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Left handed flute playing

     
 
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    A significant number of traditional musicians play their instruments left-handed and this is particularly the case with flute players. I was once informed in Clare by another left-handed player that I was "ciotóg" — "left-handed" — and that this was also the expression used for left-handed flute players in that part of the country.

The reason for the relatively high numbers probably stems from the fact that many flute players move on to the flute from the whistle and also that there are a large number of keyless flutes around. In both cases this presents no problem to the left-handed player, as long as the design of the instrument is symmetrical. However, some problems may arise if the instrument design is not symmetrical or if it has right-handed keys fitted.

With some flutes, the embouchure hole may be asymmetrical and designed to be blown from one side rather than the other, a feature which was developed towards the end of the 19th Century. In such cases the player may not be getting the best quality sound out of the instrument, or at least not the sound intended by the maker. That is not to say that a good sound cannot be produced in this manner. This is quite a technical area, so it is probably worth checking the embouchure of the flute before buying one which is going to be played the 'wrong' way round. If commissioning a flute from a maker, be sure to let them know which way you intend to play it, even if the instrument is to have no keys. Most makers are happy to oblige and charge a relatively small set-up fee for this.

A left-handed Rudall and Rose, (external link) #3555, dating from around 1838 is in the Dayton Miller collection and can be seen in David Migoya's online Rudall and Rose catalogue. More recent examples of left-handed keyed flutes can be seen at maker Casey Burns' site (external link); and also by Chris Wilkes here and here (external links, courtesy of Andrew Pickering; Chris Wilkes' site is here).

A keyed flute is also asymmetrical in that the keys are positioned to be readily accessible to the fingers, which of course are all in different positions. The presence of block or pin mounts to house the keys adds to this asymmetry and even if the keys are removed and the holes plugged (which some people prefer to do), these mounts still remain and can create problems for the left-handed player.

As someone who started out on the whistle and then played a keyless flute for many years, I had adopted a flat-fingered technique of covering the finger holes. This means that the holes are not covered by the finger tips, but by a part of the finger a joint down (it depends on the length of the fingers) and is commonly seen in piping. This is also a common technique amongst flute players, but I found that the right-handed design of my 8-keyed flute impeded my grip and hindered access to some of the keys.

Eventually I had to relearn holding the instrument and I now play using my finger tips. My right hand (the upper one) has to cup around the Bb and C keys and their mounts as well as cradle the bore and provide the fulcrum for the flute. It took some getting used to, but then moving from a keyless to keyed instrument always does anyway. The important thing when playing an instrument is to be comfortable throughout, regardless of the how you appear.

A distinct benefit of playing left handed comes when playing with a right handed player on your right shoulder. When this happens, it is possible to hear the other player as equally well as yourself and a great opportunity for musical rapport can present itself.

Many old illustrations and paintings show the flute being played left handed and some non-Western traditions of flute playing also have left-handedness as the accepted standard. Usually the flutes in the older illustrations have no keys or have only an Eb key on the footjoint which can be turned either way to suit both kinds of player. There is no inherent reason for flutes to be played one way or the other as the hands perform tasks of equal dexterity. I am one of many left-handed players who are right-handed elsewhere in life.

People are taught to play the flute and whistle one way rather than the other due to convention and for the later ease in obtaining a fully compatible instrument. It was probably the introduction of more keys which led to standardisation, although other factors will have played a part. Flute dealers I have spoken to tell me that period keyed left handed flutes of quality do turn up, but extremely rarely and usually at great expense.

Getting around the keys

Short of getting a left handed flute made, is it possible to use the keys on a standard flute being played the other way around? The answer is yes, but with limitations. As a left handed player using an antique instrument, I would not contemplate having any alterations made to the keys or the flute, as some people have suggested. The solutions I have found are listed below.

Some techniques are harder to employ than others and all require getting used to as the design is against us. Some of the more difficult ones I continue to work on, but I am inspired by Cathal McConnell's undaunted dexterity in this area. These suggestions may need to be adapted to suit different key mechanisms and hands. If anyone has any other solutions or observations, I would be happy to hear of them and would consider including them here.
  • Long C: Little finger of R hand.
  • Bb: Heel or base of the index finger of R hand. May require adjusting hand position to be successful.
  • G#: Index finger of L hand. Requires twisting the L hand out of position and can therefore only be used when playing up the scale. Learned from the playing of Cathal McConnell. Alternatively, use the thumb of the right hand; this requires some stretching.
  • Short F: Third finger of L hand.
  • Long F: Lower part of index finger of L hand. May require slight twisting of the hand.
  • Eb: Little finger of L hand. Foot joint needs to be positioned correctly. I find that the foot joint needs to be moved to a different position for accessing each key on the foot joint ie. no single position will allow comfortable access to all.
  • Low C#: Little finger of L hand. Foot joint needs to be positioned correctly.
  • Low C: Little finger of L hand. Foot joint needs to be positioned correctly.
Flute players who play left handed include:

    Cathal McConnell
    Seamus Tansey
    Vincent Broderick
    Michael McGoldrick
    Catherine McEvoy
    Deirdre Havlin (formerly with Déanta)
    Gary Shannon
    John Wynne
    Patsy Hanley

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Detail of left-handed flute playing
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Left-handed playing on a right-handed flute. A relatively common sight in Irish traditional music.


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