Flute Punch

Archive for the ‘Articulation & Tonguing’ Category

Tone is influenced primarily by three factors:

  1. Embouchure, particularly the lower lip
  2. Tongue placement
  3. Oral space/open throat

In my previous post, I discussed embouchure, particularly lower lip placement and formation. In today’s post, I’ll be covering tongue placement.

To produce great tone, the back of the tongue should be placed higher in the mouth. This causes the air to pass over it in a more “compressed” fashion and exit the aperture (the hole your lips make) at a higher, more energized speed. If the tongue is too low in the mouth, placing the tongue higher almost always results in a dramatic improvement in sound.

Two concepts I use to achieve this:

  1. “Mountain” tongue — think of the tongue as a mountain range inside the mouth. Just as with mountains on earth, the air passing over them moves at a faster rate.
  2. Say the word “key.” Say it several times while noticing where the sides of your tongue contact your teeth. You should feel the sides contacting your upper molars.

Make changes gradually! After you have done the “key” exercise, play a long note using the new tongue position. Assuming you are moving enough air and have established breath support, you should hear the sound become stronger and more defined.

Once you’ve achieved this, try tonguing. If you notice the sound is negatively affected, you may be tonguing between the lips. This is an established method of tonguing, usually taught with the “spitting rice” technique, but it’s not the tonguing I teach for multiple reasons, and this is one of them. In my opinion, it’s difficult to tongue between the lips while maintaining a high tongue position. It’s almost as though the tongue isn’t long enough to do both. If you feel this is your difficulty, try tonguing so the tip of the tongue lands on the backside of the upper front teeth, as though you are saying “too.” Once you’ve got the hang of that, go back to the high tongue placement exercises.

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I’m discovering right now that my fingers are not as close to the keys as they should be, which means my technique is not as efficient as it should be. By efficient, I mean fast and clean. In particular, my right index finger wants to fly up a bit, which means that Bb fingering is sloppy. Seems a bit silly, since we all learned that fingering in the first few weeks of beginning band!

To build awareness, I’m practicing slow enough to be conscious of whether or not I can feel my finger pads touching the keys at all. I’m aiming for just the slightest feeling that they are touching. This reminds me of the years I spent in non-contact tae kwon-do: By the time we reached black belt level, we were expected to be able to hit the uniform but not the body of our opponent.

I also notice with my students and myself that sloppy technique is frequently a roadblock to being able to double tongue a passage. Tension is probably the biggest inhibitor of fingers lying loose and low to the keys; the more tense a person is, the more the fingers want to fly up. Beginners often have tension because they are assimilating so much new information, so I think it is important, as a teacher, to be aware of tension from the very beginning, and move the student away from tense positions in the early stages of learning.

Speaking specifically of finger position, I think I will become more aware of the significant role it really does play in being able to advance one’s technique.

Finally, some clarification is coming for me on the subject of tonguing, thanks to the flute listserv I belong to. I was taught “too” or “tu” as Americans say it, and my experience is that students who were taught something else — usually some form of tonguing between the teeth — have sluggish, unclear tonguing. I had always thought that this was French tonguing, but it is not. The French style is “teu,” which has the benefit of keeping the tongue high in the mouth, which is also something I teach my students (or at least try to!).

A helpful member of the listserv directed me to this fantastic article on the Joseph Allard website. The “thi” tonguing is something different from “teu” and “tu/too” (I’m not sure where “thi” fits in; more on that to come, I hope). Even though Allard was a sax player, this article does a great job of describing effective tongue and throat position. Basically, the French “teu” causes the air to flow more quickly over the top of the tongue, because the tongue is close to the roof of the mouth — an effect similar to that created by putting your thumb over the end of hose, causing the water to spray out.

I may have to rethink my position on the open throat, or at least how I teach it. With students, I usually ask them to hold their hand up and breathe on it as though it is a mirror and they are going to fog it up. I think that this in itself does not create throat tension, but when the “teu” style tongue position is added to it, it certainly may, as it is hard to do both of those things at the same time. So it could be that if the tongue is functioning in the “teu” position, then it is out of the way of the throat, and the throat is therefore “open” and needs no further attention.

I came across this on Larry Krantz’s website — really wonderful. I’m always interested in anatomical explanations of how we produce sound on the flute.

Here are 4 short videos of Patricia George playing various things while under a fluoroscope. In particular, I noticed placement of the tongue as being fairly high in the mouth, and you can also see the soft palate in the back of the mouth lift to provide an open and resonant oral cavity.

I thought it was also interesting to note movements of the larynx, particularly as it relates to vibrato. We know that this happens because we can observe it during normal playing, and it also seems that the abdominal muscles do not tend to move. But we also know that often, if vibrato is taught from the throat instead of from the abdominal area, it tends to produce the infamous “billy goat” vibrato.

It was suggested to me by a medical professional that the larynx affects vibrato because as it closes, the air is forced to move faster, thus raising the pitch, and conversely, as it opens, the air moves more slowly and the pitch lowers. This makes sense to me according to my understanding of vibrato as modifications of the pitch (sharpening and flattening around the center of the pitch).

It would still be nice to have a better understanding of why, if the above is true, vibrato is still more successfully taught as a series of “ha ha ha” breath surges. The most I can figure is that teaching vibrato with the breath trains the ear to understand vibrato as variations of the pitch center, and as the ear becomes accustomed to this, the flutist automatically begins to transition to making these modifications with the larynx, as they would when varying pitch during speaking or singing.

It would be great to see a laryngoscope of a flutist while playing so we could further examine the action of the larynx.

I had the privilege of studying briefly with Horace Alexander Young III several years ago, from whom I learned a little about jazz flute tonguing.

If you’ve ever played jazz on the saxophone, you’ll have that experience of the feeling of swing to help you out. But there are some subtle differences as well when it comes to playing jazz on the flute.

The most notable similarity is that you still use off-beat tonguing. Say you have a measure full of eigth notes in 4/4 time: If you were to tongue them in groups of two as a classical player, you would most likely tongue on the beat — that is, 1, 2, 3, and 4. But if you are playing jazz, you would tongue on the off-beats — all of the “&”s.

Now if you’ve ever played sax, you know that the feeling of swing is created through the fingers. That is, you play the swing rhythm. On the flute however, if you were to swing this hard, it would sound unnatural. Why is this?

My opinion is that this is due to 1) the classical background of the flute, and also 2) the strength of the flute in Latin jazz, in which you play straight eighth notes (not swung).

So how do you create a feeling of swing on the flute? The answer to this lies not in the fingers, but in the tongue. Try this exercise:

Play a measure of moving eighth notes at a moderate tempo, straight (not swung) and slurred. (For example, a G major scale). Now apply this tonguing: “oo-dah oo-dah oo-dah oo-dah” — you should notice, that without changing the straight eighth rhythm as played by your fingers, you have now a feeling of swing that sounds more native to the flute than it would if you were using heavy triplet swing rhythms.

Horace has written a very informative book, Improvising Jazz Flute, that unfortunately appears to be out-of-print, but you might be able to find it used if you’re interested in learning more.

It’s fairly common for flutists to become easily frustrated with double and triple tonguing. What’s important to remember is that it just takes time, and that’s really OK. It doesn’t have to be mastered overnight!

Here are some helpful tips for practicing double and triple tonguing:

  • Practice saying the syllables (“ta ka”) away from the flute, such as when you are showering or taking a walk.
  • Isolate and practice the “back” syllable — the “ka.” Play scales or excerpts using only the “ka” syllable. This will feel slow and awkward; that’s OK.
  • Never play/say the syllables faster than you can while keeping them even. Practicing fast doesn’t make you able to play fast — it just makes you sloppy.
  • Start slow and gradually speed up. Use a metronome. When the tonguing becomes uneven or sloppy, slow back down to a speed at which you can play correctly.
  • It’s easy for the syllables to become clipped and detached, where the sound produced consists mostly of articulation sound rather than tone. This will only make it harder to coordinate your tongue with your fingers. Even if the passage you’re practicing is marked staccato, think of the syllables as being smooth and connected.
  • Be sure your fingers are properly coordinated. If you have a couple of slow fingers that don’t move with the rest of your fingers, this will prevent notes from speaking properly, a factor that will become very apparent when trying to double/triple tongue.

I would like to note that in the case of triple tonguing, I prefer the syllables “da ga da, ta ka da.” The “d” and “t” are similar, as are the “k” and “g,” but in my experience, the mind seems to struggle less with the above suggested syllables vs. the also commonly used “ta ka ta, ka ta ka,” which is actually double tonguing attached to triplet figures.

It should be noted that double/triple tonguing is an important skill. In the earlier years, a flutist can get away with learning to single tongue faster, and might therefore get the idea that it’s not important to learn. But unlike other skills, such as the less-frequently used flutter tonguing, double/triple tonguing is a skill that will be useful and necessary to use much more often.

Courtesy of Ann Yasinitsky, Clinical Assistant Professor of Music, Washington State University

Double and triple tonguing are often used for rapid passages. The syllables used for double tonguing are simply “ta ka.” To learn to double tongue, you should start slowly at first and then gradually increase your speed. For example, you can take any scale and play each note twice, using the syllables “ta ka” for each note. Next, play the scale, but this time play each note once, using “ta” and then “ka” — one syllable for each note. When you first try this, your double tonguing will be slower than your single tonguing, but with practice, your double tonguing will become far faster than your single tonguing could ever be. The syllables for triple tonguing are simply “ta ka ta, ta ka ta,” or “ta ka ta, ka ta ka.” To master double and triple tonguing, you must practice both regularly.

from “A Little Bit About Flute Playing”


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