Articulation – Basic Tonguing

Impressive articulation can bring a lot of interest, variety and clarity into your playing so it is worth incorporating articulation practice into your daily practice routine. This may be as part of your tone development exercises, your technical practice or heightened awareness of your articulation in your studies and repertoire.

A good place to begin is to ensure that your basic or default articulation is serving you well. There are many different ways to articulate but my preferred first or default option is to use the tongue just behind the top teeth as in saying ti or tee. This is the first style of articulation that I teach my new students. There are other approaches and they are all valid. The thing to always ask yourself is, ‘how does it sound?’

To explore this type of articulation, go on a journey of discovery within your mouth. Place your tongue on the bottom, inside edge of your upper front teeth. With your tongue, travel up the inside of these teeth and find the spot where your teeth stop and your gum begins. Continue into your mouth along the flat surface behind your teeth, known as the alveolar ridge. Move further into your mouth and you will feel the curve up into the palette or roof of your mouth.

Now that you have a basic geography of your mouth in place, say ‘ti’ a few times and notice where your tongue is touching within your mouth. For most people, but not all, it is usually behind the top teeth on the alveolar ridge. This is an effective place to articulate from. There a few points you can think about when using your tongue in this manner:

Where on the alveolar ridge is your tongue striking?

Which part of your tongue are you using?

How firmly is your tongue pressing into the ridge?

What movement is your tongue making? Up and down or forward and back?

For a beautifully clear articulation I aim to use just the tip of my tongue and place it quite close behind the top teeth, almost at the point where the teeth and gum meet. The action that seems to work well is to draw the tongue into the mouth as opposed to a strong up and down action. I also use as little effort with my tongue as possible, just lightly tipping the alveolar ridge.

  • Tip of the tongue
    • Just behind the top teeth
    • Back and forth like a snake’s tongue
    • Imagine the roof of your mouth is super hot. You have to touch it but you don’t want to stay there too long.
    • Use the tongue lightly, like a feather

There are two important points to remember when articulating:

  • The tongue makes zero sound on the flute. It does not generate the note but merely acts as a valve to release the air so be gentle but precise
  • The tongue is only involved in the beginning of a note, not the end. Your tongue only returns to the roof of your mouth in time for the subsequent note and doesn’t flick back up to stop the note.

Try some of these ideas out on some scales or simple exercises. Trevor Wye’s third book, Articulation, in his Practice Books For The Flute has plenty of exercises to work on. Many simple studies are excellent such as Andersen’s 24 Studies, op 33 No. 2 or some of the 24 Little Melodic Studies by Moyse. For the younger player 76 Graded Studies For Flute, Book One, has many options to explore articulation as well.

As I stated earlier, there are many approaches to articulation that are valid. By listening carefully and noticing how you are articulating, you will be able to create a whole new layer of interest into your playing which I think you will find is well worth the effort.

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