The Art of Articuation

Most people, when they are taught how to play the Native American style flute are shown where to put their fingers. Yet even beginning NAF players know to cover the holes on a flute because they see other flute players do this. What can’t be seen is the thing that makes a flute sing, which is a stream of air. Who can see the air? Who can see the wind? Wind is the one thing needed to produce the sound of a flute. Flutes, after all, are wind instruments, not “finger” instruments. How a flute sounds: soft, gentle, harsh, warm, thin, full, or clear, is a product of how a stream of air flows through it. NAF players, unfortunately, are rarely taught about their air stream, their breathing or articulation.
Articulation: The creation of clear and distinct sounds. Both in speech and music. In speech, articulation is the creation of clear and distinct words. In music, articulation is the creation of clear and distinct notes. How a note starts, stops and moves to other notes are all parts of musical articulation.
In a wind instrument, a stream of air blown into a tube produces vibrations. The frequency of a vibration produces a tone. If the player starts the stream of air in a too soft or hesitant manner, the tone will rise in pitch, like a whine. If the stream of air is stopped in a hesitant manner, the pitch drops down, producing a moaning sound.
Listen to a NAF using no articulation:
Figure 1
These notes are not well articulated causing them to sound sour and unpleasant. Who wants to listen to a moaning flute? Who wants to play a moaning flute?

When properly articulated, the rising and lowering of the pitch goes away, leaving a well defined phrase.
Listen to a NAF using articulation:
Figure 2
How to Articulate on a NAF
In wind instruments, like the NAF, a note is articulated with a movement of the tongue. Most people have wordlessly sung a song to themselves using nothing but their tongues to create notes. They let a soft stream of air flow through the throat and mouth, and articulate the notes with a syllable, like
La-La-La, or, Da-Da-Da. (Pop singers are sometimes paid to do this.) When singing this way, the mouth moves very little, if at all, instead the tip of the tongue clearly defines the notes. This technique is used to articulate notes with wind instruments, and is called a Single Tongue. The player silently says a syllable into the flute to create a tongue movement. These syllables are made up of a consonant and a vowel, with the most common being Da (“Dah”), Do, Du, Ta, To or Tu. In duct flutes, like the NAF, penny whistles, Irish low whistles and recorders, the most common is Da. Why Da?

Starting an air steam with a consonant gives it an extra bit of push which helps articulate a note, while the vowel helps shape the mouth to maintain a good tone and an open throat. The nature of the NAF requires that the extra push from the consonant not be too hard, or harsh. The consonant T produces this harder push and causes the air stream to aspirate, while the consonant D is softer and does not aspirate.

Experience how different consonants aspirate an air stream for yourself. Hold your hand in front of your mouth with your palm open. Silently say
Ta or To against your palm. You will feel a blast of air. Now say Da (“Dah”) or Do. There is little, to no blast of air. This clearly demonstrates that the harder blast of air from a T consonant is a bad choice for the NAF, while the softer D consonant is a good choice. Of the D syllables, Da is the softest and the vowel of a, (pronounced “ah”) creates an open and relaxed throat. Perfect for the NAF.

In example 2 above, each phrase was started with a gentle
Da articulation. This gets the air stream excited quicker than just blowing into the flute, creating a clean, well articulated note at the beginning of each phrase. Just pushing air into the flute causes the audible rising of pitch. Blasting air into the flute will create an unpleasant, over blown and squeaky tone. If you blow gently while saying a soft Da with your tongue you can get a nice, clean start to the tone.

Articulation is also used to stop a note. In example 1, the breath slowly fades, and the note audibly lowers in pitch, creating a moan. While this might work well as an occasional special effect, if a player can’t control this, they will always sound like they’re moaning, which quickly becomes annoying and unpleasant. One way to cleanly and clearly stop a note is to place the tongue on the alveolar ridge just above the upper teeth. This is the same place you put your tongue when starting to say
Da. Imagine you are about to say Da, but stop your tongue against the alveolar ridge instead. This interrupts the air stream and causes the note to cleanly stop. In example 2, the last note of each phrase is cleanly stopped with the tongue being placed against the alveolar ridge.

Most music played on the NAF only needs a single articulation on the first note of a phrase, while the rest of the notes are usually articulated by simply moving fingers. This style of playing is called legato. (Italian for connected.) Music that is to be played legato is notated with a curved line over (or under) the notes, called a slur line. Slur lines show which notes should be played legato, and can also indicate phrases and which notes are to be played in one breath. Here is an example of a slur line over a group of notes indicating they are to be played legato:
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Figure 3a

The slur line is joining all the notes into one legato phrase, and breath. Normally this would mean that only the first note of the phrase, the minor 7, would be articulated with the tongue.

Here is what that would sound like:
Figure 3b
A common bad playing habit among many NAF players is to (over) articulate every single note, which quickly becomes harsh and unpleasant. Every note is played too hard, as if there were a musical accent symbol (>) over each note, and there is no smooth legato. If the composer intended the music to be played this way, they would put accent marks over each note and perhaps even write for it to be played fortissimo (very loud) or ff:
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Figure 4a

Hear what this sounds like:

Figure 4b

I frequently hear many Native American style flute players play this way every time they play. This is not at all the sound of the NAF that everyone loves and admires. The notes are harsh, and the upper harmonics are too strong and everything sounds stressful.

To me, over articulating notes is more unpleasant than weak articulation. It causes a flute to squeak frequently and jump to the upper octave. The harder aspirations created by over tonguing, and blowing, pushes more moisture from the mouth into the flute, causing it to water out quicker. This extra moisture creates even more squeaks and octave jumps.

Blowing too hard, especially with a T consonant, always causes problems, particularly for inexperienced players who might not even be aware they play this way. It then develops into a (bad) habit that becomes more pronounced when they are nervous, like when performing. Performing suddenly makes them aware they sound bad, causing them become more anxious, causing them to blow even harder trying to compensate, then their flute waters out, and they start to panic... All the while they aren’t even truly aware of what just happened and
how to correct it. Some people blame their flutes..

Deeper Articulation
Take a closer look at the notes in Figure 3a, and notice that in the second measure there are two
5’s played back-to-back. Since there is not a finger movement to articulate the second 5, the tongue needs to articulate the note to prevent it from sounding like a continuation of the first 5. Here is how the articulation could be displayed:
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Figure 5

The first note of the phrase gets a normal Da articulation, while the following notes are articulated with finger movements over the “ah”. For the second of the two 5s, the tongue does another Da, but without stopping the breath. At the end of the last note, the tongue is placed on the alveolar ridge, cleanly stopping the air stream and the note. Listen to example 3a again and listen for the articulated second 5.

Not all music for the NAF is legato, especially when a song is lively and has many fun rhythms. Sometimes the articulation might call for notes to be played staccato (Italian for detached), or a mixture of legato and staccato. A good example is
Condor Dance from the Songs for the Journey Collection found in The Complete Guide to the Native American style flute. In the excerpt below some notes have a dot over them indicating that they are to be played staccato, but there are also notes with a slur line that need to be phrased together, in which case only the first note would be tongued and the rest of the notes under the slur line are part of the first note’s air stream.
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Figure 6: Condor Dance (excerpt)

Listen to Condor Dance
The nature of the NAF however dictates a certain amount of “lightness” to the articulation. Just because a tune is played staccato doesn’t mean that it has to be heavily articulated, pushed, or over blown.

Mixed articulations are not always found in tricky and highly rhythmic music, nor are the indications for the different articulations always obvious. A good example is
Little Crow Dance, another song from The Complete Guide to the Native American style flute. Below is the first line from the song:
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Figure 7: Little Crow Dance (excerpt)

In Little Crow Dance the notes are clearly joined by slur lines showing legato phrases, each one breath. However, just like example 3a, this song has repeated notes.
Hopefully the techniques covered in this article will give you the tools to begin adding articulations to your playing.

Also, more tonguing techniques can be found in the Embellishment section of
The Complete Guide to the Native American style flute.

Learn to Play the Native American Flute

Get One-on-One instruction for articulation and other Native American style flute playing techniques through private lessons with Scott August.
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