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First of all, tonguing is not articulation in and of itself. Or as my teacher, Thomas Nyfenger, liked to say, “Tonguing is the anti-tone”. Tonguing is a component of articulation, but it’s far from the main component. Many people think if you need an accent, you should just tongue more forcefully. I can’t comment on whether tonguing harder works for other winds and brass, but I can assure it is absolutely the wrong thing on flute. I can guarantee you the note will likely crack, not to mention sound rude, crude and unrefined. Remember, tonguing is not tone. And the flute embouchure is a lot more fragile than other instruments. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that flutists have to both create the mouthpiece with the lips and shape an embouchure simultaneously to direct the air. Lips are more flexible than metal or hard plastic. If you tongue explosively behind the lips, they will flare and lose their ability to focus and direct the air accurately. 

The main event for good articulation on flute, including accents and staccato is how you use your air. The tonguing is for defining the ictus of a note only. If you are using your abdominal muscles to control the force of the air stream, you discover several things including:

  • The quality of the airstream is what gives an articulated note its particular character
  • In order to develop consistent staccato or accents, you need to work on the accuracy of focus and placement of the airstream (means embouchure control)
  • You need to develop two different kinds of basic blowing, staccato and legato. Everything beyond that (including accents) is a variation of these two types of blowing.

You can take any scale or arpeggio exercise and adapt it to work on staccato and accents. Set a metronome to mm=60 and play the exercise in eighth (quavers) notes. 

  1. Play detached with breath accents and no tongue. This forces you learn how to shape the embouchure and aim the air precisely. Use forceful puffs of air using your abdominal muscles.
  2. When you have good control using a HA articulation, add the tongue. Just tip the note with the tongue and continue to use the breath to generate the articulation.

At the risk of sounding preachy, I strongly believe we need to talk about the quality of articulation, never about attacks. Articulation implies defining and making things clear. Attacks, on the other hand, imply violence even though we aren’t using the word in that kind of context. I really believe if you talk to kids about attacks, they will tongue too hard. And for myself, I was a chronic over-tonguer well into my post high school education.

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