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:
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!
Circular breathing — both inhaling and exhaling — make playing the oboe a much more comfortable experience. The big hurdle one needs to overcome in order to circular breathe is this:
Convince the brain that it's possible and okay to have sound coming out of your oboe while you are inhaling.
The brain is conditioned to believe:
EXHALING = PLAYING / INHALING = NOT PLAYING
So, we must recondition ourselves…here's how to do it:
Away from the oboe, just puff your cheeks way out, lips closed.
Force the air in your cheeks OUT, making a loud "pfffphhppfff!" sound. Do this aggressively and enthusiastically…It must be a very definite, CLEAR action.
Repeat step 2 quite a few times.
Now (still without the oboe) EXHALE, then puff your cheeks and make the "pfffphhppfff!" sound and inhale simultaneously. Focus on having the "pfffphhppfff!" and your inhalation happen at exactly the same moment. Practice this many times so you become very confident with it. (The more flamboyantly and dramatically you do this, the more quickly you will pick it up. You should definitely look and sound silly while practicing this.) Stay on this step until the "pfffphhppfff!" and your inhalation become not two paired actions, but rather ONE SIMPLE ACTION that you hardly need to think about to do. (This is important because when circular breathing on the oboe, you need it to be ONE action, not TWO. So practice without the oboe until the above is really ONE event, not a combination of two.)
Once step 4 is old-hat, play a note on the oboe. While playing the note, puff your cheeks way out. Just that. Do this a few times to get comfortable with it…puffing and un-puffing your cheeks as you play a note.
Now do step 4 again (away from the oboe). Next, play a note and try doing step 4 while playing a note. **MAKE SURE YOU EXHALE ALL THE WAY BEFORE TRYING TO CIRCULAR BREATHE, SO THAT YOU REALLY NEED TO INHALE. THIS HELPS A LOT!!!!** If you get stuck, STOP, and do step 4 again a few times without the oboe; then try it again while playing a note. IF YOU CAN DO STEP 4 AWAY FROM THE OBOE, YOU CAN ALSO DO IT WHILE PLAYING. It's just a matter of getting accustomed to it (getting over that hurdle!). Keep fooling around with this step for a while, patiently and playfully. Remind yourself as you go to exaggerate your actions and enthusiasm, and make sure you look at least a little ridiculous in the process. You will eventually get the hang of it.
Gradually incorporate circular breathing into your practice. Try it during scales, long tones, trill exercises and so on. Little by little, circular breathing will become a comfortable part of your normal technique. As you become familiar with circular breathing, you will realize that exhaling is possible as well as the more common inhaling (the air simply travels in the other direction). As oboists, we have a perhaps unique use for this variation, exhaling all that air we don't use.
Circular breathing on the oboe can also be done without puffing out the cheeks. The TONGUE can be used to push the air out of the mouth to sustain the sound.
Take your time with this process. It is normal to spend a year or more of steady work getting comfortable with circular breathing. Be patient and enjoy the process!
As you are developing your circular breathing, it will be helpful if you go through all the steps each time you work on it, so you remain organized and confident. Always begin with what you CAN do. Then move on to the steps that are challenging.
Remember, you are convincing your brain to reconsider the most fundamental aspect of playing: breathing itself. It makes sense that the process will take a while. Be patient.
Once you can circular breathe, you will refine your skills over time so that you can circular breathe imperceptibly. In the beginning, practice during scales and long tones. Try it in public during loud tutti passages, during trills and other places where no one will notice you circular breathing. After you become more confident, try circular breathing in more exposed situations. Gradually, you will develop the skill to circular breathe very well in many musical situations.
Persist gently, methodically, patiently and with a sense of humor.
You will succeed.
Productive practice is serious fun, only as challenging as is productive, very inventive, and always focuses on the positive. You bring all your practice on stage with you to perform, not just the good practice. So make all your practice really good.
Rule of thumb: Practicing music "the way it goes" is of limited productivity compared with strategic practice that breaks up the materials and works on them in various ways (below). Playing through music as written is fine, but in my mind, should comprise only a small percentage of practice time. (Of course, close to a performance, one should frequently play through the music as it will be performed to be well-prepared.)
Keep a practice journal to record all aspects of your progress over the weeks, months, and years. Write down your teachers’ and coaches’ advice.
BREAK IT DOWN
Practice notes/intervals only, all the same duration (metronome at 54 or so, one or two notes per beat), focusing on tuning, tone, relationships, etc. Slur everything. If you can play all the intervals perfectly, with good intonation, matching tone, clean transitions, then it makes sense to move on and add more detail. But first, play intervals only, all-slurred. (Tonguing hides all kinds of weaknesses.)
Practice only basic material, anchor notes only, all slurred. Remove all auxiliary notes, ornaments, passing tones, etc. Practice until the basic skeleton of the phrase is perfect and convincing. Then gradually add the other notes and articulation, maintaining the convincing qualities you practiced with the basic notes only.
Practice at 1/4 tempo with the metronome. Enhance phrasing, play very expressively. Slow down all material correspondingly, grace notes, for example.
Plan out a practice session of, say, an hour in intervals of 5 to 10 minutes. For each interval, set an actual timer and the rule is you must stop practicing when the time is up. Plan what exactly in detail to practice and the aspects to focus on during the short intervals of practice. When the timer rings, stop and assess in detail how the practicing went. Plan what that material needs the next time you practice it. Then take several seconds and plan the next short practice interval of music on DIFFERENT material, do the same: plan, execute, assess in short, timed intervals throughout the practice session of an hour. If you are practicing, for example, a chamber music piece, a concerto, scales, and long tones, alternate between them. Any one of those, you'll do only for only several minutes before stopping and switching to other material.
reduces stress and anxiety, because the tasks are very specific and short.
Improves learning because cross training is more effective, cognitively, for absorbing material, better than long chunks of time on one piece. If you practice an orchestra excerpt for a total of two hours over the course of a week in four half-hour chunks, you will learn less and be less accomplished than if you practice the orchestral excerpt a total of two hours in 12 ten-minute chunks.
Allows the musician to notice any overuse or misuse, discomfort/pain, etc more effectively and correct it frequently
Gives the musician a sense of purpose at the beginning and a sense of clear accomplishment at the end. The musicians knows exactly what she accomplished because the practice was highly organized and reflective throughout.
RHYTHMIC VARIATIONS to SOLIDIFY TECHNIQUE
Practice with the metronome at 50, playing the material in the following rhythm, all slurred (no articulation at all): a long note, worth almost two clicks of the metronome with a short crescendo at the end, a VERY fast, forte, and clean note right before the 2nd click. This short note should be as short as possible, any shorter and it wouldn't be a note. NO CHEATING! Continue alternating the long note with a crescendo at the end, and the loud, short note. Each time you start a long note, bring the dynamic down to piano and play a short crescendo leading to the forte, short note.
While you are playing the long note, REVIEW and ASSESS the short note and arrival on the long note you just played; and PLAN the short-note-to-long-note you are about to play.
While using this technique, ignore repeated notes and rests. Play only the intervals other than unisons. Include grace notes, etc, and treat them the same.
The CRESCENDO and LOUD SHORT NOTE are crucial to this technique. Make very sure you include those details.
Practice the same as above, but start with the short, forte note ON the metronome's click. Play a short crescendo to forte right before the 2nd click, placing the short note right on the click. Many people find they have to concentrate quite carefully to play the short note on the click rather than before it. Remember to make a big crescendo toward the end of the long note, play the short note very strongly, and then reduce the dynamic to piano at the beginning of each long note.
Practice the same techniques as above: long/short and short/long, but play TWO very short notes.
Practice the same techniques as above: long/short and short/long, but play THREE very short notes. You can play as many short notes as you like, but probably five would be enough.
NB: Virtually no repertoire is at as fast a tempo as the short notes you will play in these techniques. Practicing like this, you will play 100% of the intervals super-fast. As you clean it up so that each interval is very clean, you will be as well-prepared as possible to perform the music as it actually goes. I find this technique absolutely invaluable. Keep in mind, this technique can be done even in repertoire with very wide intervals.
Also, please note this technique is great for music of all tempi, not just rapid passages. Slow music benefits from this practice as well.
ADDING MATERIAL FAST but GRADUALLY
Also for improving technique: when learning a passage, playing with the metronome at a pretty fast tempo once you've learned the notes/intervals pretty well. Play the passage beginning at the first note each time: stopping on the 2nd, then stop on the 3rd note, then the 4th, the 5th, and so on to the last note of the passage. Do this until each note feels completely solid and convincing, well-voiced when you arrive on it.
Practice materials like scales and arpeggios extremely quietly, ppp, striving for evenness, good response, good intonation, etc.
PHYSICAL CHALLENGES to IMPROVE FOCUS
When you are able to play a complete work, excerpts, étude, etc, play a run-through standing on one foot to challenge concentration (those who can do so). Also, while playing standing on one foot, certain bad habits become impossible (leaning forward, and some kinds of excess motion, for example).
When you are able to perform run-throughs of a work, a recital, a concerto, whatever it is you have coming up to perform, perform it for others often, daily if possible. If you are tired, and really don't feel like running through your program, that's the BEST time to play a run-through. Knowing you have played lots of run-throughs, and that you can get through your recital even late and night when you are dead tired will give you confidence on the concert day.
METRONOME TECHNIQUE to IMPROVE MENTAL and MUSICAL FLEXIBILITY
Practice with the metronome representing different parts of the beat: the 3rd sixteenth-note of the quarter-note, the 2nd 16th of the quarter-note, and the 4th sixteenth-note of the quarter-note. This builds flexibility. To get started, SAY with the metronome, "THREE, four, one, two, THREE, four, one, two, THREE, etc." with "three" on the click. Gradually shift to un-accentuate "three" and accentuate "one". Then play scales, Mozart Concertos, etc using the metronome like this. Do the same to play the 2nd and 4th sixteenths on the click.
Practice sixteenth-note passages with the notes grouped in three and five notes per metronome click. Practice triplet passages in groups of two, four, and five, irrespective of how the music is notated.
CONTRACT INTERVALS to be as SMALL as POSSIBLE
To learn music with many large leaps - whether Baroque, Modernist, or any other period - play the intervals in the closest positions you can (the smallest intervals possible). Learn the lines like that, and SING them like that with your voice. Really know the music well in close position. You will find that, when you return the large intervals, you'll retain the singing quality (good intonation, evenness, and phrasing) in your interpretation. This is extremely valuable, and greatly improves interpretation.
CHUNK FAST PASSAGES
In fast passages with more than five notes, group the notes in groups of two, three, four, or five. Prepare each group separately, on its own. When each group is feeling great, play them successively, but play the last note of each group long, two or three beats long. Then go on and play the next group. Do the same, so each final note of each group is long. Ultimately, playing the passage as written, but always keep the groups in your mind as separate, individual phrases....with lots of phrasing. You could think of the groups as train boxcars, and the passage is the whole train. The boxcars always remain distinct. This is a great help for mental clarity and for playing fast passages with order and beauty.
While practicing, scan your body frequently, find any overworking and release it. Monitor how balanced you are, if you are falling into any bad habits you can then counteract, etc.
While practicing, focus on the back of your body and think about the space and furniture/walls, etc that are behind you. This tends to improves confidence, awareness, and focus.
Do mental practice away from your instrument or voice, "playing through" the material with your eyes closed as VIVIDLY as possible. This counts as real practice and poses no risk of overuse injury.
Sing through the music slowly, focusing on the intervals. Use a piano if you need to. Singing everything you are going to play. This is a huge help. If you can't SING the intervals you are practicing, learning to sing them will greatly improve the quality of your performance.
Learn music from memory even if you will not perform it from memory. Practice from memory, even in short bits, as much as possible while still retaining accuracy and detail.
To check what parts of a piece/excerpt/etude, etc need more work before being completely ready: Run through the music purposefully NOT concentrating or focusing well. Play in a distracted manner; and the material that is well-prepared will be fine. The material that is not as well-prepared will be shaky or will have mistakes. Then you know what to practice to finish your preparation. This is also a good preparation technique for concerts when one might find distractions. Another good thing to do is practice with poor lighting sometimes; since one sometimes has to perform with strange or poor lighting.
To be good at performing while distracted, practice doing so.
IN YOUR ENDS ARE YOUR BEGINNINGS
Learn music starting at the end of the piece/etude/excerpt, working your way to the beginning. Feeling most confident and familiar with the last part of a piece/etude/excerpt is advantageous; because toward the end is when one is more fatigued, so where extra confidence is helpful to have.
NO SECOND CHANCES
In performance, one has only one chance to play any given note or passage. In practice, we are training ourselves for performance.
A musician who restarts once or twice before “really” playing something during practice is training himself to play like that, with false starts. He is training his subconscious mind to believe that it’s okay to make a mistake because we can always go back and have another shot at it. We do not perform music like that, however. We have only once chance in concerts.
Thus, in practice, decide what you are going to play, prepare, commit to it, and then play. If the first note does not come out, keep going. If the note isn’t perfect, keep going. If you make a mistake later on, keep going. Remember whatever wasn’t up to snuff so you can do better next time. But live with your mistakes, you will learn faster.
The legendary trumpeter, Bud Herseth, who was principal trumpet with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 53 years (that is not a typo) offered many pieces of advice to students. You can find lists of these tips online. One is, “Never practice, always perform.” I think at least part of this advice is related to this idea of committing to whatever you are going to play next in your practice session, and then doing so, with no restarts. Perform!
Record yourself as frequently as possible, every day, ideally. Evaluate your performance for tone, pitch, rhythm, style, expression, dynamics, clean technique, etc. Listen once for each topic, so several listenings to evaluate each recording thoroughly. Listen with good quality earphones or speakers whenever possible. Make notes about your recordings in your practice journal.
Also, record your chamber ensembles playing run-thrus and discuss the recordings as an ensemble after everyone listens to them. This practice can accelerate chamber music progress. It is even possible to record yourself in orchestra or wind ensemble rehearsals to evaluate how well you are performing in those contexts, and plan out how you might improve.
Consider recording your lessons, and even master classes whenever permissible. Most students remember only a portion of what a teacher offers as advice. There is much to be gained from recording lessons and classes, and reviewing the recordings later to gain maximum benefit from the advice teachers have offered you.
Smiling, even fake smiling, releases dopamine in your brain which makes you feel good and increases lots of positive feelings and abilities like motivation and focus:
When we smile, fake or real, the contractions of the facial muscles slightly distorts the shape of the thin facial bones. This slight distortion in their shape leads to an increase in blood flow into the frontal lobes of the brain and increases in the release of dopamine (Iwase et al., 2002, Neuroimage 17:758). As a result, walking around all day with a smile on your face will bias your mood to be happier. Not only will you be happier but your smile might spontaneously induce the release of dopamine in someone else's brain—now that truly demonstrates the power of a smile.
© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. Author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford, 2010)
But stopping there would be missing the complete story. Pleasure is just the tip of the dopamine iceberg. Dopamine’s impact on the body is felt in many different areas, including motivation, memory, behavior and cognition, attention, sleep, mood, learning, and oh yeah, pleasurable reward.
Kevin Lee, "The Science of Motivation"
Incorporate frequent SMILING into your practice routine and other routines. Doing so produces only good effects, and can greatly increase your practice productivity and sense of motivation.
Some specific suggestions: Get in the habit of smiling as you assemble your instrument/get set up. Smile each time you change the material you are practicing. Smile every time you take a short or longer practice break. If you can smile WHILE playing, do so often. Smile as you finish practicing and pack up.