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NATIVE AMERICAN FLUTE FORUM
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Tonguing Techniques
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by Robert Sweetriver Bellus
 
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     One of the most important skills in your quiver of flute techniques is a wide variety of well-controlled and predictable attacks, or the physical way you start each note. It works for Lauren Bacall to "Just put your lips together and blow," but when you're trying to express yourself on the Native American Flute, you need to start and finish each note in a particular way for a particular effect. The key to all of this is playing and experimenting.


     For the remainder of this discussion, keep in mind the following: 'Embouchure' refers to the way you hold, control and use the combination of your lips, mouth, tongue and teeth in conjunction with your flute. In the exercises below, the vowels are pronounced as in the romance languages: The vowel 'a' is pronounced as 'ah' or as in the word 'saw.' The vowel 'e' is pronounced as a long 'a' as in the word 'say.' The vowel 'i' is pronounced as a long 'e' as in the word 'see.' The vowel 'o' is pronounced as a long 'o' as in the word 'toe.' The vowel 'u' is a short 'u' as in the word 'too.' The results of all of the below tonguing techniques will vary with the way that you personally play. It will also change from flute to flute, depending on the diameter of the opening into the pressure chamber, back pressure developed, in what part of the range you're playing, and lots of other variables.
     I'm going to try to describe these techniques without using too much technical language or obscure musical terms. The key to all of this is playing and experimenting. No Attack, No Tonguing - There are times when this is appropriate and effective. You do, in fact, put your lips to the flute and blow air through it without any intervention of your tongue. This gives a soft attack, often airy or breathy, and often not precise or controllable as to exactly when the note starts. Most Beginners start out this way, and in order to give their playing some variety, need to learn some of the below techniques.
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     Standard Attack - Best described by making your tongue pronounce the syllable 'ta' against the end of the flute. Try different positions - on the end of the flute, just off of the end of the flute, covering the hole, partially covering the hole. Try different pressures of air just before you pronounce the 't' sound. Depending on what you are trying to do with the note, and what you are doing with the rest of your embouchure, you will get different sounds using various of the different vowels above. The most common combinations to try for most players would be 'ta' or 'tu' or sometimes 'to.' The widening of your lips to pronounce 'te' and 'ti' (and what it does to your embouchure) will be more difficult for most, and give you a different result. Exercise: ta ta ta ta taaaaaaaaaah tu tu tu tu tuuuuuuuuu to to to to tooooooo Then try different combinations in different orders. Try it at different speeds. Try it at increasing and then decreasing speed. Become familiar with the result, and be aware of how you feel about the result. How it makes you feel. What kind of song or phrase you would want to use it for. What kind of feeling does it get across?
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     Soft Attack - This is accomplished in a very similar way to the standard attack, but instead of using 't' as the initial sound, use the letter 'd.' Go through all of the above exercises substituting 'd' for 't.' With the softer attack, you will often want to use less air, especially in the air pressure with the initial pronunciation of the 'd.' Think about relaxing your embouchure in general.
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     Hard Attack - This is accomplished in a very similar way to the standard attack, but before you start the air stream through the flute by pronouncing the 't,' build up pressure in your mouth, and pronounce the 't' with a percussive initial sound. Think of trying to spit a small hair or a small bug off of the tip of your tongue. Bring your embouchure to attention, but don't freeze your whole face. Try this with varying degrees of initial percussive force. You can develop some very stylish initial sounds using this technique. For instance, in the lower range (e.g. all six holes covered), it's easy to overblow and obtain a small quick chirp in the upper octave before dropping in to the final low note. Try this with varying finger combinations.
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     Chirping - Another technique that grows out of the Hard Attack is Chirping. Try different combinations of levels of pressure on the attack, different lengths of the note, and different ways of stopping the note. Difficult to describe, but try for some small birds sounds, and then look toward some insect sounds. After you have tried all of that, try it with different fingering combinations going into and coming out of the note. Loosen up your embouchure and be expressive with it. Is this making sense? The key to all of this is playing and experimenting.
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     The Slur - This means not tonguing the next note, but just moving to it with a different fingering with no attack from your tongue. You would start the phrase, the first note, with one of the tonguing techniques, and then not tongue as you move to the next note. Try the same phrase over and over with different tonguing in different places, and different notes you decide to slur to and from. This is different than the Slide or the Bend, which is a more gradual change of pitch, and moves into areas beyond tonguing. Before trying that, make sure you can move cleanly from note to note, with the option of either tonguing or slurring. Try it in lots of different configurations. Try also moving from note to note with an action somewhere between using no help from your tongue at all, to using a very slight flicking of the soft attack technique. This is not black and white here. It's a continuum, with lots of shades of gray, and some lovely phrasing possibilities. The key to all of this is playing and experimenting.
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     Double-Tonguing - This is an advanced technique which takes practice to master. Rather than tonguing successive notes with 'tu' at the beginning of each note, you start the second note with a percussive sound from your throat, best described by quickly enunciating 'tu-ku." You might do this for two reasons. The first, and most common reason, is that you can double-tongue much faster that you can single-tongue. You can say 'tu-ku tu-ku' faster and easier than you can say 'tu tu tu tu.' Try double-tonguing, saying 'tu-ku tu-ku tu-ku tu-ku' over and over, going faster and faster. Eventually, you should be able to make both syllables sound the same to the listener, and a steady even pace. The other reason for double-tonguing is that it gives a different sound, especially when performed slowly, than single-tonguing. Once you are familiar with the technique, you may find yourself using it for a particular effect, even if you don't need it for articulating individual notes quickly.
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     Triple-Tonguing - Another advanced technique, used when you want to articulate notes in rapid succession in triplets, or groups of three. Try saying 'tu-tu-ku' or tu-tu-ka' or eventually, work with 'tu-da-ka' which works the best for many players for the fastest articulation. Try a lot of combinations, playing them through your flute, until you find something that works best for you. Again, make sure you have evenly spaced notes, each of which sounds as much like the others as possible. Once you have found the technique that works best for you, you can practice this any time. Next time you're driving in your car, turn on the radio, find some up tempo music, and double- and triple-tongue along, using your mouth as a percussion instrument. Think about being the tambourine - play with the rhythms - try different combinations of double- and triple-tonguing. Go back and forth, trying different combinations with successive verses.
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     Flutter Tonguing - Not really an attack technique, but since it is called tonguing, we'll go over it here. This sound is actually produced during the duration of the note (as opposed to being specifically used to start the note), and is accomplished by literally fluttering your tongue in your mouth while making the flute produce a note. If you could 'roll your 'r's' in Spanish Class, you've got a good chance here. It will probably take a little practice to figure out when this works best. Some flutes will like it better than others, and it works better in some ranges than others. You can "flutter in" to a note, using the flutter tongue from the initial attack, or use one of the other attacks, and change to the flutter tongue. It's sometimes easier for Beginning Flutterers to "flutter in" at a fairly loud dynamic level. One other word of caution: A little bit of flutter tonguing goes a long ways.
     The key to all of this is playing and experimenting. Your next assignment is figuring out yet another way to start a note. These are the most common, but by no means an exhaustive collection. Then your next step is to determine the best ways to STOP your notes. Hint: Try variations of the Standard, Soft, Hard and No attack techniques. The key to all of this is playing and experimenting. Did I mention that?
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     Excerpted from The Sweetriver Method of Learning Native American Flute
      1999 Robert Sweetriver Bellus
     MTNA (Music Teachers National Association)
     CAPMT (California Association of Professional Music Teachers)
     Leader, Northern California Flute Circle
     POB 1010, Calistoga, CA
     94515
     (707) 942-0101
     sweetriver@naflute.com
     This document may be used or reproduced in any way for any purpose, as long as it is used in its entirety, including the above attribution and contact information.
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Updated December 2009 - catNcap Enterprises