“Tip of the tongue” mythology and the flute

As woodwind players we are often taught that articulation requires the use of the tip of the tongue and no more—to use more than the tip would just be wrong!

For reed instruments, I think this is essentially true, but I don’t think it works that way on the flute. Try this:

  1. Using a reed instrument mouthpiece, or substituting a (clean) finger, simulate “tip of the tongue” articulation. Find the very tip of the tongue and touch it lightly to the tip of the reed (real or imaginary). With the tongue frozen in this position, apply some air pressure. If you allow the lips to “unseal” from around the mouthpiece at this point, air escapes.
  2. Now try it with nothing inside your mouth, in the manner of a flutist. Touch just the very tip of the tongue to your favorite articulation spot (palate, teeth, or maybe lip, depending on your pedagogical pedigree) as though about to tongue a note, and apply air pressure. Notice all the air leaking out? Me neither.

Are you really holding back  all that air with just the very tip of your tongue? While I think “tip of the tongue” is still a useful fiction for flute playing, it seems to me that I must actually use a surprising amount of tongue to seal off the air from escaping—the sides of my tongue contact my molars to help contain the air until I am ready to release it.

Photo, drurydrama
Photo, drurydrama

(The tip of the tongue is effective for reed instruments because it is only necessary to prevent the reed from vibrating as the air pressure is applied—a very small amount of tongue is quite effective for this.)

The “tip of the tongue” is a good concept for helping flutists to keep their articulation light, crisp, and relaxed, and I don’t particularly recommend teaching the sides-of-the-tongue thing to students as it can easily be misunderstood or taken too far. But I do think a clearer understanding of the invisible parts of woodwind playing can help advanced students and their teachers diagnose and solve subtler problems.


4 responses to ““Tip of the tongue” mythology and the flute”

  1. Steven Hugley Avatar
    Steven Hugley

    Thank you. I had my beginning flute players recite “tip of the tongue behind the teeth.” I then told them. “Every time you said ‘t’ that’s where you tongue.” That seemed to work fairly well.

  2. Ann Satterfield Avatar
    Ann Satterfield

    your description makes sense. Noticed that I felt more confident this week at band rehearsal—a community band — usually now play 2nd flute.
    You are correct that having a physically accurate description of what is happening is reassuring.

    I try to be very careful in my descriptions; and be clear when using imagination to accomplish or reinforce an experience.

    The ultimate test— Does it sound good.

  3. Megan Williams Avatar
    Megan Williams

    Hey Bret! I was wondering if you find this “fiction” to be true for clarinet also. I have never tongued with the tip of my tongue on the tip of my reed, and I find that when students do that they create a thin articulation.

    What do you think?

    1. No, I believe this applies to flute only, and I recommend tip-of-tongue, tip-of-reed for clarinet.

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