Articulation is a complicated and hidden part of playing the flute. Everyone has different issues and ways that work for them so it is important to practise and experiment (and read our general guide!)
Any articulation practice should also be tone practice. The tongue does not produce the sound, it simply moves to release the air and make the start of the note neater. A heavy or forceful tongue will get in the way of a good, clear sound. Different teachers use different vocalisations to teach articulation such as the french ‘tuh’/t, ‘doo’ or ‘dah’ – find one that is precise yet gentle.
We should aim to:
- keep the tongue light, quick and precise
- vary our articulation where possible. How we start notes can be part of our expression
- avoid excessive movement – we just use the tip of the tongue so keep it close to the point of contact
top tip: if you can see a lot of movement under chin/top of the neck then the tongue is moving too much
Practising articulation within a piece
We need to make sure the tone and sound is good before we complicate matters with articulation. Practise difficult articulation passages slowly and slurred before legato tongued. When introducing the tongue the airstream needs to be faster than you previously needed while the tongue stays light and precise.
top tip: practise staccato passages with ‘ha’ diaphragm movements (like when laughing or coughing) without the tongue. The force comes from our support systems and the air so introduce the tongue gently and let the ‘ha’ movement do all the work (in slow practice)
Neatness of articulation is difficult as both the tongue and fingers have to be coordinated. In fact, our fingers should move ever so slightly before the tongue so that the start of the note has a centred tone. A way to practise this is to consciously move the fingers first, in scales and pieces.
Example: descending C major scale
C (short rest between notes, move fingers to B)
B (rest and move fingers)
A (rest and move fingers)
G (rest and move fingers) etc.
Double tonguing is used for fast articulation and is made up of one stroke at the front of the mouth and one further back. Often this is taught as ‘TKTK’ but again, experiment with what works for you. This might be a ‘DGDG’/’dogoodogoo’ (be careful that the ‘g’ sound isn’t too far at the back of the throat and blocking the airstream). Use studies and exercises to practise different articulations – slurred patterns, all front stroke, all back stroke, kt-kt, tk-tk etc.
Once you have the basic technique sounding gentle and clear, practise in short and fast bursts so it feels almost like a reflex movement. Don’t overdo it. Remember the tongue is a muscle that needs to be slowly improved.
Troubleshooting: common issues with clarity
- How much force does your tongue have?
Even forte fast passages need light articulation
- Is the airstream strong enough?
The tongue disrupts the airstream so it often needs more air than you think
- Have you achieved a good tone without articulation?
Practise legato and controlled first – articulation or excessive vibrato do not cover up a muddy tone
- Are you keeping the tongue as out of the way of the airstream as possible?
Keep it forward and low with quick, precise movements. Consider the sounds that work for you. ‘DG’ is gentler than ‘TK’ but it pushes the tongue further back in the mouth. Consider french ‘tu’ sounds or ‘doogoo’. Experiment!
Much like double tonguing it uses ‘TKT-TKT’ or ‘dgd’ patterns and is often used for fast triplets. Practise fast single tonguing so you can move between the sections smoothly. Find a triplet study and experiment with as many articulation patterns as possible e.g. first 2 notes slurred, all slurred etc.