Sometimes when talking about articulation it’s easy to get caught up with what the tongue is doing and to forget something quite fundamental about playing.

The tongue produces no sound on the flute. So irrespective of what your tongue is is up to, in order to produce a good flute sound you have to have good air. 

Remember my motto ‘Air is Sound’ or ‘Sound is Air’. So whatever you are focussing on with your tongue don’t forget to blow!

Just following up on my last blog regarding basic articulation. I talked about beginning each note with the syllable ‘too’ or ‘tee’. I think it’s very important to remember that once you have articulated a note, the tongue remains relaxed and down in the mouth until the very moment you are going to re-articulate.

‘too’ rather than ‘toot’

  • When you pronounce ‘too’ notice that you tongue remains down in the mouth once you have finished the syllable.
  • When you say ‘toot’ notice that your tongue finishes back up on the alveolar ridge.

It is preferable to use ‘too’ rather than ‘toot’ as leaving the tongue down in the mouth between notes promotes a more continuous airflow which in turn produces more legato playing. The same goes for ‘tee‘ as opposed to ‘teet

Apart from chopping up the air unattractively, the ‘toot’ syllable also produces that audible ‘back flapping’ sound of the tongue at the end of notes which for me is not an appealing part of the flute sound.

The first articulation that I prefer to teach and I believe works well as a default basic tonguing is to articulate from behind the top teeth. Lately I have read some articles promoting tonguing between the lips as the first articulation to teach. This is certainly a valid and useful articulation but I find for younger players it creates a definite halt in the airflow and doesn’t encourage legato playing from the outset. With younger players it’s important to emphasis a consistent airflow in order to create lovely legato playing.

There are a few approaches in teaching tonguing from behind the top teeth. For many students just saying the syllable ‘too’ or ‘tee’ is enough to establish good placement of the tongue. This depends somewhat on their mother tongue as some languages tend to be more forward in the mouth and clearer with those syllables. French is very clear whereas Australians tend to be quite sloppy with their ‘too’ or ‘tee’, which may not result in a clearly articulated note. I have noticed that with some Asian languages the tongue is place behind the bottom teeth to produce the ‘too’ or ‘tee’ syllables. This is quite impractical for flute playing and something I discourage.

If using ‘too’ or ‘tee’ with minimal instruction doesn’t produce clearly articulated notes then it’s time to be more specific with the instructions:

  • Place the very tip of the tongue on the bottom inside edge of the upper teeth.
  • Now travel up the inside of your top teeth and find the place where the teeth finish and the ridge behind the teeth begins; this is the alveolar ridge.
  • Go exploring on the ridge, which basically means moving the tongue closer and further away from the inside edge of the top teeth.
  • Find the spot just bend the top teeth.
  • Without the flute and without voicing the sound, produce the syllable ‘too’ or ‘tee’ and find the clearest, cleanest, lightest use of the tongue that you can. I encourage using the tip of the tongue and not the flat top surface of the tongue.
  • There is a choice of two actions with the tongue: the first is the tongue moving or rolling forward, almost like it is following the air stream. Usually this is closet to saying the ‘too’ or ‘tee’ syllables. The second equally valid action is to draw the tongue downwards and backwards into the mouth.

Try all this out on the flute, perhaps just on a simple B at first, and work out which method produces the clearest sound. When you’re ready try playing three crotchets followed by a rest on each note of a simple one octave scale and aim for a nice clean beginning to every single note.

Imagery can help so I like to imagine one of those big sprinklers you sometimes see in large gardens. The circular ones where the water shoots out and is repeatedly tapped gently by the little lever hinge thingy, causing the sprinkler to go around in a circle. The water shooting out is analogous with your continuous airflow and the little lever thing is analogous with your tongue. It doesn’t stop the water but rather punctuates the flow.

Remember there is no hard and fast correct way or articulating. It really depends on what sounds the best and what you are trying to achieve. For me, tonguing behind the top teeth is a very good way to start exploring the world of articulation.

A good place to start improving your articulation is by increasing your awareness of your tongue and its position and action inside your mouth. With that in mind try the following activities, which aim to increase your kinaesthetic awareness of your tongue:

  • Go exploring with your tongue and count all your teeth. Upper and lower!
  • Put your tongue on the inside bottom edge of your upper front teeth. Now slowly travel up the inside of those teeth, onto the flat part behind your upper teeth (the alveolar ridge) and back as far as you can along where the palate curves up and away.
  • Say the syllable ‘tee’ repeatedly without voicing it. Which part of your mouth is your tongue touching? Which part of the tongue is doing the touching?
  • If you say ‘tee’ just once, where does your tongue finish? Up or down?
  • Repeat the previous step with the syllable ‘do’ and try a few different sounds as well. ‘duh’ ‘too’ ‘toot’ ‘ku’ etc
  • Try moving your tongue back as in swallowing and then bring the back of your tongue up and as far forward as you can, without poking your tongue out of your mouth.

Did you know that two thirds of your tongue is actually vertical? The horizontal part we call the tongue is only about one third of your entire tongue.

Having a wide variety of articulation can create so much interest in your playing. There is a myriad of ways you can articulate on the flute and each one has a unique sound and character. We need to make choices that bring life and clarity to our playing. String players have so many different options including up bows, down bows, spiccato, martele, tremolo, ricochet, pizzicato and hook stroke. As flautists we should aim to emulate the variety of string bowings and create as much interest, variety and clarity with our articulation as we can. In the coming weeks and months I’ll be adding some posts that begin to address the rather large topic of articulation.