anatomy for musicians

How I Discovered + Released Tongue Tension for Effortless, Clear Articulation 


While experimenting with articulation yesterday, I had a moment where I thought to notice how much effort my tongue was exerting. 

I played a few notes, removed the flute from my face, and looked in the mirror.

I was pulling my jaw down too forcefully, which was pulling my bottom lip back, and my tongue was being pulled up and back within my mouth.

I know that letting the tongue lie low in the mouth helps resonance, and I also know that clear, short articulation is possible with the tongue forward in the mouth.


My good intentions of creating space within the mouth - dropping the jaw - actually led me to increase tension and compromise space.

My tongue felt tight and heavy as well, but what was most surprising was how much I wanted to pull the tongue up and back!


This might not happen as drastically for everyone, as I may habitually try to bring to my tongue down when I bring the jaw down. When I do both of these things in a forceful way, I end up in a place that feels tight and difficult. 


I decided to have a look at how and why my tongue moves the way it does, and uncovered some important relationships between the tongue and jaw.

How Does The Tongue Move?

Take a look at how many muscles move the tongue in all directions. 

In simple terms, there are four extrinsic tongue muscles that move the tongue and connect outside the tongue, and four intrinsic tongue muscles located within the tongue that allow us to change the the shape of the tongue. 


The extrinsic muscles that move the tongue:

  • The styloglossus muscle retracts and elevates the tongue.

  • The palatoglossus muscle raises the back of the tongue and lowers the soft palate - required movement for swallowing. 

  • The genioglossus muscle lowers the tongue and brings it forward in the mouth.

  • The hyoglossus lowers the tongue and brings it back in the mouth.

(For a quick chart and simple visual of these muslces, click here! It's enlightening to know just where they are and what they do!)

Understanding that there's a muscle that's both pulling my tongue up and retracting it back gives me some insights about what I was noticing.

Gaining clarity about the relationships between the tongue muscles and their origins, insertions, and functions gave me direction in deciding how to use myself in a different way for different results.

Experiment + Observe Tongue Movement

Try pulling your jaw down far but keeping your lips together, actively aiming to create space inside the mouth:

  • Where is the tongue inside your mouth?
  • Watch the back of the tongue - does it become tense? Is it raised?
  • Does the tip of the tongue move backward?  
  • What happens to the bottom lip? How does this position affect embouchure?

Allow the jaw to become neutral and soft, simply hanging rather than pulling down:

  • What happens to the tongue? 
  • Where is the tip of the tongue naturally lying?
  • How does the back of the tongue feel?
  • What about the soft palate?
  • What happens to the lower lip?



When I re-set and let my jaw release back up towards neutral, I immediately felt my tongue release down and forward toward the teeth.

Where I was before, I had to actively bring my tongue towards the teeth to get a short articulation. The tongue was heavy and effortful in this movement.

Because I was holding it in a pulled back and up position within my mouth, it was naturally wanting to hit the roof of the mouth further back, where we create a "D" syllable, rather than a "T" syllable at the alveolar ridge. (Where the upper teeth meet the hard palate.) This might be good for a legato articulation, but for short, light, and quick, it wasn't effortless.

From a neutral jaw and a naturally relaxed and forward tongue, I didn't have to exert so much effort in bringing my tongue forward, it was already there. My tongue and articulations could more easily become short, light and quick. Beyond that, my lower lip was more available, allowing me greater freedom to angle well.


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Fall Favorites: 5 Inspiring Posts for Musicians 

Copy of Copy of D-I-YHOLY GRAIL.jpg

1. Hilary Hahn Commits to Practicing for 100 Days in a Row—with Unexpected Results

I took on the #100DaysofPractice challenge after seeing Hilary Hahn's inspirational posts, and I especially resonate with her following statement:

“It’s really hard to practice by yourself in a room every day on the same piece and know if you’re making progress or know if the process is working,” Hahn says. “Doing the project kind of created the bond for me where I realized that everyone is thinking about the same things and working toward these things and people do feel isolated at times.”

2. Lessons by Marcel Moyse: The Private Lesson Journals of September Payne, D.M.A

Dr. Payne shares insights into her lessons with Marcel Moyse, including wonderful quotes from lessons on De La Sonorite, Andersen etudes, and more!

"The goal of this article is to illuminate more of his precious teaching and to offer a unique glimpse into the intimate master class setting of lessons that were held at the home of Marcel Moyse in Brattleboro, Vermont."

3. 9 Things Singers Need to Know About Their Bodies - Total Vocal Freedom

Clear, useful advice that applies directly to flutists, too!

"Allow the head to move subtly up off the spine which lets the vocal mechanism hang freely and the breathing and support muscles of the torso work effortlessly." 

4.#FluteFridays: Breathing and Warmups by Mary Hales

Wonderful advice for the crucial components of warming up before your instrument is out of the case!

"...there’s a mindfulness aspect to the way I do my breathing exercises that really helps me get into the zone to practice."

5. Totally bored of playing long tones? Not working out for you? Here’s 15 things to consider tweaking first by Dr. Jessica M. Quiñones

Approaching tone study with mindfulness and a curious attitude, with 15 specific self-observation questions for problem-solving.

"...a physical check-in to see how you are using your body when playing."


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Sorting Out Discomfort in the Practice Room

This week brought a high volume of YouTube master class viewings. (Did you know just how many wonderful flutists make their master class teachings available online?!) With this came new ideas to try out in the practice room.



Wasabi Point

Projection while playing at a soft dynamic is one of the most difficult things for me, and I'm sure I'm not alone! In the two examples below, Emmanuel Pahud notes the need for support and resonance to ensure the sound is alive and present. He notes that resonance should be felt at the "wasabi point," feeling openness in the place that burns when consuming too much wasabi! 

Watch here!


Practice Notes

I attempted the wasabi point concept on several soft passages, and had some moments where I really felt the resonance aiding my sound. But ultimately, I ended up leaving the practice room with a lot of discomfort. My body's interpretation and execution of this concept is not right if it hurts, and if there's one thing I've learned over and over, it is that trying to make sounds happen is not ideal.

I was especially clamped down in my left arm, my left bicep feeling sore, even. Neck tension also had me pulling away to stretch due to the discomfort.

So how can we approach new ideas with fluidity and ease? I started by pulling out my Anatomy Coloring Book, of course.

My Steps for Finding Ease

1. Balance and the Whole Body

I opened to a page that shows the relationship of the back muscles. The deep postural muscles run from the tailbone to the base of the skull - a crucial reminder of the length and support that balance in the legs can provide for the neck and arms. (What a relief!) With this image in mind, I remembered the points of balance. The tension I felt in my neck and jaw diminished once I realigned myself.

The photo to the left shows an exmple of what one may consider to be "the back" as the red line. Notice that the neck is left out. Considering the length (shown by the blue line) of the entire spine, including the cervical spine, alleviated the neck pain I was experiencing.

2. Long Sides and Dynamic Back

While playing, I chose to maintain the length of my sides, another helpful cue to avoid compromising balance. I also instructed myself to feel the release and "springiness" of the back while balancing the skull on top of the spine. The reminder for the back to feel "alive" and "dynamic" opened me up in all directions. (It was in this moment that I realized my self-awareness was far too small!) I also noticed greater resonance happening without trying in that "wasabi" spot! (Before, I was very focused on feeling openness in the sinuses of my face. Once I invited my back into my awareness, I found ease in what I was looking for.)

3. Movement!

The next day while warming up, I remembered that I can MOVE while practicing! I played long tones in a forward fold, squats, on my back, in the dugout position, and moving between poses while allowing the abdominal muscles to remain free and the back to feel dynamic. Think outside the box when your go-to sitting or standing practice position is accompanied by discomfort.

The Anatomy Coloring Book
By Wynn Kapit, Lawrence M. Elson

When discomfort sneaks up on you in the practice room, have a game plan for remembering ease. There is no reason to play with pain, and from my experience, the best sounds always occur when my body feels free. There are also many different ways for teachers to articulate their concepts to students, and their descriptions require a bit of experimentation and adaptation to fully understand and integrate. As a teacher, I'm reminded to be precise yet flexible in presenting my instructions. As a student, I'm inspired to experience and understand the teachings of renowned artists from a basis of body awareness and anatomical reality.