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A Logical Approach to French Tonguing

Michel Debost | October 2012


   There are many varieties of things French: French dressing, French blend, French laundry, French vanilla, French fries, and most of them do not even exist in France. The controversy over French tonguing, sometimes referred to as forward tonguing stems from a few misunderstandings. What is this process, anathematic for some and indispensable for others? French tonguing, which is indigenous to the flute, is the procedure where the tip of the tongue is showing through the lips (aperture) at the beginning of the attack in an attempt to obtain precise attacks and crisp articulation in rapid staccato passages.  
   The controversy originates with flutists, often American, who think that French tonguing is the only way that “French school” flutists articulate since the old glory days of Taffanel, Gaubert, Barrère, Moyse and Rampal. Others consider that French tonguing is always a no-no, because of the American tradition of tonguing on the roof of the mouth similarly to the articulation on other woodwinds. As usual the truth lies somewhere in between. Why these edicts: always and never? Is there patriotic pride here or a moral imperative? Whatever you feel comfortable with, remember, if it works, do it! 
   I am reminded of something that happened to a close friend of mine long ago. He was playing a gig with a rather pompous senior Parisian flutist who high-handedly told the younger player, “You see, mon cher ami, this flute is perfectly padded, it’s beautiful, I have a new headjoint, but… but it doesn’t work…” The young cocky guy replied, “You see, Monsieur, my flute doesn’t cover, it makes mechanical clickity-clicks, it needs cleaning, it looks terrible, I got the mouthpiece at the flea market, but it works!” He was never called back to this gig. 
   First, we can dispel a few myths. Is speaking French the secret of articulation? It is true that French is a more dental language than the cheeky English, the throaty German, the rolling Italian, or Spanish. However, French speakers are not the only ones who know how to articulate.
   It is all in what you want to hear. If you want a crisp, light staccato and a precise attack, there are solutions for that. Ask any Rampal students, for instance Ransom Wilson (whom Jean-Pierre used to call “the fastest tongue in the West;” Robert Stallman, who studied with the great Alain Marion, one of the champions of the Rampal (Sr.) Marseilles school; Sheryl Cohen, author Bel Canto Flute: The Rampal School, or Jean-Louis Baumadier, the virtuoso piccolo player. If you like a barely separated legato, the da-da-da-da that Jean-Pierre Rampal used to make fun of, you can learn that too. 
   I have never been taught to show my tongue on every note I played, fast or slow. My late colleague Alain Marion used such a device for practice, but I don’t recall him using this technique except for the onset of a phrase, as I will try to explain.    When French youngsters start the flute, one of the first things they learn is to tongue each slow attack as if they were spitting out a tea leaf or a fig seed. This is the basis of the tonguing we are talking about. Too many theoretical explanations turn kids off. For very young students, without thinking, it gives them a good airspeed, a good placement of the airbrush, and a natural embouchure. Eventually, when the time is right, vibrato spontaneously follows the fig seed effect.
   I do agree that for repeated notes, French tonguing is impractical and ill-advised. At the onset of a phrase, such as the B at the start of Faure’s Fantaisie, Op. 79, or the first high F in Poulenc’s Cantilena, or at the attack of long notes in countless orchestral works, it is extremely useful, if done right.
   Let me digress a moment to a seemingly unmusical comparison: the internal combustion engine that propels most of our rolling stock. During each of the cycles, valves control the intake of air/fuel mixture and allow exhaust gasses to exit at the appropriate times. They have no other function than to open or close an opening. 
   John Krell writes in Kincaidiana (p. 18), “It must be remembered that the tongue is simply a kind of spring valve that contains and releases the appropriate impulse of pressure of air behind it.” If for some reason the valve does not close well, the action of the engine is jeopardized. In French tonguing, the tongue acts as a valve. Just before the onset, the tongue stops the aperture of a volume where air is under pressure (support). When the tongue is swiftly pulled back, the air column pressure becomes air speed, without percussion. If, however, the tongue is even a bit removed from the lips, it must travel forward for the attack, while the air, temporarily unblocked starts flowing, even for the shortest of time, into the airstream, hindering, in my view, the onset of the tone’s precision.
   More musical and closer to us is the principle of the organ pipe. As we have our chest, organs have a wind chest, or wind box, full of air under pressure, ready to go to the pipes. When a key is depressed, it opens a valve beneath the pipe so that the wind can get through the hole in the wind chest. If you open the valve first and then put the wind box under pressure, you get the sound of squeezed Teddy bear. If you send air without stopping the pipe first, the sound comes too soon to control the attack.
   For flutists, if the tongue is still inside the mouth at the onset, it will have to travel to the teeth to articulate, and build-up of pressure will be problematic because the aperture is not stopped. A common misconception about French tonguing is seeing the tongue’s movement as percussive from back to front instead of the simple venting of an aperture from front to back.
   To prevent an explosive onset, it can be useful to release a little bit of air through the nose just before release to set air in motion, just like string players move the bow before a smooth attack.
There is no religion about this. If your way works, by all means keep doing it. After all, what you do with your tongue is nobody’s business.