The process of learning a musical instrument is certainly a complicated one! We were not really designed to play flutes, so apart from learning the notes on the instrument and then being capable of working out how to play music, we also have to be aware of numerous physical challenges.
To get a sound out of a flute we need to push air up through our bodies, out through our mouths, then briefly into the atmosphere. I think of the gap between the lips and the front ’sounding’ edge of the lip plate hole as the ‘Grand Canyon’ of our sound. It might not look that significant, but it is the most fragile of areas, as anyone who has played their flute out doors on a windy day will testify to! Once the air has arrived safely in the head joint, we then have to energetically (flutes eat air!) push it through the body of the flute and finally on to Australia (or the UK if you live in Australia!). To enable all of this, we are required to use muscles in the body which we simply don’t use in most everyday life activities and depending on the musical requirements, in a variety of different ways.
The tongue has to learn new tricks too! We simply can’t rely on our various languages as the main means of articulation (the English language is notoriously bad for anything other than hard and aggressive articulation). The way we start a note has to be expressive and be in ‘harmony’ with the style and era of music we are trying to interpret, so we need to be able to operate the tongue in a sensitive way. As in the English language we virtually ricochet the tongue off the roof of the mouth, we are not going to be able to communicate the range of articulation attack necessary in a Brahms Symphony, or in much of the impressionistic French repertoire, unless we take drastic measures to alter our tongue actions. If there is one language on the planet that contains these sensitivities, then it has to be that of the French. So, they have great wine, amazing cheese and wonderful articulation…
Our fingers most definitely were not designed to operate all those keys! For a start, we all know that the 4th and 5th fingers in both hands were sent by the devil to make our progress as slow and as complicated as possible! Added to this, the flute goes out of our vision to the right and we have no idea as to exactly what those fingers are getting up to! Then, in the top octave, with all of its complicated cross fingerings, the comparatively comfortable operation of the first two octaves goes out of the window and in particular in fast passages, our fingers end up looking like scurrying spider’s legs!
Finally, playing the flute isn’t always about slow, dreamy melodies. In numerous pieces, studies and symphonic works we are required to leap all over the instrument and often very swiftly. Once again, in order to achieve this with a degree of success, we are required to use parts of the body (lips and the support mechanism in particular) that simply don’t get these demands placed upon them in our everyday lives.