Tongue posture and articulation

Articulation refers to how we separate notes. We can do so by starting and stopping the airflow into the instrument, but it's not just a matter of starting and stopping blowing.

There are actually 3 different ways we can control our breath:

  • By starting and stopping the air with the diaphragm.
  • By continually exhaling, controlling the airflow using the glottis.
  • By continually exhaling, controlling the air using the tongue.

First, we can control our exhalation using the diaphragm, starting and stopping blowing. But as we explored in Blowing an ocarina correctly, the air takes quite a long time to start or stop flowing. Thus this first option is mostly used for ornamentation.

Second, we can exhale at a constant rate, then control the air by blocking its flow. This is much like opening and closing the tap on a sink and can be two ways: using the glottis, or using the tongue.

The glottis, or vocal chords are a valve in your thought. Its main function is to create vibration that allows you to talk, but it also allows you hold back your breath.

Give this a go:

  • Breathe in.
  • Hold your breath with your mouth wide open, nose open, and tongue at the base of your mouth.
  • If you place your hand on your thought and release and re-hold your breath, you'll feel something moving. This is the glottis.

It is possible to use the glottis to create articulation but the effect it creates is quite distinct. Typically the glottis should be fully open at all times.

In practice Most articulation is created using the tongue as it is closest to the instrument. We control our air pressure using the diaphragm, and by positioning the tongue in a certain way, we can block and release the flow of air.

Articulating notes using the tongue

Step 1: exploring the anatomy of your mouth

There are a number of different ways of articulating notes with the tongue, and its easiest to begin with an basic exploration of the anatomy of the mouth.

To begin, use the tip of your tongue to feel around the whole of the roof of your mouth. In a rim around the edge you'll feel your teeth, and the space in-between is shaped like a dome, much like the shape of a lemon that's been cut in half and juiced.

Next, place the tip of your tongue immediately behind your upper teeth. Slide it backwards along the roof of your mouth and you'll feel that there is a ridge about 1cm behind your teeth. This is called the alveolar ridge.

Alveolar ridge

Base of side teeth

Step 2: identifying the parts of your tongue

The tongue is an extremely flexible muscle which can take many forms, and with a little practice we can take conscious control over it. Pay attention to what your tongue is doing when saying some vocal sounds:

  • Say 'tu'
  • Say 'ki'
  • Say 'goh'

Notice that when you say these sounds part of your tongue touches the roof of your mouth:

  • Saying 'tu' touches the front of your tongue,
  • 'Goh' is the rear of your tongue,
  • and 'ki' is the middle of the tongue.

The approximate position of the tongue while pronouncing these sounds is shown below.




Once you can feel which part of the tongue is moved by each syllable, notice the shape formed by the whole tongue and reproduce the same tongue position without voicing the sound.

We can also use these as a starting point, and experiment:

  • The 'ki' sound leaves the tongue in the shape of an inverted 'u'. The middle of the tongue is raised, and the tip and rear rest at the bottom of your mouth. Try reversing it, with middle down and tip and rear of tongue touching the roof of the mouth.
  • See how far forwards you can move the tip of your tongue, and how far backwards you can move the rear of your tongue.
  • Start with your tongue in the 'tu' contact point, and then roll the contact point back to the rear of your mouth (goh), and forward again.

The goal of these exercises is to develop awareness of your tongue, and how to form it into shapes beyond those used by the standard vocal sounds.

Step 3: articulating notes

What we are doing when we articulate notes on the ocarina, is using the tongue to start and stop the airflow, much like the tap (faucet) on a sink controls the water. There is always water pressure in the plumbing, and the tap controls the flow.

An easy way we can use the tong to do so is:

  • Exhale through your mouth at a steady rate.
  • Raise the rear of your tongue until it completely blocks airflow.

You'll feel that there is pressure behind your tongue, but it isn't flowing as the tongue is in the way. Raising and lowering the rear of your tongue will start and stop the air, and because the pressure is already there, it will start flowing extremely quickly.

Air flowing

The best position of the tongue when blowing an ocarina is in the base of the mouth, covering the teeth, with the rear of the tongue down. This creates a clear air path, and produces the best possible sound from an ocarina

Air blocked

In practice though, we mostly use the tip of the tongue to control the flow of air. It creates a crisper articulation being closer to the instrument, and also allows for a wider range of articulation strengths which will be explored later.

The goal is to form the tongue into a flat slab so that it encloses the whole of the upper 'dome' part of the mouth. When we exhale, we should feel pressure attempting to push the tongue downwards, but no air should flow.

The needed tongue position is similar when you say 'tu', where the tongue is in contact with the roof of your mouth. But in case that does not work for you, we can consciously put the tongue in the right position:

  • Locate the alveolar ridge and place the tip of your tongue on it.
  • Raise the rear and middle of your tongue so the entire tongue is in contact with the roof of your mouth.
  • lower the middle and rear part of your tongue a bit, creating space above it. Only the outer perimeter of the tongue is touching the roof of your mouth, leaving the middle part as a hollow 'dome'.

If you exhale with your tongue in this position you should feel air pushing down on the tongue, but no air escaping. With the tongue in this portion we can articulate notes by raising and lowering the tip of the tongue, to release the pressure stored behind it.

Tongue lowered

The best position of the tongue when blowing an ocarina is in the base of the mouth, covering the teeth, with the rear of the tongue down. This creates a clear air path, and produces the best possible sound from an ocarina

Tongue raised

When playing the ocarina the tongue is used to stop the air to separate notes. The tongue is touched to the roof of the mouth slightly behind your teeth, similar to pronouncing a 'T' or 'D'.  Pressure builds behind the tongue, which is released when it is lowered, creating a clean attack. Note that positioning the tongue too close to the teeth will create a noisy tone

If you find that air escapes, most probably the tip of your tongue is too far forward in your mouth, or the middle of your tongue is too low. In both cases air will escape around the sides of the tongue. Try to notice where air is escaping, and raise that part of your tongue.

Varying the duration of articulations

As we have established, the tongue can be in two positions:

  • Raised, blocking airflow.
  • Lowered, allowing air to flow.

It can stay in either state for any length of time, and thus you may create gaps of arbitrary duration between notes. This fact may not be obvious from the 'tu' explanation as it only blocks the air for an extremely brief time.

Give this a try for yourself, playing a selection of quarter notes to a metronome at a slow tempo. Initially separate the notes with a brief gap, flicking the tongue to block the air.

In these diagrams, the width of the box represents the duration of the note, and the beat is shown by the timeline at the bottom.

Then keep playing notes at the same tempo, but create longer gaps between them, which is called staccato.

And try some notes with even longer gaps, such that the gaps are longer than the notes. This is called staccatissimo.

Also try varying the duration of the gaps in a single string of notes randomly. The goal is just to get used to switching between different articulation lengths.

Ensure that the note always starts in time with the metronome. The time of the articulation is taken from the end of the previous note.

Double tonguing

What we've been exploring so far is called single tonguing, using the tip of the tongue to articulate notes. Practically though, there is a limit to how fast we can do this.

Double tonguing is a technique used for rapid articulations, using both the tip and middle of the tongue to alternately block the flow of air, similar to 'tu - ku - tu - ku ...'.



The best position of the tongue when blowing an ocarina is in the base of the mouth, covering the teeth, with the rear of the tongue down. This creates a clear air path, and produces the best possible sound from an ocarina


To get started with double tonguing, I'd recommend practising articulating quarter notes at a relatively low tempo like 100 bpm:

  • Aim to get the duration of the two articulations to be equal.
  • Minimise the time spent moving from the two blocking positions to 'air flowing'.
  • Aim to keep your tongue static during the 'open' period so that the air can flow easily.

Low tempo practice allows you to really exaggerate the 'air flowing' state, which helps with playing at high tempos. There is a tendency to make the movements really small, which can restrict the airflow enough to make your high notes flat.

Once you get the hang of this, slowly work up the tempo using a metronome, aiming to minimise tongue movement time, and keeping the air passage as open as possible.

Recording yourself can also help you hear if the articulations sound even in tone, rhythm etc.

Other things

Once you've got the hang of the basics, here's a few other things to try out with double tonguing:

  • Vary the rhythm of the articulation, such as a dotted rhythm and a swung triplet rhythm.
  • Try varying the duration of the articulations, starting with only a very brief stop, and gradually working up towards a longer stop. Like usual start at a slow tempo.

There is also triple tonguing, where you add a 3rd articulation like 'd' to the mix, t - k - d - t - k - d'. It's useful for articulating fast triplets, as well as music in 6/8 time.

Varying the attack of single tongued articulations

An attack is when the sound of the start of a note is different to how it sounds during its normal 'steady state'.

Quite a few kinds of attack can be created using single tonguing by varying the position of your tongue:

  • 'T', closer to the front of the mouth, produces a harder articulation with a distinct starting pulse of air.
  • 'D', similar to above with the tongue a little farther back, and creates a softer articulation.
  • 'Ch', creating an airy sound at the start of the note.



An even softer articulation may be created with a tongue position similar to 'L'. If you try saying that letter you'll notice that your tongue doesn't stop the air.

On the ocarina it causes the pitch to momentarily go flat. The strength of the articulation can be varied depending on how high you lift the middle part of your tongue.

I'd recommend experimenting with these, listening to their sound and seeing how you could make use of them in your music.

Varying articulations is particularly important on the ocarina given that it is so difficult to create volume dynamics. For notes that you want to emphasise, using a stronger articulation can serve a similar function as playing them louder.

The topic of articulation is explored in more detail in Articulation on the ocarina, and following articles in that series.

Tongue posture and tone clarity

It is worth noticing how the placement of your tongue can impact the sound of the ocarina even while blowing a single long note.

Give this a try, Play a long tone, and:

  • Raise the rear of your tongue to almost block the airflow,
  • or put the tip of your tongue very close to your upper teeth.

Doing either of these will make the ocarina sound more airy, especially on the high notes.

Rear of tongue raised (bad)

A demonstration of a poor mouth posture for blowing an ocarina. The rear of the tongue is raised, resulting in turbulence, which will create a noisy tone

Tongue too close to teeth (bad)

A diagram demonstrating a poor ocarina blowing technique. The tongue is too close to  the teeth, resulting in turbulence and a noisy tone

It's of particular relevance if you learned to articulate using vocal syllables as the tongue position they create isn't optimal for producing a clean tone. While pronouncing 'ta', I notice that rear of my tongue is also raised, and that secondary action creates needless turbulence.

It's worth experimenting with the position of different parts of your tongue while playing a long tone, and notice how doing so affects the sound of the instrument.

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