing part.
_________________
Exercise ONE:
_________________
Finger low C# and lighten the downward pressure of the RH pinky.
Then quickly SLIDE the pinky up to the Eb key.

Undulate between C# and Eb very slowly always thinking "Lighten
pressure" just before the pinky moves.

_________________
Exercise TWO:
_________________
Reverse the slide so that you now are sliding downward from Eb to low
C#.
As you slide downward, relax the back of the hand to release any
tension in the hand, so that the pinky is released and moves easily
and accurately into place.
_________________
Exercise THREE:
_________________

Finger low C, and, providing there are no leaks in your footjoint
keys, use a curved pinky and place the tip on the C roller only.
You'll notice that a curved pinky on its tip creates less friction
than a flat-approach pinky. Look closely at where on the roller your
pinky starts and where on the Eb key it is supposed to end its slide.

The more detailed your visual knowledge of exactly where to hit the
keys, the less "out of control" stabbing motions you will make with
your RH pinky.
You want to move it from one tiny spot, to exactly one other tiny
spot, with no tension, no extra motion and no flailing. :>)

Reverse these two notes to learn how to accurately slide it down again
from Eb to C.
_________________
Exercise FOUR:
_________________

In Taffanel and Gaubert there are exercises called "EJ 7" expressly
invented for the pinky that are in the middle register, where you must
take the pinky on and off for D, E, F, and F#.

Practice these very slowly and with very relaxed hands, to improve
pinky exchanges in the middle register. The key is to keep the pinky
very low and relaxed, and to release the back of the right hand so
that the pinky can gain some independence from the ring finger.

___________________
And finally:

Yes, you can one day try out a D# roller to see if you like it. Some
do, some don't.
And YES there are times when, at very fast tempi, you cannot possibly
move your pinky fast enough, and must leave it off for E and F etc.,
even though the sound quality of the E and F suffers.

An example of this would be in the very advanced etudes by Boehm,
where the tempo is extremely quick.
On no account leave pinky off the Eb or D# key when playing E and F
any other time, however. Only at virtuoso tempi in very difficult
passages.

Hope this covers the topic as thouroughly as humanly possibly (while
cooking a chiken dinner---YUM!!)

If you have more questions, fire away.
Jen :>)

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