All a-flutter

Some instrumentalists still look at any and all “extended techniques” as an annoyance that originates in avante garde music of the 20th c., even though many of them have been in use at least since the music of Biber, hundreds of years back.

I don’t expect any questions or problems with CMEW, but I’m quite sure that at one time or another, I’ve heard at least one player on each wind and brass instrument tell me unequiveocably that flutter-tonguing is impossible on their instrument (of course, the vast, vast majority of orchestra musicians just get on with it cheerfully). More often, they’ll admit that it’s just that  _they_ can’t flutter-tongue, but that this is the result of an unfortunate genetic mutation on their part which makes it impossible for them to flutter-tongue or roll their r’s.
Well, have no fear. The Vftp research team have been combing the internet and pouring through the archives of leading research libraries world wide to give players and conductors alike some tools for coming to grips with this fearsome technique.

Oboise Jacqueline Leclair has a good article on flutter-tonguing on her website, which begins with a promising thesis-

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.

Even better is the Philharmonia website, where some of the worlds best orchestral instrumentalists demonstrate the finer points of flutter-tonguing technique. You might try trombone (which is a brilliant racket), or the flute, which tends to be the most flutter friendly of instruments.

Fluttering on the bassoon should be much more challenging, but Meyrick Alexander makes it look easy in this clip (not surprising, given that he was the man who got me to like the Mozart Bassoon Concerto).

However, without rival for the best clip is the contrabassoon demonstration. He may think it “always sounds a bit of a mish-mash,” but you can hear a lot of contrabassoon fluttering this weekend in Cardiff.


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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4 comments on “All a-flutter”

  1. Bill Brice

    The flutter comes a bit more naturally to flutists because the airstream moves faster than for other wind instruments. Even so, some flutists have trouble with it on the lowest notes or on very quiet passages — slower airstream there! Back in my professional flute-playing days, I often used the “uvular” fluttertongue — which does not require a tongue at all. It’s a fluttering of the uvula. The sensation for the player is like gargling; it has a much gentler, sensusous effect than you’d get with the tongue on those notes. Plus, you don’t blow as hard. I do remember one public performance when my throat was too dry to get the flutter going on a low C!

    I don’t play any other wind instruments, but I wonder if this technique might work for, say, oboe or bassoon — where the air moves more slowly. Just a thought.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Bill-

    Indeed- I did find a fair bit of literature on both kinds of fluttering for all the wind instruments. Seems like largely a matter of personal preference, but what do I know- I’m a cello player….


  3. patty

    Ah fluttering. Grumble. I still can’t do it, but I keep trying. I can flutter on recorder, but oboe? Just can’t make it work. I know Jacqueline can, so I know it’s possible. I feel very much the idiot for not being able to get it to happen. But so far I can’t double tongue either. Sigh. (Fortunately I have a fairly fast single tongue.)

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