Jen Cluff ~ Fast Trill Fingers

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

  Trills too slow?

Left hand thumb trills problematic?

Sometimes when I have a trill in a piece of music, it either is not as fast as I would like, or it doesn't speed up the way I want it to.
Any suggestions as to a good way to practice trills?
In particular, any ideas for trills with the left thumb?
Is this more a problem with lack of finger strength, or control, or maybe both?

You may wish to check with your private teacher, because they can SEE
if you're doing anything that will slow your trill practice down.
Here are some common problems:

1a. Leaks in the pads: I once had a devil of a time doing a
complicated trill sequence with the LH thumb, where I'd never had trouble before.
It turned out I had a huge leak in my thumb pad. Therefore I would
always advise those who haven't had their pads checked for leaks in
the past year to do so before worrying that it is the player.

Additionally, if you are pressing the key down too hard (may be caused
by leaks or simply by the bad habit of slamming and squeezing the keys
down) the fingers are slowed because they take too long to release.

Use the lightest possible touch, merely overcoming the tension of the
spring that makes the key rise.
No more pressure than that is needed if the pads are in good condition
and there are no leaks.

1b. Awkward hand position that makes fingers *reach* for keys.
 Study your hand position in a mirror and get special help at your
private lesson.
You need to know HOW to place your hands on the flute for optimum
fingering evenness, finger placement on keys, curvy-ness of each
finger, and how to balance the flute well while not gripping with the
moving fingers.
(The 3-point hold is covered under "Rockstro and Modified Rockstro" in my article on the best way to assemble and hold your flute stable.
Click here.)

This topic is also well covered in Soldan's " Illustrated Flute Playing"
method book, and in "The Simple Flute" by Michel Debost.
If you can't find these books in your library, check out Trevor Wye's
book "The beginner book of the flute vol. 1" in your local music store
and see drawings of hand positions on first few pages.)

Other common problems:

2. Fingers rising too high: The most common problem for slow trills.
Instead of letting your trilling finger rise high off the key, leave
it almost touching the key that you're trilling.
You'll soon know if this was keeping your trill slow.

3. Straight instead curved trill fingers: Curved fingers trill faster
than flat ones.
If your LH trills are harder than your right, have a look at whether
you can curve the fingers more (especially the ring finger for G to A
The pinky of the LH can also be problematic if the player normally
holds it a great distance from the Ab lever, and has to shift to a new
position each time they reach for the Ab key.
Instead, shimmy your hand down toward the Ab key so that the pinky can
be slightly curved.
Deliberately curving the ring finger more than usual during a G to A
trill is also normal.

4. Crooked thumbs: If you bend your thumb normally to operate the
thumb keys, trilling can feel quite unbalanced. Try using a more
straight thumb on a daily basis, and let the thumb key's main point of
contact be the first joint of the thumb (one joint down from the tip
of the thumb.) You may also experiment with turning the thumb so that
the pad of the thumb faces the footjoint end of the flute, instead of
the thumb pad facing the thumb key straight on.
Experiment with this and get your teacher's help.

5. Stiffening when trilling instead of loosening.
If you "try too hard" to gain speed with a trill, you may stiffen the
muscles that need to be free to move quickly.
When operating keys up and down there are two sets of muscles in the
forearm that come into play. When trilling you can sense (feel) these
muscles and tendons all the way to the elbow.
If you're too stiff, you might even feel your elbow moving when you
attempt a difficult trill.
Instead: relax the arm as much as possible, and sense how loose it has
to be to allow the tendons to slide easily into extendor and flexor
If you have flat finger approach (suitable for some hands) then the
inside of the forearm will sense more activity.
If you have very curved fingers, the outside of the forearm will sense
more activity.
Experiment with both and get a feeling for the easiest use of the
tendons and muscles that travel from the fingers and hand to the
The more freely these move the better.Don't be afraid to experiment fully, even to the point where other fingers move loosely in tandem with the trilling finger.

6. Note: Thumb trills can be the particularly challenging:
Do not worry too much if your LH thumb trills seem slower than all
other trills.
This is normal, and takes some careful adjustment to gain improvements
in speed.

Some hints:
a) When trilling Bb to C, try holding down the Bb side lever above the
F key.
This makes the thumb key easier to operate and balances your flute
better in your hands, with more of the "holding power" being taken by
the right hand.
Also you can add RH ring and/or middle finger (as a silent balancing
device) in order to balance the flute and hold it more steady so that
the LH thumb is more free to move (no longer responsible for holding
the flute.

b) When trilling B to C, take more of the weight of the flute in the
RH. Deliberately free the left hand so that it's barely holding the
flute at all.

) Sense that the thumb is not rising too high off the key, when
trilling, and may even remain touching the key.
Slow triplet practice, all slurred going:
B-C-B,C-B-C, B-C-B,C-B-C, B-C-B,C-B-C,
and gradually speeding up will often help more than trying to go fast.
It gives you more time to sense the muscles and touch required for a
neat and clean thumb trill.

d) If all else fails and your thumb feels sluggish and unable to
check that your left wrist isn't cocked back in a way that
stuns the hand and makes the thumb weak.

Instead, experiment with a straighter left wrist, to lend strength to
the muscles, and experiment with rotating the upper arm bone (that
floats in the shoulder socket) COUNTER CLOCKWISE a centimeter or two.

Rotating the shoulder and upper arm can help bring the thumb-forearm
tendons into play ,whereas cocking the wrist backwards, and trying to
use the thumb ONLY, can make the thumb feel cut off from the strength
and speed available to the tendons throughout the whole arm.

) It is usually not lack of strength that makes a student a
poor-triller, but lack of accuracy in operating the arm, fingers and
keys with the least extraneous activity.
Go for slow accuracty over several months.

Walfrid Kujala's " The Flutist's Vade Mecum" is an excellent resource
for trill work and fast fingerings that feel balanced.
Kujala is a master at "stabilizing fingerings" that hold the flute
more still on the lip during fast finger work.

Look for "Vade Mecum" by Kujala it at
And also consult your teacher for special trill fingerings.
Best, Jen Cluff July 2004

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