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.