Some thoughts on flutter tonguing Part 1 - An approach.

I was inspired by a recent post on the Facebook Horn People group about flutter tonguing. It is a question that comes up fairly often, and I find myself writing the same thing over and over again. Which is not a bad thing, I think it's great that people want to learn to flutter, and am always reassured when people show up (in comments) to support the value of flutter tonguing as more than just an "effect", which it also gets written up as. 

I think it is of value to note that flutter tonguing comes up often, in many contexts. The more new music you play the more of it you will encounter. There are times where one can make an argument that it is merely an effect, as well there are times where it is a colour, or a shift in timbre, a musical device, etc. So we can't just view it as a singular and one dimensional technique. That would be like saying that stopped horn is only an effect to make something sound brassy. 

So the goal of part one is to outline the approach I took to learn to flutter, as well to provide some other thoughts I have been fortunate to gather from other horn players, brass players, and more in regards to having a functional and effective flutter tongue.

Up First, the Approach:

The first thing I want to do is break down my approach to teaching, and how I myself learned to flutter. I want to emphasize, if it's not a thing you just get right away, it will take work. Like anything else, there is no magic pill, or light switch we can flip to make it suddenly happen, it will take some effort, but, here we go

Step 1: Take away the horn, and the mouthpiece, we are only going to need your face, and maybe a piece of paper (I'd recommend the piece of paper). 

Step 2: Place the tip of the tongue in the place you would do your usually TA articulation (this is important as we want to relate this technique and placement to something we already know). Once here you want to keep the tip of the tongue in a point, or shaped like a ski tip. Relax the back of the tongue, and then blow air towards a piece of paper, or hand that you are holding in front of your face. You want to try to keep the tip of the tongue pressed against the TA location with as little effort as possible.

Rinse, lather, repeat until you get a flutter going.

Here are a few key things you can keep focused on: tongue placement, make sure you are blowing your air with energy and intent towards that external point (piece of paper, hand, etc). We want to make sure we aren't blowing at our tongue, but past it.  We are in essence, obstructing the air stream before it starts the embouchure in motion so AIR FLOW is crucial.

Step 3: Once you get something going (it may be kind of janky at first, but keep with it, keep using the monitor) repeat the process with the mouthpiece, and the again with the horn. When we add the metal into the mix the feeling will be that we "lose space" for the tongue, but keep focused on the key points of tongue placement, and air flow. I would recommend starting on a mid-range note (something around the middle C range) and when that becomes secure start doing intervals, scale fragments, etc. Remember the goal at this point is working on the fundamental skill and getting that down (remember things like lip slurs, and long tones... this is like that, you can even do lip slurs, and long tones with a flutter.)

So beyond needing to have this skill as a horn player what are some reasons we care? Here are some points to consider, flutter tonguing needs great air, so you will get incredible air control from it. It helps tremendously doing flutter scales over your break, and even more. Anything air related will benefit from this. So stick with it.

Part 2 of this post will be a look at some examples of flutter in practice in different settings, and more!

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Now, for this post, if there was one lesson I could share it is as follows:


In my time teaching and working with students I always liked to listen to how students warmed up (as well as professionals, of course) and the biggest difference I noticed is how fast people jump into "hard for them" stuff, and how much time is spent on the basics of tone production. Younger players, in general tended to grab their horns and just jump right into it, trying to play through scales, etc. and generally running into problems, then going back and forth over them. 

Let's take a moment and break down an example of this. Let's consider the following scenario: you are/you have/you are teaching a student that is having a hard time getting all the pitches in a C major (F concert scale). Here is how it manifests itself. The player starts playing, they get success on the first few notes, then as the ascend the scale (usually tonguing) the pitches start to get away from them, the sound starts to diffuse, and the ability to get the right pitches, at the right time goes away. Sound familiar? This is a very common scenario I see, I usually show up and am told that the student can't play pitches above a certain note, and has a hard time pitching. My first step when this happens to me, or to someone/a group I am teaching is the first question, what do you usually do to warm up. This is based on a presumption that scales form a large part of band method (which it usually does). The usual answer I get is along these lines:

I start buzzing a bit, then play some scales, and get to music. Sounds good right? So I ask the students to go through this process, take their time, etc. Generally this means a few seconds of a buzz, scrambling around a scale (trying to play it really fast) and that's it... all done in under a minute. Now we have to assume the teachers presence will cause them to rush things, so I give the benefit of the doubt and try to get them to repeat it, and just slow down and take more time, slur their scales (just a few notes at a time), and find a nice sound. I was always surprised to be met with the following responses.

1. We never practice sluring.
2. We have to play our scales at 8th notes at 100bpm (usually in grade 7 or so)

For consistency, I generally observed these same things when observing large groups of students warming up: fast, tongued, and random (not in a "wow! they are improvising a scale exercise" or something similar)

The take away from this is as follows, SLOW DOWN, slur things, focus on a narrow range of comfortable pitches to start, and allow it to expand from that core. Band method can force people into the extremes pretty quickly, so the duty to teach simple and effective exercises that don't overwhelm the students can end up falling to us, the teacher. Finally, practice slurs, just between two notes... it can open up the entire world. 

In my experience professionals, and students that are achieving more consistent results start their day out slow. Single tones, relaxed, efficient, and focused on getting the simple stuff in order. After that those positive habits are stretched out into the other areas of playing. 

If you have seen my student horn book you will notice right away that one of the key approaches is to create a simple sound, and then reach out with it. As the exercises move forward, this approach is expanded in several ways. At the end of the day, in my experience, if we want results, we need to make sure we SLOW DOWN and make sure the sounds we make are the ones we mean to, and want to.