It’s funny sometimes when you look back on your progress over the years and you think to yourself, how on earth did I miss that? Things that were taken for granted, or things that were non-concerns, that somehow evaded notice for years. Then, when someone points it out to you, it’s almost embarrassing to acknowledge you didn’t think about it. For some, that may be colour or tone. For others, scales and arpeggios. For others still, maybe it’s dynamics.
For me, it was articulation.
Don’t get me wrong, I did not ignore the articulation markings in my music. I simply did not dedicate a specific amount of time in my daily practice specifically to note beginnings. I would certainly practice within the context of whatever music I was working on, but outside of when I was learning to double- and triple-tongue, it wasn’t a technique I really thought about.
I remember the day clearly: I was in rehearsal as a sub for a big gig. I was definitely still a little green and didn’t know just how much I didn’t know. There was a low passage and I distinctly remember absolutely hammering the first note. There was definitely no marking on said note. I wanted to make sure I got it. The principal flute turns to me and in the kindest but most no-nonsense way, says, “Don’t accent that note.” I was a little embarrassed and made up all sorts of excuses in my head, but there really wasn't any way to justify it. This is something I should be practicing. Not just in context, but all the time.
There are some things that the flute naturally excels at. Impressive flurries of notes and acrobatics, floating up above the orchestra in the third octave, and bird calls, for example. There are some areas that we have to work a little harder on because they are not quite as natural to the instrument. Articulation can be one of those areas.
Double- and triple-tonguing comes easier to
flutists than other woodwind players because we don’t have anything inside our mouths when we play. As a result, we don’t always focus on clarity when we’re using the back end of the tongue and it can sound uneven. Staccato notes can be difficult, especially at the bottom of the register where the notes take just a little longer to speak. Accents and sforzandi can prove difficult in certain registers because it’s so easy for the notes to crack. Soft attacks in piano passages are sometimes overlooked because we’re so focused on pitch and tone quality that we don’t even consider the articulation can help (what, just me?).
The good news is that articulation can be practiced in conjunction with any other technique. There are tons of tonguing patterns you can use. Just look through any exercise in Taffanel and Gaubert for examples. Practicing T&G #1, 2, or 4 with as many different patterns as possible, with as many different dynamics as possible, is a great way to break up the monotony of these exercises while at the same time upping the difficulty. For low register articulation work, #12 in Moyse’s Studies and Technical Exercises—unofficially the Robert Langevin exercise—is excellent and very effective.
But why not take it one step further? Here are some great ways to work on your articulation during your technique practice:
Speed up your fast single-tonguing.
Get your notes to speak immediately with air attacks—great for getting more control on accented notes too!
Improve your double- and triple-tonguing by just using “ga” or “ka.”
Practice double-tonguing backwards “ga-da” or “ka-ta.”
Work on both versions of triple-tonguing: “Ta-ka-ta Ta-ka-ta” and “Ta-ka-ta Ka-ta-ka.”
Pick a different octave each day.
Experiment with different consonant sounds: ta, da, ka, ga, pa, ha, ba, etc. Certain shapes work better for different situations. For example, fast legato passages work well with “da-ga,” whereas staccato passages are great with a more percussive “ta.” Soft phrases can start with “pa” but this does not work uniformly throughout the full register of the flute.
Look to extended techniques for even more options.
See how things differ on piccolo or alto flute.
There are a few things to remember:
1. Using a metronome is mandatory. If it’s not a consistent tempo, it doesn’t count.
2. The tongue is a muscle. It can get fatigued or injured just like any other muscle in your body. Build up strength slowly to avoid straining your tongue. It makes it hard to speak or eat. I know from experience...
3. The tongue is one of those muscles that doesn’t like to be told what to do. There comes a point where the more you try to control the tongue, the less it responds the way you want. Eventually, you have to trust that your training was sufficient and let your tongue do its thing. Use visual cues in your music to anchor yourself, either to start the pattern or to focus on specific notes, then let ‘er rip.
4. Tongue placement is important. Where the tip of the tongue makes contact with the roof of your mouth will impact clarity and response. I find the best place for me is very forward, where the front teeth meet the gums.
There are a few pieces in the repertoire where I know I need to spend more time practicing articulation. For example, the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Saltarello from Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, the piccolo part to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, Voliere from Carnival of the Animals, the first movement of the Prokofiev Sonata, Jolivet’s Chant de Linos, the second movement of the Reinecke Undine Sonata, and the Dutilleux Sonatine. These are just a few instances where I struggle more and I know there are practice techniques I can use to help me with these nasty passages.
There are a number of fabulous resources out there. De la Sonorite by Moyse, Trevor Wye’s Practice Book on Articulation and Practice Book for Piccolo, and Walfrid Kujala’s Orchestral Techniques all come to mind immediately for their detailed instructions. Nothing compares to a great teacher, however. Someone who can provide guidance and structure to your practice is priceless.
What are some of your favourite ways to work on articulation? Share your ideas in the comments below!