It’s been several months since I’ve posted here, because I’ve been facing some difficulty in my playing. I’ve had a great deal of pain at the joint where the thumb meets the hand. At first I thought it was tendonitis, but it seems more likely that it’s arthritis. The pain is coming from the angle at which I’m holding the shakuhachi, and from the excess pressure I’m using to grip it.
For the past few months, I’ve been working with a teacher of the Alexander Technique (who is also a recorder player, so is familiar with an instrument of this type) to try to figure out how to hold the flute in what Alexander called the “position of mechanical advantage.” This has made me rethink a lot of what I do with my body: not just my thumb and hand, but also my shoulder and how I breathe.
It’s become apparent that the pain in my thumb will most likely not go away if I continue as I was, so I have begun the frustrating path of learning to play with my right hand on top of the flute instead of on the bottom. This is a surprisingly difficult change, as all the muscle memory that has built up in two years of learning the instrument has to change. While the fingers still cover two holes, they do so at different angles, and they perform differently when playing.
At first, it was hard to play any notes because of leakages. I’ve gotten to the point now where I can play most notes without leakages (when my teacher tried switching hands, she couldn’t play very much either), and my fingers are getting used to their new positions.
One thing I’ve done to help hold the flute more comfortable is I’ve added a thumb rest. This was recommended by a number of players who have had thumb pain (which I have found is quite common). Some use a recorder thumb rest, which is a plastic device that clips onto the instrument. One person recommended tying a leather thong around the instrument. But my Alexander teacher made a suggestion that has proved to be the easiest: Blu-Tak.
Take a small piece of Blu-Tak and position it where it will provide support. It’s easy to move and place anywhere, it sticks to the flute without damaging it, and is easy to remove. Using a thumb rest means that the hand doesn’t grip as hard to hold the flute, which is a slippery piece of bamboo, reducing a bit of stress when playing.