Tongue and Cheek

Hi all,

I have spent the last few weeks travelling around the country, talking in band rooms and meeting lots of brass players across Aotearoa. I have been so inspired by the turnout at these events, and how eager you all are to listen and learn. 

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the remaining articles this year will each be dealing with a different facet of playing that we can work on over summer, and Neil Cording asked about some tips to do with tonguing techniques.  So Neil - here we go! 

There are so many opinions out there regarding tonguing and articulation, and I am not going to muddy it up too much today.  The most important thing is that your mouth and tongue are unique to you, and the way you produce a note will be heavily influenced by your mouth cavity, your teeth, your tongue, your lips and so on.  It’s important to remember this, as you can read a million books about tonguing techniques and none might work for you. 

So the first port of call for dealing with tonguing is to analyse your setup and work out how you are fronting the notes - where is your tongue at the articulation point?  What is the syllable that you most commonly replicate (da/ta/tha)?  Is your articulation fluid or is there tentativeness? 

Once you start to get an idea of what you are working with, then it’s important to remember a few things before you start producing the note.  One of the most important factors in tonguing, that is often neglected, is AIR.  Think of air as the petrol to your articulation - too much petrol and you will flood the articulation, not enough and the articulation will splutter to get going. 

Someone once told me that to make a good start to a note, you need to think about blowing out the flame on a matchstick.  You don’t need a lot of air, you don’t need a big explosion of air like you might do for a birthday cake, but just a small puff of air and the syllable TOH.  You can practice this without the mouthpiece or instrument, and focus on the air and tongue coming together at exactly the right time with the perfect amount of air.  Every time you start a note, think of this technique - not heavy but light, and just the right amount of air.  If I have a fluffy articulation in the orchestra, I will immediately do a few of these to remind myself of the correct technique, and it makes a huge difference. 

As far as improving our efficiency of tonguing, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t matter how fast you go, as long as the technique remains the same.  If you change the technique as you get faster, clarity and definition will be lost.  It’s important to think of tonguing like diction - if you mumble no one will understand you, but with correct diction (like a thespian) you will be clear as day, and the audience will understand every note. 

So make this the basis of your tonguing practice - technique first, then speed.  Sit down with a metronome and start on a G (concert F) playing 2 bars of semiquavers at crotchet = 40

Try and do this twice with the same clear articulations, before heading down a semitone.  Focus on clarity and the air before getting faster.  Try and go down an octave to a low G and keep the same diction all the way down.  Write down the tempo you were at, and then tomorrow move the metronome up a couple of clicks.  Remember that it’s not a race to the finish line, it’s about keeping the technique the same and controlling the clarity.  If you need to, record yourself doing this, and make sure that all the notes sound the same.

You can also integrate your scales in the tonguing exercises, but doing each exercise in a different style of articulation – i.e. staccato, legato, accented, marcato, etc.  Try and mix it up when playing the scales, whilst still focusing on the basics of the articulation that we have talked about. 

For double and triple tonguing I use the good old Arban book - there are plenty of fantastic exercises in there, but again remember that the key is ‘slow and steady wins the race!'.  Take your time and build up slowly, making sure you have complete control over your technique at all times. 

Let me know if this helps, or you need some more exercises - and any suggestions for the next topic are very welcome! 

Happy practicing