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The Articulation Team

Articulation is the collection of all the ways that we can stop and start notes. This broad definition includes staccato, legato, accents, multiple tonguing, etc. We give the tongue a lot of attention here, but there is a bigger cast of supporting characters involved, an entire articulation team! The co-captains of this team are the tongue and the air stream. Other team members include the head, jaw, lips and teeth – these must all be doing their job in order to allow the tongue/airstream combo to do its job most efficiently.

One important thing to keep in mind is that everybody’s individual shape and setup of jaw, teeth, hard palate, soft palate, and tongue are a bit different. Nothing works for everybody and everything works for somebody. As teachers, the method we teach most (or first) is usually that which works best for us as flutists. Unfortunately, that method might not work for all of our students, so we need to observe and ask lots of questions to understand the particular challenges that a specific student faces in order to come up with a method that’s going to allow the student to be successful. We need to cultivate a variety of approaches and explanations and it’s always helpful to do so with a playful sense of exploration and curiosity. I do not believe that there is only one correct way to do something!

Meet the Team

Co-Captain #1 Airstream

The flute is a wind instrument; therefore, it needs air to produce sound! Fantastic tongue movement and poor attention to the air requirements are not a good combination. We don’t care how fast your tongue can move if it doesn’t sound good. The tongue does not shove air out, nor does the tongue produce any sound. The air produces the sound. It’s easy, particularly when learning a new articulation skill such as double tonguing, to forget about the priority of the air stream. Do so at your own peril!

Co-Captain #2 – Tongue

Please pause here and go read the article “11 Cool Things About the Tongue” in the April 2019 edition ( . Anybody ever had a teacher give you feedback about “tongue tension?” What’s that all about? If you do not understand that your tongue is made up of many muscles and can change it’s shape, you can potentially end up trying to move the whole thing every time you use it, instead of just moving the part that’s actually doing the work. The tension could also be a sign that the rest of the team players aren’t on board. The back of tongue is front of throat. Palpate this area and do some fast, light articulation. You should be feeling some movement here. Now, let’s do it the wrong way on purpose. Pretend that you don’t know there should be movement here…. try to actively prevent this movement. How do you that? You tighten up the muscles in the front. Hello, tongue tension.

Team Player #3 – Head

In the April 2019 article, you learned that the base of the tongue is right above the hyoid bone. What is the hyoid bone connected to? It’s suspended from the base of your skull. There is a category of muscles called suprahyoids, which include stylohyoid and digastric muscles, that attach the hyoid bone to the skull. {insert photo

If your head is chronically pulled forward, what’s going to happen to the hyoid bone? It’s likely that the hyoid bone is going to be tugged forward as well, which is then impacting the quality of your tongue movement. Can you still move your tongue? Sure. Do you have to work harder? Probably. Click here  ( to read  “Pain in the Neck” from June 28, 2018 to review more about head balance. Balance your head as well as you can and play some light, staccato repeated notes. Then, do the wrong thing on purpose again. Stick your head forward a bit, chin slightly up, and back of skull down a bit … articulate again. You should notice a different in the sound and, maybe, notice a difference in the amount of effort you have to use to get the same result. Hello again, tongue tension, old friend! Tongue movement is connected to what’s happening with your head.

*** Try these with head joint only first and then, repeat using the entire flute. Giving permission to do it wrong works very well with kids! They love to do the wrong thing on purpose!!!!***

Team Player #4 – Jaw

There’s something else connected to the skull that we need to use for articulating – the jaw. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is where the mandible (jaw) connects to the temporal bone (skull). You have 2 TMJs, one on either side. Put your index finger in the space in front of your ear holes and then move down slightly onto bone. Gently open and close your mouth and you should feel movement here.

We need to have a jaw that is flexible and can move to meet the demands of the music in terms of register, dynamic, and tone color When the mouth opens, the mandible moves down. Sometimes, students move as if they have jaws like a shark…. top and bottom both moving. The top teeth are attached to the maxilla, which is attached to the skull. We do not want baby shark (!. This movement involves moving the whole head up and away. Many flutists have a mini version of Baby Sharkitis happening when they breathe… the whole head moves up, away from head joint. Isn’t it easier to move the smaller piece (jaw) and leave the bigger piece (skull) alone? The masseter is a jaw closing muscle, and you’ve got one on each side. If you clench your teeth together and put your hands on the sides of your jaw, you’ll feel the tension there. If you stop tightening these muscles, your jaw opens in cooperation with gravity. If you go into an unbalanced head position on purpose and repeat this activity, you’ll notice that it’s more work to open. So what? When you head is off balance, it’s impacting your hyoid bone, which is then influencing the quality and ease of your tongue movement. The jaw and tongue need to be able to move independently. Many other common activities such as eating, talking, and chewing combine the movements of jaw and tongue.

Team Player #5 Lips

I don’t want to get into embouchure stuff here because that’s its own thing, but lips and tongue need to be independent as well. Can you stop a note — keep the same shape and then start again without the lip movement?

Sometimes students try to squeeze their lips closed to end notes. Is this ok? Sure, that a great tool to have in the articulation tool box, but it should be situationally dependent. The specific musical demands should require this movement, as opposed to an automatic, default method of ending every note.

Team Player #6 – Teeth

Teeth – you, as the teacher, really do not do much about them. If they’re crooked, then your student will have to adjust. Read more about teeth here –

Some Tips for Inspiring Better Team Play

1) Some flutists with an overbite may need to bring bottom teeth a bit more forward to have better control of angle of air. This means they have to move their jaw forward.

2) What are you doing with your tongue inside as you go to inhale? Many flutists are trying to swallow the tongue back too far. Some have a tense shape inside. Do you have a “set”? Inhale through your nose and then play without any tongue at all.. what’s happening? Is there extra tongue movement that is getting in the way?

3) Cracked first note – this happens when team players aren’t coordinated. Often, we’re trying to set embouchure, blow and move the tongue at the same time. Embouchure movement happens first, followed by air and then tongue movement. Tongue releasing is when the sound starts. Practice with no tongue at all to find the shape of lips, shape of the space inside, and the air speed – then add the tongue.

4) What syllable to use? All of them….Everybody is slightly different. The has been online discussion about specific syllables for double tonguing and many flutists are so convinced that their way is the right way. And it is – for them. Everybody’s face is slightly different though, so we need to have options.

5) Here’s another challenge – a student with a big thick tongue and teeny jaw. You can’t have you tongue shortened (maybe, you can but I wouldn’t recommend it), so you have to figure out how to move that tongue within the available space. This is why there is no universal truth.

Coaching the Articulation Team

Teacher responsibility is to ask and ask and ask students what they are doing inside. We can’t see in there. Based on what they say, we can provide clear, concise anatomically correct advice. I have two current students who are very successful, life-long single reed players and we spend a lot of time trying to figure out what single reed tongue/jaw movement is showing up with the flute and then experimenting with ways to eliminate these movements that don’t work well on the flute.  Habits are hard things to change. If you’re working with young kids, get them articulating right away with their first lesson. Do not let them get away with air attacks.

Articulation skills need regular practicing ,just like everything else. The team players need to be engaged and appropriately working together to produce the desired result. As a teacher, I sometimes forget about this because different articulation patterns have always been easy for me. (Here’s an example of defaulting to what we know best as teachers). I am reminded with my middle school kids that changing the slurs with arpeggios is not so easy.  A clear understanding of what movements are happening and how the team players are working together contributes to consistent articulation skill development over time.

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