Now that I’m back in school, I’ve had to go back and address this question on all my instruments (especially the ones I thought I knew how to play already). This past semester I made HUGE progress in finding the basic position for the tongue while playing clarinet, and this took a LOT of drilling through some REALLY BASIC exercises, but I feel like I finally have a solid foundation on where the tongue should go (during normal playing anyway) and how the tongue should move for good basic single tonguing.
But on flute I’ve never been able to really cement this. Part of the problem has been that for the last two years, my work on flute has been primarily on proper breathing, relaxation, and just learning how to form the lips and blow in the right place. Although this is still a work in progress (probably always will be) I feel I’ve got these things solid enough that it’s time to start improving my tonguing. I need to develop the ability to (a) keep my tongue steadily in the proper place during legato playing, and (b) develop a very consistent, basic tonguing style that will be the default tonguing I use barring the need for special effects or more aggressive accents.
Well coincidentally enough, this past weekend I finally learned what I need to do to achieve this. I’ve discussed this more than once with my teacher at school, but never really “got it.” One of the things he said to me in the past was that he sometimes used a “na” tonguing style. But I never understood him until this weekend, where I was attending a weekend-long masterclass. One of the other students had just played, and in the ensuing discussion the instructor mentioned that she believes basic flute tonguing should be a bit farther back in the mouth than is often taught. She said many teachers teach tonguing on the back of the upper front teeth, or possibly slightly farther up, on the gums just above. They generally tell the student to use the syllable “ta” to find this position but she believes this is too far forward.
So as the two were in front of the class having this discussion, it finally dawned on me that this was the “na” tonguing my regular teacher had mentioned. While they talked and played, I started experimenting in my own mouth, feeling where the tip of the tongue touches when I say “na.” In this experimentation, I discovered several important things about the “na” syllable.
First, it’s definitely farther back than “ta” or “da” – closer to where the ridge running along the roof of your mouth starts to become defined – if I had to guess, I’d say about half of an inch farther back.
Secondly, the “na” syllable requires a completely different coordination of tongue movement and air release when compared to “ta.” You see, “na” is actually a nasal syllable at first. While you are saying the consonant “nnnnn” part, you aren’t putting any air pressure into your mouth. Your tongue completely closes and all the air is escaping out of your nose. (Only later, when you go to the vowel “ahhh” part, do you divert the air into your mouth and past the tongue.) So when tonguing with a “na” syllable you don’t have any air pressure built up behind the tongue. Instead you have to control the initial impulse of the air with your breath control. In fact, if you form the tongue for the “na” syllable but then just put some air pressure behind the tongue and release it, it sounds just like “ta.”
So to summarize these findings: the difference in “na” tonguing and “ta” tonguing lies in (a) a tongue touch point which is slightly further back in the mouth, and (b) a difference in the relationship between when you push the air and when you release the tongue.
When you use “ta” as your guiding principle for tonguing, it’s too easy to learn the improper technique of building up the air pressure behind the tongue before you release the tongue to start the note. This is PRECISELY the problem I’ve been laboring under since I first picked up a flute in the 90’s. When I try to tongue a note even mildly aggressively, the burst of air out of my mouth causes an overtone to pop out instead of the note I want. Instead of relying on a good air column, well supported and quickly started from the lower abdomen muscles, I’ve been relying on the burst of air from the explosive release of a “pressurized” tongue to give me a snappy articulation. (And to be sure, the “ta” syllable is a nice crutch and can substitute for poor breath control in many low- to mid-volume situations, but as soon as the music gets a little bit animated or aggressive – that’s when I find myself in a situation where my staccato or marcato is just too risky, and I have to back off the volume to ensure the correct notes are coming out.)
In addition to limiting the range of my articulations, I believe my improper articulation is also contributing to a lack of dynamic range, especially down low. How many flute players do you know who can reliably pop out notes at low E or below with a bold, strong forte? I sure can’t! What most people do is gently attack the note, and then swell as quickly as possible to the volume they really want. Well my theory is that this is due to improper tonguing technique. The first few milliseconds at the beginning of the note are critical, and the air has to be doing the vast majority of the work to get the note started. But when the air starts improperly with a percussive release of built up pressure by the tongue, it forces out overtones instead of the fundamental. Let’s face it, many of us use an aggressive tongue in the third octave precisely for this reason: we need all the help we can to get the overtones to pop out. So why would we want to use the same technique in the low register, when we’re trying to play the fundamental? It’s a fundamentally (pun intended) different approach to articulation.
So you can see the path forward that I now have to engage in. I have to completely re-learn my tonguing technique! Not only that, but I’ll have to learn consistently better breath support in order to make this new tonguing technique viable. If the breath support isn’t there, then the beginnings of my notes will sound weak and indistinct. But in the long run, I will come out of this with a bigger range of articulations, and be able to play them properly at all dynamic levels. And good breath support is good breath support, so this will improve my playing on all my other instruments as well. It’s an exciting (but at the same time daunting) prospect. I’ve won this battle on clarinet, so I’m confident I can do it on flute as well.
This has been an exciting revelation for me, and I was especially jazzed to finally see this relationship between breath support and articulation. I would love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve posted here, if you agree or disagree, and how you learned good (or bad) tonguing techniques. Thanks for reading.