Jen Cluff ~ Clarity in Tonguing

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

Tonguing for flute that's clean, clear and musical.

I've been mulling over the problem of tonguing for novices and intermediates, and here are some of the images I've come up with. See if these ideas work for you:
CLEAR TONGUING on the flute:
Aural images
If you're a person with great ears, and can imitate sounds you hear
very quickly, then see if these images help with your tonguing:

#1 - Go to a person who speaks French very well. Ask them to pronounce "Tu" [as in the pronoun "you" (familiar)].

Listen to a string of "Tu"s and imitate the very precise and neat start to the sound. You must use only the tiniest tip of the tongue in order to not have an explosive or thick sounding "T". Instead it sounds as neat as a pin The amount of tongue that's striking is *literally* about the size of the head of a pin. :>)

Imitate this exact syllable "Tu" on your flute's longtones, interrupting a constant stream of well-supported air only with the tiniest tip of your tongue.

#2 - As you hold a longtone, one single note, for a full lungful of air, play with a perfect, ringing, centered tone. Breathe in and play several of these longtones in a row. Then begin to experiment with creating strings of "Tu"s that do not disturb that perfect tone.

Each "T" should become neater and neater until any too-explosive ones are tamed. Each "T" should become neater so the tongue does not tire easily but is making the most precise and easy/relaxed movement. The tongue should return to behind the roots of the lower teeth after striking.

The idea is to create a perfect strings of: Tututututututututututututu.....s , like "a controlled stutter" that's effortless.

Once the "T"s are neat, mentally focus on letting the tone be full and pure on the "Uuuuu" part of the note so the "T"s are almost unnoticeable.
CLEAR TONGUING on the flute:
Visual images
If you're a visual learner, here are some images that might help you understand what clear tonguing is on the flute:

#1 - Go to the faucet and turn the tap on and watch the water fall into the sink. Swipe your finger through the water. Notice that after a swipe,the water remains constant. The constant water is the constant air stream that you blow your flute with.

The swiping of the finger through the water is the momentary interruption of the tongue when you articulate.

Overview: You must have constant air-stream to let the tongue do its

#2 - Go to a piano, lift the lid and look in. Watch a hammer hit a string. See how presise the point of impact. This is how precise the action of the tongue should be: It hits in one precise place for the tone to ring out with a perfect, neat start to each note.

#3 - Imagine a gate that's engineered to rise up and instantly slice through a stream of water, such as a lock-system or river running through a pipe. The gate rises up and touches the roof at split-second intervals, but the water is just momentarily chopped, and continues to flow constantly through the chute.

CLEAR TONGUING on the flute:
Physical images

#1. Feel the airstream being provided constantly from the abdomen, freely moving through a well open throat. The back of the throat is almost yawning open, out of the way, and the root of the tongue is down and in a neutral, unused position. Both throat and root are relaxed. The abdomen is working to send the air stream to the lips through an open "conduit" , unhindered until the air from the abs. hits the lips.

#2. The tongue's tip is light and quick, and can be made into the smallest point.
Feel how small a point the tip can be made by feeling it strike the back of the roots of the front teeth saying: TuuuuTuuuuTuuuuTuuuu Keep the air coming up like a river from the lungs for every "Uuuuu" During the "Uuuu" the tongue stays forward as in saying "Tew".

#3. The tongue's root is so thick and can block off the cavern of the mouth way too easily, therefore it is best to leave the root as low in the mouth as possible when playing with great tone. Relax the back of the tongue, and let it spread out to be wide and flat, leaving the opening to the airways completely free of any back-logged tongue pressure. Leave it with this feeling always, whether you're inhaling, exhaling, or singing.

#4. Suddenly and completely relax while doing the above exercises, and feel whether you can continue do the actions completely effortlessly.

Remind yourself of this every few minutes: the more work your big muscles are doing (the abdominal exhaling) the less work any other part of your body has to do. Relax frequently.
If the above is not working for you, or for rare cases: check for the following tongue-conception problems:

#1 Anchor tonguing is a term given to the self-taught habit of anchoring the tip of the tongue under the lower lip, or behind the lower teeth, and leaving it anchored while attempting to say "Too" with the middle of the tongue, humping the tongue up like a camel-hump farther back in the mouth.

Check that you are using the tip only to articulate by spitting rice out on the back porch, using the tongue tip to spit with between the lips.

Alternately, try playing the flute with the tongue in various positions in the mouth that would preclude anchoring or lockng the tip into one place. For example, blow the flute while the tongue moves into various positions: touching the right cheek, left cheek, inside of back molars, inside of front teeth, inside of upper molars etc. If you can move the tongue into all these positions, the tip can no longer anchor anywhere.

#2. French tonguing is tonguing between the teeth or between the lips, instead of striking the roof of the mouth behind the roots of the
front teeth.

It is a good technique for certain types of music, but will not allow you to double or triple tongue---so you must use it only when it's called for and use 'regular' tonguing the rest of the time.

In general, clean articulations need:

- Lips in best position for great tone all-slurred, no matter what note you're playing.
- Abdominal activity to keep a constant stream of air coming into the flute
- Neat tongue movements where the tongue's tip stays forward after striking. (It should lie in the bottom of the mouth with the tip resting behind the back of the lower teeth.)
- Open throat with a large resonance.
- Every part of the body at maximum relaxation for the action it's making.

The most common problems in fuzzy-sounding tonguing are corrected bysystematically checking each of the points above one by one, until the problem is discovered and solved.
On any piece of flute music:
1. Play one or more notes all slurred for great tone.
2. Increase the air-stream so it is faster than you think you need.
3. Neaten the tongue tip's movements by making the neatest "Tu" you can. Experiment with this daily. Feel for where the tongue is when it is resting, and be sure it's forward so the tip can feel the inside roots of the lower teeth.
4. Keep throat open, and back of tongue still, low and out of the way.
5. Relax frequently, find the minimum effort required, while continuing to play.

And you'll find that when you sense that your throat is relaxed, the airstream easy and powerful, then you'll notice that the tip of the tongue will be able to move even more rapidly and accurately than it did before. Daily practise is the key. Noticeably results take a few weeks at the least. :>)

Jen Cluff

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K. writes:
To fully display myself as a fluteplayer with a lot to learn I will > continue with some questions. Is it possible to play real fast passages/pieces without using double-(or triple-)tonguing? In what way does these tonguing techniques facilitate fast playing? What is > more important the technique or the achieved result?

Dear K.
Playing fast and all-slurred is a question of digital dexterity, not necessarily related to tonguing in any way. In the double and triple tonguing exercises below, however, slurring passages slowly and then, later, quickly with good tone and good air support is the first step to good tonguing.

I think that you may just need some clarification on how fast tonguing works, however. So I'll start with that topic:
If you want to tongue very quickly either single OR double tongue, you must discover how to move the tongue the LEAST amount necessary. Any large movements of the tongue will slow you down.

Here is a common problem---
1. The tongue is not staying forward (touching the back of the lower teeth) after saying "Tu". If it moves backwards in the mouth, it will have too far to travel when you need it again. So feel the root of your tongue staying still, and feel the tip of the tongue staying just behind your bottom teeth.

2. To practice speeding up single tonguing, practice it silently during the day when walking, driving, waiting for a bus, or washing the dishes. Practice moving the tongue only micro-movements (not large
movements) and say "Tu" as in French where only a tiny portion of the tongue makes the "T" sound. Do not use TTooo as in English where a large amount of tongue is used to make the T. This is too explosive and disturbing to the air flowing into the flute.

3. To practice speeding up double tonguing, follow the exercise, going slowly at first, outlined in the post I sent the other day to young R. (below, see asterisks). This exercise really works!!! It REALLY REALLY Works!!! Try it and see.

I think the second biggest thing about fast tonguing is, as K. said: Abdominal kicks. If you can slur the whole passage saying "Hoo hoo hoo" one hoo on every note first, the tongue can then be added with these blasts of air coming from low in the body, and you will have quicker success.

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R. wrote:
> When I double tongue it is unclear and some notes don't speak well, how can I correct this problem and just make double tonguing easier? (I articulate between the teeth, I find it better at articulation than behind the teeth.)
Dear R.,
The help you're asking for with double tonguing involves *three* different areas of experimentation and observation, AIR, LIPS, and TONGUE. You'll want to exercise each of these areas separately as outlined in the problem-solvers below, and go slowly enough that you can really study and memorize the bodily sensations of each of these areas (lips, air, tongue) as you proceed. So don't rush through this, be like a scientist putting these things under a microscope. :>)

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Double tonguing with clarity:
There are three possible reasons why some notes don't speak when
you're double-tonguing:

1. LIPS may be out of position for good tone on a certain note. Correct this by slowly slurring the passage and listening to the tone quality, improving it, and then memorizing the *exact* embouchure for each note that gives you great tone on that note. You may have been forgetting to do this for each set of notes in your piece.

2. There may not be enough AIR PRESSURE for a certain note. Correct this in your all-slurred version by memorizing the sensation of how much abdominal support you needed to produce the most ringing and beautiful tone on each of the notes in your slow practice of the passage.

3. The TONGUE may splitting or exploding the note by being used too hard or too close to the lip opening. There are many ways to use the tongue: Tu, Du, Ku, Gu.
Holding just one note from the problem passage, tongue a stream of
each of these to determine which gives you the most precise and neat start to the note.
It may NOT be the syllable you're using now.

Example: Very low notes may respond better to Du than to Tu, and Du is less explosive. Very high notes may respond better to Ku than to Gu (or vice versa) depending on how accented they should be in context:
Learn to tongue streams of notes with each of these syllables, so that
you can change from one to another as the note requires for a piece of music.

Remember to keep sufficient air-support and the correct embouchure for good tone when starting to observe tonguing syllable choices.
In order to eliminate each of these problems on a daily basis, take a
line or two of a daily scale exercise (Maquarre, Wummer, Taffanel no. 4 or whatever book you have your daily scale exercises in ) and apply the following pattern:

On each repeat of a one or two-line daily exercise, or scale sequence, play with the following additions:

a) all slurred, full tone, open throat perform the exercise very slowly,( pausing on downbeats and breathing then restarting as necessary.)

b) same as above but with the abdominal support of accenting each note with an abdominal kick: "hoo-hoo-hoo" (one on each note)

c) same but with "du du du" at the same time as the "hoo-hoo-hoo" (this engages your air support while adding a soft tongue attack.)

d) Repeat exercise again but say: "gu gu gu" while continuing the "hoo hoo hoo" (saying "gu" may mean going slower than when saying "du du du")

e) Play the same exercise again (your fingers will really know it now) but play it fast and evenly, all slurred, rhythmically accurate. Make it like one long, supported "hoooooooo". Full, rich tone, open throat.

f) Play as fast as in e) but with the tongue forward, say "dududududududu" like a "controlled stuttering".

g) Play as e) (and you may have to go a trifle slower) and say: "gu gu gu gu gu" with one "gu" on each note. Remember that abdominals are giving you one long "HOO!" to maintiain full air-stream support.

h) Switch syllable to "du gu du gu du gu" giving a full abdominal kick on each one, especially the "gu" which needs the air to reach the mouth quickly in order for the gu to sound equal to the "du".

i) reverse the syllables to "gu du gu du".
(original exercise from Tom Kennedy in Flutetalk magazine used Maquarre no. 1 Daily Exercise.)

Finally, when you return to your Carnival of Venice, you can apply these same steps paying special attention to each of the following areas:
a) Play all slurred and slowly, giving full and constant abdominal support to each note in the phrase.
b) With full air-support say DU DU DU on each note.
c) With full support say GU GU GU on each note.
d) Remember that when you alternate GU and DU that you'll need to have just as much as an abdominal kick on the GU as the DU, and sometimes MORE, because the Gu initiates from farther back in the mouth, and needs to be propelled to the front of the mouth to sound equal to the DU.

It is my guess that your preference to tonguing between the teeth will NOT work for double tonguing (too far away and therefore too slow for the tongue to make the back-forth motion for "Du-gu"), and that you'll need to develop this softer tongue position Du-gu.

Tu-ku is also worthy of experiment especially for staccato or accented playing in the high or middle register.

_________________end post from to R.

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S. wrote:
While we're on the topic of tongueing, I need to put another
question out there. With all the various words such as tu ku, du gu, doo dle etc. - Do you literally try to say these words while tongueing or is it more to show what the position the tongue should be in while > tongueing? Someone in my orchestra approached me with this question at rehearsal last week and I didn't quite know how to answer this one.
Dear S,
I think that you say the consonant, but more softly and more neatly than when saying the word: In fact more precisely. And then you say the vowel, but you do not use your vocal cords, instead you make the
mouth shape of the vowel. Jen

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Jazz vs. Classical tonguing varieties:

QUOTE from Jazz Flutist B:
This subject has come up and, for those of you who are interested in non-classical playing contexts, here are some of my findings from a jazz flutist's standpoint. (post on Jazz articulation follows)…….
P.S. I am one of those unfortunate few who simply cannot triple-tongue. What is strange is that this has never posed a drawback for me (...perhaps because I "cheat" by simply double-tonguing and pacing it in three's! <snip>

Dear B.
You mentioned over-heavy tonguing in some classical flute players you've heard ...and that sparks my interest.
And I thought I'd jump in with my midnight-classical-2-cents worth on varieties of tonguing that classical flutists are supposed to train in, and some interesting avenues of flutey approach to avoid that over-done tonguing.

Basically there are two main tonguing issues that I think almost every
student flutist eventually wants to come to terms with:

1. How to have the tonguing be unnoticable and how to have your tone stay just as good when you're tonguing as when you're slurring.... AND

2..How to have an ever widening pallet of articulation choices so your self-expression just keeps expanding.
For the first common problem of tone and neatness in tonguing:

It's common for the flute students at first to have a too-noisy tongue because they've not yet refined its motions (moving it too much, or slapping with too large a portion of it), or because they have not yet developed a daily routine of practicing repeated tonguings until the tongue neatens itself (through judicious listening and refining of its motion in the mouth).

And this frustration *commonly* results in the flute student developing an instant preference for slurring instead of sounding like they're clacking their tongues and splattering the starts of all their tongued notes.

Getting ongoing demonstrations at lessons of the small motions required, and of the clarity of sound that you can hear, and then going off and doing a bit of repeated tonguing, really listening and neatening it, every day is the cure, of course.

The next complaint is that the student's tone goes rough whenever they tongue.

Most flute students find that they are capable of perfecting their tone when slurring, but then when they are adding the tongue strikes the tone goes breathy and novice-sounding. What's actually happening is they disturb the lip position that they JUST HAD when they slurred with good tone, and have unknowingly twitched the lips out of shape when the tongue started to move in the mouth.

The tone quality sounds imperfect during the tongued passage, and then they want to avoid tonguing, and simply slur the passage to get that great tone back.

What doesn't usually come to light, until someone lets them in on it, is that their lip position merely was "off". The lip's embouchure slightly and accidently changed when they started tonguing.

Today an adult student and I were discussing this and of course he
hadn't realized that his lips might twitch out of position when he goes to tongue. He had no idea. Lips are too small and too malleable. You can't FEEL them move out of position, but if you think about, you just HEARD them move out of position when your tone went breathy when you were tonguing.

We laughed that maybe the reason the lips twitch out position when the tongue comes into play is because the lips and tongue BOTH move when we talk. And unless you speak some kind of Unuktuk language, where your lips stay still while your tongue clucks in your mouth, you're undoubtedly programmed to move your lips a micron or two whenever you engage your tongue. It's what all speakers know how to do.

And of course, once one realizes this the solution is simple: Slur through a passage with great tone and full sound, and then leave your lips in *exactly* the same embouchure position, I mean microscopically EXACTLY in the same position, and then tongue the same passage without changing the lips.

Ah ha!

The lips stay "on pause" in the position for best-possible-tone and ONLY the tongue moves well behind the lips so as to not even disturb the lip shape.

In this way all sorts of vowels and consonants are possible, and the tone is never ever less clear, or less controlled because of tongue movements.

I think this lip-changing accidently while tonguing is widely overlooked by the average player.

The goal in classical tonguing is to achieve that perfect "ping ping ping" on every note, a kind of constant ringing beauty with which the greatest flute performers have when they are tonguing. Their tone is never disturbed by any tonguing demand, and you don't notice the tongue itself moving at all. You just notice the variety of effects left in the wake of the musical interpretations.

Next the student goes on to:

2. How to have a variety of tonguing options to suit every kind of music. The wider ones' articulation options, the more real-life sounds
you can imitate on the flute.

Example: A youngster I was teaching today was slurring in a Tango piece when it said to tongue fast 1/16ths. I mentioned that saying fast, short "tu tu tu"s at that point in the piece would be as cool as rapping on the guitar like a Spanish Flamenco guitarist if she made a point of spiking out each tongued note (This was the first tongued
passage going up to high E3 in Piazzola's "Cafe 1930")

The idea of producing "rappas" like a guitarist knocking out a rhythm
on the wood really got her interest, and voila, she willingly tried it out. What a lively contrast to a super-legato and slow opening of this piece.

I mean: Imagine if you were programming a flute performance and in one number you played like a Spanish guitarist using rappas, the next selection had you making sounds like a Japanese Shakuhachi, the next had your flute sounding like a cellist caressing the strings with a well-rosen'd bow, and then at one moment pitzing pointilistically, and the next?...... scrubbing the strings in a firey and edgy tremelo.

A final piece could have you sounding like someone singing a nagging song in the Inuit language, or reading poetry in Peruvian with
crackling mountain grasses at ones' feet, punctuating your stanzas.

Now THAT would be full expressive use of articulation choices!!!

On the other end of the spectrum, even within the confines of so called "academic music" we classical flutists can go quite a bit farther various articulation directions than some may think: -----we could perhaps make are tongued notes spit out cattily like a high-strung girl running around nervously chatting and gossiping to everyone at a crowded cocktail party (Taffanel's Andante Pastorale can make use this effect well in the insanely chatty Scherzettino movement). Then, for a humourous touch, you imagine the butler says: "Dinner is Served" and the chatty cathy instantly shuts up. Very

---we could perhaps make a double tongued two page run of 1/16th notes in Baroque music sound like no tongue at all by placing the Du-Gu so cleanly at the mid-point of the mouth cavity that it is inaudible to the listener. Today I heard a student do a fantastic job of this in the Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream Scherzo flute excerpt. Amazing how the sound of the tongue totally disappears when neatly and gently saying: Du-Gu with elongated "uuuu"s inbetween the consonants, steady full air-pressure, and even fingers at high speeds.

----we could perhaps make our orchestral colleagues double over in mirth when we tongue as if doing a "Bartok Pitz:" (In case you've never seen one, a Bartok Pitz is where you pick up the string of your cello or violin and let it drop so hard that it WHAPs the fingerboard!!! I find it very liberating to try out a few of these in modern music with heavy accents, every now and then...hhahahaa!) I love to try these out in Prokofiev and other more modern composers. (since 1940) There's a piece by Georgian composer Taktakishvili where we might even sound like a demented military marching recruitment campaign right in the middle of a school yard full of dancing children.
And hey...that might be done with a crisp, accented tonguing and an evil breath attack on some pounding low notes to boot! :>)

----we could also, as you also do, make it sound as if we're tonguing by using the lips and breath accents only. I enjoy alot of repertoire where, like you, I prefer a seamless, floating effect of pure sound. "Flautando" (the floating of a violin bow) is an effect which the flute is very good at. ;>)

---or, alternately, if you're in a really echoey hall, and you want your notes to come out like a language with syllables all clearly audible, we sometimes have to change to more distinct and separate articulations; and make this change on a moment's notice (!) depending on accoustics-of-the-moment, in order to achieve the same clarity at higher reverb levels.

We actually train, in Classical flute, to do all of these things on a dime. (on demand of our own ears, composer's markings, AND self-expression all combined.)

I would say that if you take all the consonants that are used, and pair them with all the vowel shapes, that there must be 40 kinds of articulations, all of which have something to say, and that's not even including the throat positions, or vocal resonance possiblities.

I mean....I'd *like* to be able to sound like a mallet hitting a marimba,
and a harp leaving sparkling droplets suspended in the air, and an electric guitar slapping the bass strings, or a violin playing harmonics with only 3 hairs of the bow touching the string and setting it to vibrate invisibly at first....... Or a backfiring car engine starting up......... ;>)
Or a growly blues singer with too much whisky in his voice making his lips slow...

ahahhahahaa! :>D

I want the option of *all* of these sounds.
So, obviously, we're both talking about the same level of discovery. What we're after is the creation of sounds that remind us of all sorts of things: the wash of waves over pebbles, the pounding of rain on a metal roof, arguments, heartbreak, crying, saucy teasing and innocent chuckles, trees being uprooted by bulldozers, clotheslines waving in the wind, branches cracking in the frost, stars twinkling just beyond the range of hearing etc. :>)

And how cool to be sounding multi-lingual and being able to switch to
the articulation (or language-sounds) that speaks the musical-poetry best? :>)

As regards triple tonguing: I read a really heavy argument, was it Philip Farkas?.... who swore that triple tonguing should really be double-tonguing done in threes (just as you said), to avoid having to say two "Ts" in a row at high speeds.

Farkas (horn player) advocated:

The first time I tried this (about 10 years ago) I got a bit tongue tied, but after 10 minutes I realized how much easier that truly was than the standard way it is taught: TKT-TKT.

Very smart guy that horn player.

So there you have it.....
Thought you'd be interested in this classical-flute perspective, as we too must push the envelope when it comes to choosing articulations. We don't want to be BORING! Hahhahahah :>D

Jen :>)

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S. wrote:
>I tongue with the tip of my tongue striking just beyond my upper teeth. It may sound strange, but with the way my tongue is, I have never been able to get the tip of my tongue to strike just behind the upper teeth. I think when I double/triple tongue that this does interfere with my ability to play as quickly as I probably could. Can that be possible? Is there any way to change this if it is just a habit?
Dear S,
don't know if I've ever come across this before. Do you think that it's because of the size of your tongue vs. the size of your mouth cavity? Or because the tongue is heavily muscled to sit far forward? I agree with K. that both types of tonguing should be learned, not *just* French tonguing, as each is used in various situations.
You don't want to be limited.

I tried to double tongue using what we're referring to as French tonguing and can make it work by saying: "Thicka Thicka" but that only gives me one, thin tone colour.
I prefer Du-Gu Du-Gu because the sound is rounder and more full of high and low overtones (esp. low.) When I use "Thicka" I get a thin sound that's not very expressive especially in the highest and lowest registers.

So, in truth, I don't know what to advise you unless you'd like to fully explore attempting to use your tongue farther back in your mouth so that you can use both types of tonguing (french and standard).

Jen Cluff
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Help for clear tonguing in the low register:

Q: I can tongue perfectly well in the high and mid-registers, but my low register tonguing sounds really fluffy and speaks late! Why is tonguing in the low register so difficult?

Jen writes:

Using "Du" instead of "Tu":

To clarify tonguing in the low register several factors have to be experimented with. The easiest solution is to use a less explosive syllable, such as using "Du" instead of "Tu". Du is said with a softer tongue, and farther back on the roof of the mouth, less disruptive to the lips which are normally looser for low register loud playing than in other registers. It also helps if the lip's aim is very specific; for example, play a longtone on the low note you wish to tongue, first, and then break-into-it with light "Du" tonguing. You'll soon find a tongue strike method that does not crack the low note, or make it too turbulent when it starts.

Work backwards from tone to tonguing:

Working backwards this way from longtone to tongued repeated notes is good in all registers by the way. It helps you quickly make all the adjustments without sacrificing tone that's already established.

Relax excess tension; make air flow close to "singing" style:

Also ,try relaxing the jaw, opening the resonating cavities, and pitching the note in the lungs, as though you are speaking or singing that note. This slows down the air, and relaxes unecessary tension that could lead to squeaking on low notes. Try singing and playing to establish the air flow required for a resonant low register. Finally, remember how much air speed you use for a full forte low note. This airspeed must be put into the flute very quickly getting UP to speed, in order to have a crisp, on-time attack.

Keep air supply at the ready, get embouchure ready early:

Many players experience the phenomena of having to prepare early for tongued, low note entries, and set the air column in motion a split second before they need to, setting the embouchure into optimal position early, and not allowing the sudden gust of air from the abdominals to blow their embouchure open.

With all these tricks to try, you should find two or three of them that are worth experimenting with. This co-ordination does come with time.


Jen 2005


Links to online articles about flute tonguing.

Flute Tonguing flute links:

Vernon Hill's excellent book with demo-CD:

John Wion on Articulation & Breath Support: (scroll down)

Breath support article based on Peter Lloyd's teaching:

Excerpt from Billington dissertation on Robert Aitken's tonguing

Jen Cluff
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Copyright 2007 Jennifer Cluff