Along with breathing and embouchure, tonguing is one of the basic mechanical areas brass players need to regularly practice. We all learn to speak from a very young age and are used to using our tongue without needing to think about it at all, so manipulation of the tongue while playing a brass instrument is often quite subconscious. Still, I feel it’s a good idea to understand how brass players’ tongues functions when things are working efficiently and also understand what methods correlate with playing problems.
When I teach tonguing I try to help my students avoid an issue that is one of my tonguing weaknesses, tonguing too hard. An analogy that works pretty well is to consider the tonguing to be a refining, not defining, feature of the attack. The moving air creates the pitch, the attack of the tongue is simply shaped by the backstroke of the tongue.
Often times players will unconsciously (and even sometimes consciously) bottle up the air with the tongue and then release it to create the attack. It produces a rather hard attack to the pitch that I find unpleasant sounding, but more importantly, there are some playing issues that can happen when players do this a lot. One is related to the Valsalva maneuver. The player ends up bottling the air by closing the glottis, which becomes hard to coordinate with the tonguing. Sometimes these players start grunting just before they make their initial attack after a breath. Ideally, the blowing of the air should happen immediately following the peak of the inhalation and this should be coordinated with the backstroke of the tongue, not happen one after the other.
As far as where the tongue should touch just prior to the attack, there are some variations. Most players will attack the pitch best with the tongue tip striking somewhere on the gums above and behind the upper teeth, as if saying “T” or “D.” The exact place on the gums varies from player to player and also probably changes slightly according to the register. In the upper register many players will find their tongue tip strikes further back in the mouth than when they attack pitches in the lower register.
There are a minority of players who attack their pitches with the tongue tip striking the lips, as if spitting a seed. I discourage this, as I think the amount of practice it takes to keep the attacks clean outweighs the amount of practice it would take to attack pitches off the lips. These players tend to have more jaw motion when tonguing, sometimes resulting in an attack that sort of sounds like “twa-twa” and there is a characteristic to the attack that is noticeably different if you listen closely. I notice this method especially with tubists and bass trombonists, who use it particularly in the lower register. What I mainly don’t like about this technique is not just that it requires additional practice to keep the attacks clean, but that every time your tongue strikes the lips you are shifting your embouchure formation slightly. It’s usually best to keep your embouchure as stable as possible while playing.
The Tongue Arch
Once the attack is over, the tongue’s job isn’t over. The tongue helps shape the air as it gets blown to the lips and changes its position according to the register being played. As players play higher the tongue arch will move into a higher position, as if saying, “ee.” When the musician plays in the lower register the tongue arch is more in a position as if saying, “oh.” There are some players who are convinced that they don’t move their tongue arch at all while playing, regardless of the register, but I have my doubts that their playing sensations are accurate. That said, the amount of tongue arch a player will need is almost definitely personal and depends on the size and shape of their tongue and oral cavity. Some players may simply not need a large tongue arch and so their sensations of change are minimal.
When the attack of the pitch and the register being played are considered together the syllables that players find helpful to think of will change. To attack a pitch in the upper register it may be best to use the tongue as if saying, “tee” or “dee.” To attack a lower register pitch is may be best to try a tongue position closer to “toh” or “doh.” One additional comment about using syllables to approximate the use of the tongue here concerns the jaw. When tonguing players shouldn’t begin moving their jaw and sort of “chew” to play an articulated passage. When we speak we naturally move our jaws, but this pulls the lips apart and results in the “twa” sounding attack I mentioned above. Try to keep your jaw in the same stable position as it would be in if you were slurring.
The Tongue Tip While Slurring and Sustaining
Another thing that is personal to the player is what they do with the tongue tip after the attack of the pitch. It’s most common for players to let their tongue tip hover inside their mouth while slurring and sustaining pitches. It’s not uncommon for players to snap their tongue tip to a spot on the lower teeth or gums below and behind the lower teeth. With the tongue held down these players will raise the level of the tongue arch by pushing the tongue forward against the lower teeth or gums below (this describes how I personally play). Some players will keep their tongue tip on the lower teeth or below at all times and attack the pitch with the middle part of the tongue coming forward and striking the upper teeth or gums above them (this works well for me to attack very high pitches out of the blue, but the attack sounds a little mushy this way in the middle and low register). Sometimes this method is referred to as “anchored tonguing.”
There are a minority of players who keep their tongue tip touching their lower lip while slurring and sustaining pitches. I usually discourage this for the same reasons I discourage attacking the pitch with the tongue in contact with the lips, but this method is often combined with the spit attack (this is how a “tongue controlled embouchure” is usually taught). There may be some players that find it necessary for the tongue to provide some support structure behind the lower lip, if they have a very large lower lip and short lower teeth, but I think this is probably quite rare. There are reasons why this method may help some players with the extreme upper register, but I think the drawbacks caused by the tongue in contact with the lips so much outweigh the benefits. Instead, I believe that most players who find a tongue controlled embouchure so helpful would do better by anchoring the tongue on the lower teeth or below and attacking the pitches with the so-called anchored tonguing I described above.
There are other variations on tonguing that I haven’t described here, and every player is going to be slightly different. Some players will even switch between different ways of tonguing according to the situation. It can get pretty complicated looking at all the variations, and it’s probably not really helpful for most players and teachers to get that detailed, but I think an accurate understanding of how we actually use our tongue when playing is always better than ignorance or inaccurate playing sensations.
Do you have a tonguing method I haven’t described that you’d like to share? Do you have a disagreement with something I’ve posted? Or have you found something I mentioned particularly helpful?