Flutter Tonguing: Oboe & English Horn

Jacquline LeClair

All this we hear about flutter-tonguing requiring a “knack”, or being a genetically endowed skill seems inaccurate to me. The tongue is by far the most agile, sophisticated and impressive muscle (4 groups of muscles) in the human body. Its flexible feats of taste, sensation, mastication and speech – performed constantly and adapting all the time (usually without us even thinking about it) — must rank the tongue as one of the all-time greatest human anatomic features. The tongue is a formidable implement, the limits of which we musicians probably only begin to test.

So, rather than jumping to pre-emptive conclusions about our tongues’ INABILITIES, let us assume that our tongues will do just about any articulation we imagine including flutter-tonguing…especially if we work at it.

Flutter-tongue has been written for the oboe since very early this Century in pieces such as Varese’s Octandre (1924). Like all the other “extended” techniques, flutter-tongue is called for with increasing frequency as musical styles continue to cross-pollinate and the Oboe is asked to produce the same variety of effects other instruments produce. Therefore, it makes sense to learn how to do it…Everyone can learn to flutter-tongue.

There are THREE basic ways to produce flutter-tongue: at the back of the mouth with the uvula or soft palate, in the front of the mouth with the tip of the tongue, and in the front of the mouth with the middle/front of the tongue. Flutter-tongue is produced by the relaxed tongue being raised to “get in the way” of the air stream traveling through the oral cavity, resulting in the tongue fluttering. The flutter can occur anywhere on the tongue.

A) Fluttering at the back of the mouth, the “gargling” technique generally produces a weaker flutter effect than is desired. This technique does have the advantage, however, of not interfering with embouchure control. (This technique is essentially snoring, but in reverse.)

B) Fluttering with the tip of the tongue interferes with the embouchure and articulation control. The oboist usually allows air to escape around the reed and loosens the embouchure to accommodate the flutter. The flutter effect is pronounced, but the sacrifice of control is usually substantial.

C) Fluttering with the middle/front of the tongue provides a strong and adjustable flutter effect. It imposes virtually no effect on the embouchure or articulation control. This is the technique I recommend. The illustrations above show normal playing position of the tongue, and the fluttering position of the tongue. (The exact point of the flutter can be farther forward or back in the mouth.) This flutter technique is characterized by the tip of the tongue remaining motionless (against the lower teeth), and some point of the tongue fluttering against the roof of the mouth. The farther forward the point of flutter, the stronger the flutter effect. Since the tip of the tongue and the embouchure remain in their normal positions, the oboist’s control remains virtually unaffected.

You can learn to flutter-tongue with the middle/front of your tongue by doing the following:

  1. Identify the necessary tongue movement and get comfortable with it: Pronouncing the words “chutzpah” and “jalapeno” uses the desired tongue movement: the “ch” of “chutzpah” and the “j” of “jalapeno”. (You can probably think of other words that use this sound, such as “le chaim”.) If you are not familiar with these words, ask around about how they are pronounced so you will be sure to pronounce the “flutter” sounds correctly.)
  2. Practice SAYING the word(s) you choose. Focus on the “flutter” part of the word and how you produce the sound. While saying the words, exaggerate the “flutter” sound, elongating it and making it loud. If you don’t get the sound right away, fool around with it, move your tongue in all different ways. You’ll eventually get some kind of flutter. Experiment with pronouncing your word(s) for a while, stay relaxed and have fun with it. This process will get you comfortable with physically producing a flutter.
  3. Once you are secure with step 2. practice making the flutter sound alone (the “ch” of chutzpah or the “j” of “jalapeno”). Again, make the sound loudly and energetically! (Do not practice this in crowded elevators.) The more definite you make your physical action, the more quickly and clearly your brain will understand it. Keep the tip of your tongue stationary (against your lower teeth).Get secure producing this flutter sound, keeping the tip of your tongue stationary.The middle/front flutter-tongue is a slightly relaxed, refined version of this “ch” or “j” sound. Once you are comfortable with steps 1 – 3, try simplifying the sound you are making to a quieter flutter. Make sure the tip of your tongue is not moving.
  4. Take your oboe (with a reed in it) and place the reed on your bottom lip keeping your mouth open. (Do not form an embouchure.) Make the flutter sound, keeping the tip of your tongue stationary against the back of your bottom teeth. Remember to make a big, loud sound using lots of air…very definite! Get used to this for a while. Do this quite a few times. (No playing.)
  5. Gradually start directing your air into the reed little by little as you are making the flutter sound, and only very gradually form anything resembling an embouchure. Keep lots of air going. FOCUS ON KEEPING THE AIR AND THE FLUTTER SOUND GOING. Use a very, very loose embouchure as you start to make a sound, and make any sound at first. (The tone, pitch, etc… doesn’t matter at all.) Your main goal is to keep the flutter going while you start making an oboe sound. Remember to blow lots of air.
  6. When you are comfortable making sounds on the oboe with flutter (not “real” notes), form a normal embouchure little by little. Keep the tip of your tongue stationary on your lower teeth, and proceed very gradually beginning to play “real” notes.
  7. Begin refining your flutter-tongue.

Each time you begin practicing flutter-tonguing, always start at step 1, and work through the steps methodically. (If you jump right to the step where you left off, you will have a much harder time learning this technique.)

  • Always begin with what you can do well!

Normally, one must practice flutter-tongue consistently and methodically over a long period of time in order to master it completely. Eventually you will feel confident flutter-tonguing in any range of your instrument at any dynamic; and you will be able to start and stop the flutter at will. Also, you will be able to move the flutter forward or backward in your mouth to strengthen or weaken the effect. It does take time, so be patient and enjoy the process!