There is nothing quite as wonderful as having easy, effortless tonguing. There is also nothing quite as frustrating as having heavy, fuzzy, and slow. I struggled with it, for many years, until it finally dawned on me: I needed to practice it! So I started working on it, finding the problems and fixing them. Let me share some of the top things I have learned, not only from my own journey but also from my work helping many flutists from all over the world improve their articulation.
Here are my top 5 most common articulation mistakes:
1. Tonguing in the wrong place in the mouth
This is probably the most common mistake I see students make. Students may be tonguing too far back, on the bottom teeth, between the teeth or the tongue is not touching any part of the mouth at all.
The best place to tongue in my very humble opinion is in the little spot behind the front teeth, right up there in the same spot that you say “to”, “do”, “nu” or “loo”. What is interesting about this spot is that it’s actually the most natural spot for us to be tonguing. It’s also the spot where our tongue rests when we’re just resting and doing nothing, try it. If your tongue does not rest there, I don’t want to be an alarmist, but you might have a speech problem!
Some of you may be doing so-called French tonguing. In French tonguing, the tongue starts between the lips and is then pulled back to articulate the note. I would only advise this type of tonguing if you are working with a teacher who knows what they are doing and, personally, would advise students to learn the other type of tonguing too.
2. Using too much of the tongue
The tongue is an incredibly versatile muscle and it is surprisingly big! It is able to make a wide range of movements, both big and small. Very often, however, we use too much of the tongue to articulate the notes, when we could really just be using the tip of the tongue. This results in a very sluggish and heavy tongue as it is not able to move efficiently.
Look at this diagram of the tongue:
You will see that it fills up most of the space in your mouth. For light effortless articulation, we just want that front little part to be gently tapping behind those teeth. Paul Edmond-Davies compares tonguing to touching a hot plate, where the tip of the tongue just wants to tap on the plate so that it does not get burnt.
3. Misconception about the role of the tongue
Some students have the idea that the sound on the flute is created with the tongue. This may not always be entirely conscious, but it comes out in the way that the tongue is used. In reality, flute tone is produced by moving air. The air is moved from your lungs by various abdominal muscles. If you blow out a short sharp gust of air into the flute (imagine saying ‘huh’ or blowing out a candle), it is this moving air that creates the sound. The tongue is just adding some definition to that sound. When we realized this, we realized that the tongue is not as important as we think it is. As a result, we can kind of release it and relax it and not make it work so hard. I found students that have this misconception very often, have quite a strong attack, but the sound behind the note is missing which is the actual substance of that note. So if that’s you, this might be what’s going on. If you would like to assess your articulation, try it along with me in this video:
4. Tonguing too far back or forward
Another really common problem that I see with students is that they are tonguing too far back or too far forward, especially given the register they are playing in. This is very different from the problem of just tonguing in the wrong place. Here, your tongue is in the basic correct position, but the nuance in this position is missing.
Let me explain.
Tonguing too far back will give you a very muffled and heavy articulation. Tonguing too far forward can make it difficult to produce a clear sound or creates a ‘ts’ sound at the beginning of the articulation. So to start with, we need to find that optimal position where we get the best and lightest sounding tonguing. However, the position of the tongue needs to change slightly when we change registers. The higher up on the flute you are playing, the more forward your tongue needs to be. So, as you go up into the higher registers, you tap the tongue a bit more forward on the pallet behind the front teeth (think more ‘tu”). When you play lower on the flute, you will want the tongue to be a bit further back, hitting the pallet a little bit further back on the pallet of the mouth behind the front teeth (think a bit more ‘du’).
And how are you going to find the correct nuanced position of the tongue in each register? Well, you get to play around with it. You’ve got to experiment, explore and discover what the ideal position for the tongue is with some useful articulation exercises.
5. Tension in the throat, embouchure, and tongue
The last thing that I think we very often overlook when it comes to articulation is how your throat and tension in your throat are going to affect the tongue. I think of these as the three musketeers of flute playing, working together in an “all for one and one for all” way. When we are tightening the embouchure or closing the throat, the tongue is almost definitely going to be too tight as well, and vice versa. We want to have a really nice released efficient movement of that tongue. Any excessive tension is going to get in the way. So if you know, you’re struggling with throat tension or a tight embouchure, then you might want to first go and work on those issues and then come back to your articulation. For those of you who may have just a little bit of throat tension, singing and playing is a great help. Flutter tonguing is another really lovely little technique to help release and relax the tongue if you’ve got a very tight tongue.
So which of these issues do you struggle with? If you struggle with any of these issues, then you may want to have a look at some of the resources we have made available to you to help you through this process. We have just launched our articulation course, it is a 3-week course that will take you through a step-by-step process on articulation. The course consists of recorded weekly video lessons, weekly practice resources and you can join our community to share feedback on your progress with other students that will be doing the course. If you would like to sign up for the course, you can do so here.