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Mastering the Art of Tonguing: A Guide for Flute Beginners

Playing the flute is a beautiful and rewarding journey, and mastering the art of tonguing is a crucial aspect of expressive flute playing. Tonguing brings melodies to life, shapes rhythms and articulates the sound.


Whether you're a novice or an intermediate player, understanding and refining your tonguing technique will significantly enhance your musical expression. In this guide, we'll delve into the fundamentals of tonguing, providing both flute beginners and flute teachers with valuable insights and exercises to develop this essential skill.


This is a big topic and we will cover:


Ready? Let's start!


What is tonguing on flute?


Before we embark on the journey of mastering tonguing, let's establish a solid foundation by understanding the basics. Tonguing is the technique of articulating notes on the flute, and it plays a vital role in creating various musical effects. Different types of articulation, such as legato for smoothness and staccato for crispness, add texture and nuance to your playing. Tonguing defines rhythms, shapes phrases and helps convey emotions through your music.


Preparing the Embouchure


The foundation for effective tonguing begins with a stable and supportive embouchure, allowing for free airflow. A strong embouchure provides the necessary support for your tongue to articulate notes precisely. Take the time to establish a comfortable and sustainable embouchure before delving into tonguing exercises. The embouchure needs to remain consistent when adding in tonguing.


How do you start tonguing on the flute?


Now, let's explore some practical exercises to develop your tonguing technique.


Imagine your tongue as a delicate butterfly. For single tonguing, the "too" (or “tu”) syllable works well. Rest your tongue tip lightly behind your upper front teeth, almost touching the gum ridge. Avoid clamping your jaw or moving your lips. With a light, quick touch, let the tip of your tongue tap the roof of your mouth (behind your top teeth where the teeth and roof of mouth meet). Your tongue should not go between your teeth, nor touch your lips. On each "too" ensure that the air stream remains continuous.


Start without the flute, and blow a continuous stream of air towards the palm of your hand (held up in front). Then sing simple syllables like “too” or “tu”, singing the sound 4 times, and keeping your voice continuous. Remember to use only the tiniest tip of your tongue, with a light and quick movement. Then whisper these sounds towards your hand to feel the air stream, before trying the same with just the headjoint of the flute. It’s important to understand you do not vocalize the “too” sounds when you play the flute, just whisper. Then finally you can play this exercise on the whole flute, maybe starting with one note such as B.


Everyone’s tongue, teeth and lips are different, so we need a variety of options to start with. Many flute teachers have a preferred method but may sometimes need to use different approaches for different students. For example, some students find it easier to start by playing a long note and then use the tip of their tongue to interrupt the continuous airstream, without weakening the tone of the note. Depending on which language the student speaks, some will find it easier to use the syllable “doo” or “du”.


How do you practise tonguing on flute?


  • Use a mirror – to check your jaw is relaxed, only your tongue should be moving, there should be minimal facial movement.

  • Use a metronome – use a metronome to gradually increase your tonguing speed, and build control and consistency.

  • Scales - as you gain confidence, gradually increase the speed, incorporating long tones and scales and into your routine. The goal is to build a strong foundation and develop muscle memory for consistent and controlled tonguing.


games for flute tongiong

Games for developing tonguing on flute


It takes time to master tonguing and a great way to stay motivated is to enjoy fun tonguing games! For example, to get your tongue moving nimbly, try this tongue twister – first say it aloud, then whisper.


“Ten tiny teddies took turns taking tea to two tricky tutors tapping on a table.”


Or try blowing bubbles through a straw into a cup of water – as you tongue, the bubbles should only stop for a tiny second if you keep your air stream moving!


Or with the straw, blow a stream of air to keep a small piece of light paper against a wall (see picture above, the straw can be near the paper, but not touching it, the air stream holds it up) and start tonguing without letting the paper drop!


Troubleshooting: Why can’t I tongue on the flute?


It's natural to encounter challenges when learning a new skill, and tonguing is no exception. Common mistakes include improper tongue placement, issues with breath control, and coordination difficulties. Check the position of your tongue, ensuring just the tip contacts behind your teeth where the teeth and palate (roof of mouth) meet. Make sure you are using the tip of the tongue, not the middle, to say “too”.


Keep the air flowing as you tongue! Practice breath control exercises to improve coordination between your breath and tongue.


Be patient please! Your tongue needs to learn this movement, so plenty of practice will help. It is important to seek feedback from your flute teacher or mentor to identify and correct specific issues you may be facing.


Relax! Remember your jaw and face should not need to move when you tongue a note so keep them relaxed. Also keep the back of your tongue and your throat relaxed. Moreover, all your body should be relaxed when playing the flute!


How do I get better at tonguing on flute?


Consistency is key when it comes to mastering tonguing. Establish a structured practice routine in the first weeks of playing that includes dedicated time for tonguing exercises. Set realistic goals for each practice session, focusing on specific aspects of your technique. Track your progress over time, celebrating small victories along the way. Integrating tonguing exercises into your daily practice sessions will help you build confidence and proficiency gradually.


How do you slur on flute?


A slur is a curved line over two or more notes of different pitch. You only tongue the first note under the curved line, then maintain your airstream as you change your fingering to the next note/s. This creates a very smooth or legato effect. In the example below, the letter “T” indicates which notes in “Wamberal Walk” would be tongued. In “Little-wing Sky” you can see groups of two notes slurred as well as groups of four notes, so you would only tongue the first note of these groups. (You can listen to the music here)


Music extracts for "Wamberal Walk" and "Little-wing Sky"

How do you play staccato on flute?


A staccato note is indicated by a dot above or below the note head and means that the note is to be played short and crisp (detached). In the example below, "Ali's Magic Carpet", you can see the staccato dots above notes in the second last measure of each line. Some people find it easier to use the syllable “ta” for staccato notes and your tongue must move lightly and quickly. The tongue itself isn’t making any sound so your airstream is very important for staccato notes. Don’t stop the air stream as you tongue staccato or the note will sound “dead”, instead you almost need to bounce the air on each note. Work on this with your teacher!


Flute Music extract for "Ali's Magic Carpet"

What is double tonguing on flute?


Double tonguing is an advanced technique which involves alternating syllables such as "ta" and "ka" in very fast music. It is not necessary for beginners, so for now, let's focus on mastering the single tongue.


Incorporating Tonguing into Musical Repertoire


When you've developed a solid foundation in tonguing through exercises, it's time to apply these techniques to actual musical pieces. Select beginner-level pieces that incorporate different articulations and experiment with how tonguing enhances the overall musicality.


For example, play the excerpt above from “Wamberal Walk” first without slurs and then with slurs? The composer wanted to convey an atmosphere of tranquility and relaxation, so which articulation works best? (You can listen to the music here)


Or play the above excerpt from “Ali’s Magic Carpet” – would you agree that adding staccato tonguing to some notes enhances the magical mood of the music? (You can listen to the music here)


Emphasize expression and emotion in your playing, using tonguing as a tool to convey the intended mood of the piece. Gradually integrate tonguing into more advanced repertoire, allowing your newfound skills to shine in a variety of musical contexts. In the next music, "Bumble Bee Bounce" see how the composer uses tonguing to create two different moods in the music, first using staccato for the bouncing bees, then using long slurs for a more lyrical section suggesting the bumble bee’s flight. (You can listen to the music here)


Flute music extract for "Bumble Bee Bounce"

Tips for Effective Tonguing


As you work on refining your tonguing technique, keep these tips in mind. Focus on achieving clarity and precision in your articulation, and pay special attention to the sound quality of each note. Experiment with different tonguing techniques and styles to discover what works best for you. If you encounter challenges or feel stuck in your progress, please seek guidance from your flute teacher or a more experienced player. Personalized feedback can provide valuable insights and accelerate your learning, and is especially recommended in the beginner phase.


Conclusion


Mastering the art of tonguing is a journey that requires patience, dedication, and consistent practice. As you refine your tonguing technique, remember that it's not just about producing sound but about shaping your musical voice. The time you spend mastering tonguing will pay off in the richness and expressiveness of your flute playing. Embrace the challenges, celebrate the small victories, and enjoy the musical journey as you unlock the full potential of your flute playing through the mastery of tonguing. Happy playing!


The music extracts in this article are all taken from “Lyrical Flute Miniatures”, an exciting new collection of 40 short pieces for beginner flute players of all ages.



Karen North is a music teacher, mentor and book author. She is passionate about bringing music into the lives of children and adults and has enjoyed working in music education for the past 40 years.


Karen is the author of the popular method books "The Young Flute Player" and has commissioned many new works for intermediate flute repertoire in "Lyrical Flute Legends" , "Lyrical Flute Encores" and "Inspiring Flute Solos."  as well as a new collection for beginner flutists, "Lyrical Flute Miniatures".


Karen has written two books of music games (with printable templates) "Fun & Games for Music Lessons", "More Fun & Games for Music Lessons 2" and has recently worked with specialist consultants on repertoire books for Violin, Clarinet and Saxophone.


Karen also organizes an international FLUTE CHAMPIONSHIP each year, to give students of all ages and abilities an opportunity to submit a video performance to an outstanding panel of judges. Her workshops for teachers are enthusiastically received and she also offers one-to-one coaching sessions.

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