On the flute, good articulation comes down to two things: a well shaped embouchure and a lively, energized air column. What it is never about is tonguing harder. In fact, tonguing on flute should always be soft. Let the force of the air column create forceful articulations such as accents, not the tongue.
First of all, where in the mouth does the tongue strike? The best place for most people is where the upper teeth and gums meet on the roof of the mouth. The trick to good articulation on flute lies in making sure the embouchure is well shaped before one blows and tongues. And, of course, the articulation and air have to happen simultaneously.
It is practically ubiquitous among young players that they are not shaping the embouchure completely before they blow, resulting in a more diffuse ictus to their articulation, especially the first few notes they play. Once they have been playing for six months to a year, if you spend time with your students on learning to shape the embouchure with breath articulations, you will see amazing results in the quality of their articulation and tone in a very short time. You can use any technical exercise to do this using a “HA, HA” articulation. It is best if the exercise uses the same duration notes throughout. Any exercise in quarter notes (crochets) or eighth notes (quavers) is good. Working on exercises based on the “HA” articulation clearly demonstrates the importance of a strong, supported air column to create a palette of articulations such a lively staccato, forceful accents, lifted releases, energetic detaché, bell tones (indicated by staccato under a slur), etc.
Secondly, the very nature of articulation is that it is percussive in the mouth. This may not be as big an issue for an instrument with a mouthpiece and/or reed (I would be interested to hear more about the nature of articulation on other wind instruments). It is a HUGE issue for the flute because, if you recall, our lips are our mouthpiece. In fact, my teacher, Thomas Nyfenger used to tell me, “tonguing is the anti-tone”. If one tongues too hard, it makes the lips flare resulting in a less focused tone. Tonguing too hard makes for a lot of cracked notes and a harsh, strident tone on the flute. Take it from me, a recovered over-tonguer in my youth. But then I didn’t have the intervention of a flute specialist to show me differently until I went to college. It’s critical to be sure to grip the air stream firmly, especially in the low register, to maintain the tone. Generally, good tone is strong air correctly directed for maximum focus and projection.
Finally, please notice that I don’t use the word “attack” to describe articulation. What gradually occurred to me in my own development as a flutist, was that the word “attack” implies violence in any other context besides music. As a habitual over-tonguer, I realized for myself this was exactly the wrong word to use for articulation. I’ve found it is more challenging to find ways to talk about articulation without using “attack”, but the musical result has been worth the effort.
If you find these entries helpful, subscribe, share with your colleagues and come back next week for another flute tip. Please comment and feel free to ask questions. Maybe the answer to your question will be the next flute tip. Find me on Facebook or email me at email@example.com. For information about clinics and workshops click here.