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What would you consider to be the biggest sins your students could commit with regard to tonguing and articulation? Have you ever noticed these habits among your school flute students? What can you do to help your students articulate correctly? Me and my flutist colleagues have a laundry list of articulation problems that are extremely common among flute students who have never had a private flute instructor. (Flutists, by all means, jump in with a comment if you have one I’ve overlooked.)

  • Not tonguing at all, even after playing for three or more years. I’ve met kids that were really skillful with breath articulation and no tongue at all! Yes, it might be tricky to tongue while shaping the aperture, but you really have to insist they get it. Have them practice by putting their finger under their bottom lip (pretend flute), shaping the aperture and tonguing where their teeth and gums meet. Then have them do it on just the headjoint. Not tonguing is to be expected in the first 3-4 weeks of playing. Make sure they get it in that time. Otherwise, not tonguing becomes an ingrained habit. It becomes much harder to create the new habit of tonguing the longer they play.
  • Tonguing too hard. The flutist’s aperture does not respond well to hard tonguing. Tonguing too hard causes the aperture to lose focus and direction. The result is a harsh, spread, unfocused sound. Teach your students to do accents and staccato with a stronger breath pulse behind the tonguing rather than just slamming the tongue harder. It’s a much more musical and elegant approach to articulation.
  •   Tongue stopping. In other words, using the tongue to stop the sound as well as start it. Tonguing is TA or DA, never TUT. I have heard rumor that some band teachers are actually telling their flutes to tongue this way in order to get the kids to release together, especially in marching band. If you want them to release together, teach them to stop blowing together. A release should be like releasing a bird by throwing it up in the air, not like chopping something with an axe. Tongue stopping is a very difficult problem to correct so please don’t let them start doing it in the first place.
  • The jaw drop release, abruptly opening the jaw to stop the air. Nearly as bad as the tongue stop release, and in my experience is something a lot of kids come up with on their own as a solution to being asked to do a quick release. Teach your students to maintain the aperture shape and just stop blowing.

On the flute, good articulation is based mostly on breath management with just a little bit of tongue for definition, a clear ictus. In fact, I would say there are two distinct types of blowing — legato and staccato. Good flutists can go back and forth between the two types of blowing instantly based on the demands of the phrasing and indicated articulation.

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