Articulation is an important tool that a musician has for conveying the style and character of the notes they play. Articulation refers to the way in which a note is sounded by a musician – the way a musician attacks, sustains, and releases a note. By articulating in different ways, a musician can make notes sound detached, connected, harsh, or light. These articulation qualities are denoted in music through symbols such as the staccato, slur, sforzando, and tenuto.
For flute players, articulation is controlled by the way we use our tongue and air to start and stop a note. Flutists use the terms “French” and “American” to describe two common articulation styles. Each style uses a different placement of the tongue in the mouth to start a note. In French articulation, the tongue comes up to the inside of the lips and touches the bottom of the upper lip. A flutist releases their tongue backwards horizontally to generate the sound built up by the air column that is ready to be blown across the flute. This style of articulation can be simulated by spitting rice. American articulation, on the other hand, sits further back in the mouth. Here, the tongue strikes the roof of the mouth at the point where back of the two upper front teeth and the gums meet. A flutist then moves the tongue back and downwards to produce a sound.
There are many possible variations on the basic French and American articulation styles. Different consonant syllables that we use in verbal speech can be used that produce a sound on the flute. Each syllable is created by a different tongue placement in the mouth, and produces a different effect. A “ta” syllable produces a crisp, hard-edged articulation. Syllables like “tu,” “da” and “du” create softer, more mellow articulations. Practice switching between saying “ta” and “da.” How does your tongue placement change between the syllables? “Ta” uses more of the tip of the tongue, with a placement further in the front of the mouth. A “Da” syllable uses a broader tongue placement further back in the mouth.
These different syllables are not only created by the placement of the tongue in the mouth, but also by the size and shape of the oral cavity (the inside space in our mouth). Changing the size and shape of the oral cavity changes the vowel sound we make when speaking. Syllables ending in an “ah” vowel sound use a more rounded, open oral cavity, while syllables ending in “u” and “eh” use a more narrow, closed off oral cavity. Take the time to experiment with these different syllables and vowel sounds in your articulation. Keep in mind that the front syllable and the vowel shape you use work best in counterparts. When using a softer vowel sound, for example, you can afford a harder consonant articulation.
Your articulation is the first impression of your sound. Because articulation can denote stylistic choice, it can reveal a lot about the character of the music if you use it skillfully. It is important to remember that in any articulation, the air is the driver of the tongue. The shape of a phrase ultimately defined by how you use your air, so try not to let the tongue get in the way of the what you are trying to say. You are not starting the sound with your tongue, rather, you are releasing your tongue to let out your air. Imagine stepping on a garden hose and turning on the water. The water builds up in pressure as it reaches the spot you are stepping on, and as you release your foot (your tongue), the water (your air) rushes through the hose.
It is also helpful to think about keeping the tongue light rather than heavy. Unless a composer specifically asks for it, it is generally best to avoid using a heavy articulation that overemphasizes the attack and takes attention away from the sustain of the sound. In order to achieve a lighter tongue, practice “ha-ha” articulations that use your breath rather than your tongue to start the note. Choose a simple exercise, such as a scale, pulse the beginning of each note with your diaphragm instead of your tongue. Add in the tongue, lightly, on top of this foundation of breath support. If you are having trouble with an articulation pattern in the context of a particular piece, trying taking out the tongue and playing each note in the “ha-ha” style of articulation. When you add the regular articulations back in, you will find yourself relying more on your air and abdominal support to execute the passage rather than “forcing” the air out with your tongue. Many tricky spots in our music that we attribute to a finger and tongue coordination problem can actually be solved through putting more of our attention and energy into or air and support usage.
Double-tonguing helps a flutist tongue articulate more notes in faster succession by alternating between tonguing with the front and the back of the tongue. Every teacher seems to have their own opinion on what syllables to use for double-tonguing. Like with single-tonguing, each syllable has its own advantage. While the syllable pair “tah-kah” produces a large and resonant sound because of the “ah” vowel shape in the mouth, the tongue has to cover a lot of territory (with the “tah” far in front of the mouth and the “kah” far in the back). Try instead to keep using the ah syllable in the back of the mouth, but with a “tu-ku” tonguing in front and center of the mouth with a wide and flat tongue (but keep in mind that the tip of the tongue is always where the action of the articulation occurs). This will keep the tongue relaxed and prevent it from traveling far. While double-tonguing, also make sure that the cheeks aren’t tight – the tissues between the cheeks and tongue are connected.
There are numerous ways you can improve your double-tonguing. Start, however, with a single note that you can play with comfort and ease. Once you can double-tongue on a single note, expanded to two by going up a step. Gradually add in more notes until you are ready to double-tongue larger patterns, such as scales. Expand your intervals, as well. Practice double-tonging in thirds or arpeggios. One good challenge double-tonguing exercise is to use exercise 13 from Taffenel & Gaubert 17 Daily Exercises book, the broken arpeggios. At a very slow and comfortable tempo, go through the whole cycle in C Major, but double each note with double-tonguing. Some common double-tonguing flaws might reveal themselves throughout your practice. One is that the “ta” syllable is too dominant, resulting in an unbalanced “Tg” articulation. If you notice this coming up in your playing, practice temporarily switching the emphasis to the opposite “dK” articulation. Another common problem is uneven dotted eighth and sixteenth notes. Listen very carefully for this, it can be subtle, and work at a slow enough tempo where all note lengths are even before working the metronome up. Putting the metronome on the off or and beats can help with this. If you notice your tongue getting tired or sore, stop. Don’t forget to take breaks during this type of repetitive practice and to reminder yourself to use your air. With time and patience, your tongue will become stronger and better coordinated with how you use your air and fingers.
A final recap of what we’ve discussed:
- Articulation is defined by how a we use the tongue and mouth to start and stop a note. Having control of our articulation is important because we can use it to affect the style, character, and sound quality of the notes we play.
- We can control what type of articulation we use through the placement of the tongue in the mouth (the consonant sound) and the shape of the oral cavity (the vowel sound).
- For flutists, double-tonguing can increase the speed of our articulation by alternating between attacking notes with the front and back of the tongue