Flute articulation can be very simple, but also can be one of the fundamental concepts most often ignored or misinterpreted by students. The differences between sloppy, indistinguishable articulations and clear, crisp articulations can make or break a performance.
For the purposes of this article, I will address single tonguing (double and triple tonguing can each be their own article) at the beginner to intermediate level. While there are many subtleties that can be applied to articulation at the professional level, they will remain outside the scope of this article. As with any topic, use your best judgment as to the amount of information, maturity, and complexity your students are ready to process.
When first teaching articulation to a student, keep it simple! The less-is-more approach works very well for articulation! Say “ta” to feel the correct placement of the tip of the tongue. The tip of the tongue, and only the very tip, should make contact on the roof of the mouth, right behind the top teeth. Most students will find this initial placement without any trouble. If the student struggles, practice with words that start with correct “ta” sounds such as “tank” or “tap’” and contrast those with incorrect “t” sounds such as “thank”, “true”, or “tut.”
When working with intermediate students, “too” is also an acceptable articulation for legato passages and “ti” is a very helpful articulation for staccato passages. I discourage my students from using “tu” under any circumstances as it makes the start of the note dull and uses a wider portion of the tongue.
Common Flute Articulation Problems and Solutions
1) No Articulation
What is the most common articulation problem among beginners? Not using any articulation at all! When this is the case students begin each note with a “ha” sound that lacks definition, prevents legato playing, and encourages them to breathe in between every note. It is important the student understands that the air stream is continuous while playing from note to note, and the articulation simply interrupts it to provide rhythmic and phrasing clarity and variety.
To correct this problem students should practice playing “air flute”. In the “air flute” method students move their embouchure to the right of the lip plate while blowing fast air through the embouchure, fingering the correct notes, and articulating. This allows the student and teacher to hear and focus on a steady air stream and correct articulation without being distracted by the tone.
The “air flute” practice technique is also a wonderful opportunity to discover if the problem is originating from the articulation or the air speed. Slow air can be disguised as an articulation issue and simply blowing faster air is the simple solution.
2) Incorrect Tongue Placement
Students will sometimes place the tongue incorrectly to initiate the articulation of each note. The most common incorrect placements include, but are certainly not limited to:
- Placing the tip of the tongue on the back of the top teeth (rather than on the gums slightly behind the top teeth)
- Articulating behind the bottom teeth
- Articulating in between the lips. (Note: articulating in between the lips is a technique sometimes used at the professional level, but not often appropriate for beginner to intermediate students)
On occasion, I have encountered students who believe the placement of the tongue should change depending on the register of the note. That is simply not the case. When this occurs, articulation might sound clear in the upper register as the student articulates behind the top teeth, but muffled in the low register if the student is articulating lower in the mouth (behind the bottom teeth). While the articulation placement might change by a micro-fraction depending on the character of the music, the tongue placement should remain the same whether playing a very high or very low note.
3) Stopping the Sound
The final common mistake one will hear with flute articulation is that the student stops the note with the tongue. For flutists it is unnecessary to DO anything to stop the sound. The performer should simply stop blowing air. The best way to demonstrate this is to have the student sing a note on “ta”. The mouth opens and the tongue articulates to start the note, but to end the note what happens? Nothing! Flute is the instrument most similar to singing and ending a note should feel the same.
4) Resting Position
Lastly, it is important for both the student and teacher to understand what happens to the tongue placement in between articulations. While not in use, the tongue should return to its resting place as low in the mouth as possible. Good visual images to help the student understand how to depress the tongue completely include yawning or imagining an orange is in the mouth. It is important the tongue returns to this lowered position as quickly as possible so as not to disrupt the air stream.
It is impossible for students to actually see what you are doing with your tongue and of course impossible for you to see what they are doing (perhaps teachers will develops x-ray vision soon) so extra care should be given to clearly explaining the process. Often ask students of all levels questions about their articulation! For example:
- Where does your tongue touch to start the note?
- How much of your tongue is making contact to begin each note?
- Where does your tongue go AFTER it starts the note?
- Play a high note then a low note. Is your tongue touching in the same place for both?
With clear, simple instruction and many reminders, every flutist can play with clear performance enhancing articulation! Enjoy!
Dr. Shauna Thompson Shauna Thompson is the Assistant Professor of Flute at Texas Christian University. She is currently coordinator of the Professional Flute Choir Competition for the National Flute Association, co-chair for the Texas Flute Society’s annual festival, and coordinator of the Donna Marie Haire Competition. Dr. Thompson has been a featured performer at multiple National Flute Association conventions and recently gave the world premiere of Martin Blessinger’s Rhapsody for Flute and Orchestra with the Texas Christian University Symphony Orchestra. She holds a DMA and a MM in flute performance from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music and a Bachelor of Music from Texas Tech University where she studied with Lisa Garner Santa. Prior to joining the TCU faculty Dr. Thompson served as Consortium Instructor of Flute at the University of Evansville and principal flute with the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra. For more information about activities of the TCU Flute Studio visit https://finearts.tcu.edu/music/academics/areas-of-study/woodwinds/flute/
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