Upside down and back to front

Antoine Mahaut, in his 1759 treatise on the new way of playing the flute (the Nieuwe Manier om Binnen Korten Tyd op de Dwarsfluit te Leeren Spelen) has much indispensable advice for flautists, most of which remains as instructive now – at least for players of period instruments – as it was 250 years ago.  In amongst the pearls, though, lies this curious note:

“There are some people… who place the flute between their upper lip and their nose, creating an embouchure with their lower lip: this method of playing doesn’t prohibit one from playing well, but it is certainly not attractive.”

He goes on to suggest that if you haven’t yet picked your nose, so to speak, it might be better to avoid this less-than-graceful habit and follow other more conventional methods for forming an embouchure (which he supplies forthwith).  Now, what flute player reading this could pass such a suggestion by?  Forget about desirable; is it actually even possible to play the flute upside down?

Turning the embouchure hole downwards towards the floor and placing the headjoint to the area between my upper lip and my nose – in fact, against my philtrum (I had to look that word up) – I tried to focus the airstream and blew.  Nothing much ensued, and after a few more attempts it was evident to me that I would never produce a sound with the hole facing directly down.  A few adjustments inwards, and yes! It worked – sort of.  I practised for a while but without any discernible improvement to the tone quality, and certainly with no hope of the kind of embouchure flexibility that the baroque flute demands for good intonation.  Was Mahaut just flattering his customers when he wrote that it doesn’t prohibit playing well?  All I can say, is that I’m not surprised it didn’t really catch on.

On the other hand, when I was reading around the subject, I did come across a couple of fascinating footnotes to the topic (thanks to dystonia expert Ryan Thomson and flute beatboxer Tom Barsky).  Ryan Thomson proposes that playing the flute upside down could be a possible solution to musicians’ dystonia (a condition that causes muscle spasm in particular areas).  Answering a query from an affected flute player, Thomson writes:

“I had a sudden inspiration, and got out my flute and tried playing it upside down! Yes, I placed it between my upper lip and my nose and tried using my LOWER lip, rather than my upper lip to direct the air. In a few minutes I had a clear tone… and now I could finger it. Unbelievable. It really worked!”

There is no indication whether Thomson happened upon this idea without the help of Mahaut, but it’s pleasing that he was able to help his afflicted flute playing correspondent.

On a completely different note, Tim Barsky, in his flute beatbox FAQs, suggests that “the flute itself can be turned upside down and played with a trumpet embouchure”.  As I have never succeeded with a trumpet embouchure even on a trumpet, I am not going to attempt this one, though it might be fun to try on a modern flute, if you are after an unusual timbre.

Returning to the 18th century, Hotteterre, like Mahaut had a few thing to say about untutored flute players and their dodgy habits.  In his Principles of the Flute, Recorder and Oboe from 1707, he deals with the back-to-front rather than the upside-down, writing:

“There are others, who, because of not having had basic instructions, place the left hand below and the right hand above and hold the flute on the left.  I shall not condemn this hand position altogether, since it is possible to play as well in this manner as in another, and also because changing to another position would present certain difficulties.  However, those who have not yet acquired these bad habits should beware of their pitfalls.”

Quantz outs Blavet as a left-handed player, and Leonardo de Lorenzo in his book My Complete Story of the Flute: the Instrument, the Performer, the Music also counts Berbiguier, Sola and Zierer amongst the cack-handed.

Now, as a left-hander myself, I thought this position might be a little more achievable than Mahaut’s nose flute, and so, carefully repositioning the keyed joint for a left-handed reach I attempted to overcome the habits of a lifetime’s practice.  It hurt.  I struggled with my brain, my hands, and my arms.  I could do it, but not without some difficulty; simple fingerings were fine but cross-fingerings went haywire in a moment.  It was hard to produce as good a tone, too, probably because the embouchure hole is biased in the making towards a right-handed position.  Like Hotteterre, I cannot recommend this – but at least when young left-handed students complain to me now about their imagined shortcomings, I can honestly say I’ve tried it both ways.

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