Flute Punch

Posts Tagged ‘tongue

Monitoring the unseen is probably the most difficult aspect of teaching a wind instrument. Over the last several years, it’s been my experience that throat tension causes a variety of difficulties. The obvious includes sore throats or tight sound. The less obvious includes difficulty developing vibrato or tonguing. Other signs of throat tension are a tense neck (tendons standing out excessively), a lot of visible throat motion from the larynx down to the notch in the collar bone, or a pinched upper register.

If you think any of those describe you, you can try some self-help. First, read my post about tongue placement. I do feel that this helps create the right space in the throat. The next step is to understand the muscles involved with positioning the larynx.

Try yawning. The larynx will move downward, and then back up again. The muscles engage for a brief period, just long enough to accomplish the task. If you swallow, the larynx will move upward, then settle back down again. It is my experience (personal and educational) that most people struggling with throat tension are engaging the swallowing muscles for an extended period of time.

If that is you, make a conscious effort to allow the larynx to relax back downward again. Vocalists train the larynx musculature to resist its natural tendency to rise upward with higher pitches, and flutists have to do the same by consciously relaxing.

Once you’ve spent a few minutes away from the flute trying these things, play a simple scale or song — something that is easy so you can focus awareness on the musculature in question. If throat tension has been a problem, you’ll find your sound won’t be quite right — you won’t reach a high note, or your releases will be rough. That’s usually a good sign — it means that you may have been using the throat to compensate for an underdeveloped embouchure or lack of breath support. Those things are remedied more easily than throat tension, however, so be patient and keep experimenting with the larynx relaxed downward.

At the risk of appearing self-serving, I do recommend consulting a good private teacher for issues like this. A flutist with some experience should be able to assess all these factors and tell you if you are on the right track. Lastly, if you have more severe throat tension issues (you get sore throats after speaking, e.g.), vocal therapy (as silly as it sounds) can be very helpful in addressing these issues.

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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.

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.


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