Wilktone

Jazz, brass, composition, and other things music related.

Wilktone - Jazz, brass, composition, and other things music related.

Tonguing For Brass Playing

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.

The Attack

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?

  • Lyle Sanford says:

    Very helpful overview – thanks for posting it. I want to work through some of the things you talk about. Started playing horn in my late fifties and have found trying to get my tongue to do such entirely new things at least as hard as figuring out embouchure.

    One comment my current band instructor has made several times has been that playing softer allows for easier tonguing, and I’ve found that helpful when working on a tonguing issue.

    One thing I’ve done on my own is trying to always make sure to include some tonguing in my warm ups so as to sort of wake it up right from the start. Somehow, for me, lots of long tones and slurs put the tongue to sleep, which sets me up for bobbling the first occurrence of tonguing. For the longest time I didn’t realize the tongue needs as much warm up as the embouchure.

    April 9, 2011 at 3:35 pm
  • Paul T. says:

    Dave,

    When you say “spit attack”, is that the same thing as “twa twa”, or “tonguing between the lips”? Or are these different techniques/phenomena?

    Excellent writeup.

    April 11, 2011 at 12:50 pm
    • Dave says:

      Spit attack is the tongue on the lips as if spitting a seed off the tip of your tongue. The “twa-twa” sound of the attacks is related to extra jaw motion, which can happen with or without the spit attack. The thing about the spit attack that makes this common is that players will sometimes open their jaws as they make the attack to loosen up their lips to make room for the tongue.

      April 11, 2011 at 1:05 pm
  • Lyle Sanford says:

    Hi, Dave – Just a quick note to say working through the material you present here has been very helpful. For one thing it helped me realize my teeth formation is not optimal for tonguing. The other thing I keep wondering about is your point of the less movement of the embouchure the better. I understand how that really helps cleaner playing. The problem for me that led to an embouchure crisis that nearly had me give up the horn was that I think I got more over into “rigid” rather than “stable”, and that the appropriate supporting musculature and fascia weren’t in place, leading to over stressing some parts of the embouchure and not using others as much as needed (if that makes any sense).

    Another point to mention is that I much more enjoy playing the horn with voices as opposed to concert band and I think part of that is that it lets me tongue sometimes in a much easier, softer start kind of way than most of the band music, which more often calls for more trumpet like attacks. At any rate, I found playing with the chorus really opened up my horn playing into a less rigid kind of sound.

    April 28, 2011 at 8:51 am
    • Dave says:

      Hey, Lyle. Very good points.

      The other thing I keep wondering about is your point of the less movement of the embouchure the better. I understand how that really helps cleaner playing. The problem for me that led to an embouchure crisis that nearly had me give up the horn was that I think I got more over into “rigid” rather than “stable”, and that the appropriate supporting musculature and fascia weren’t in place, leading to over stressing some parts of the embouchure and not using others as much as needed (if that makes any sense).

      I understand exactly what you mean here. It’s very common for players to concentrate their effort in areas that aren’t ideal, while letting the muscle groups that should be doing the work be lax. This happens with breathing as well as embouchure. If you look back a few posts I wrote up on a study that used infrared photography to note the areas on trumpet players’ faces that were doing the work while playing. One thing that was noted was that the professionals had a more uniform look compared to each other, whereas the amateurs had their muscular effort all over their face, with a lot more variety.

      At any rate, I found playing with the chorus really opened up my horn playing into a less rigid kind of sound.

      Yes, I can see how this would be helpful. Try bringing this “vocal” style of articulating on the horn into your concert band playing. Adjusting the attack to match the other members of the concert band should be a matter from addressing the breathing, not the tonguing. If you keep the same light articulation, but concentrate on the air creating the note (with the tongue simply shaping it) you may find the same ease of tonguing while still being able to shape your articulations to match different styles.

      Of course, this is easier said than done. Good luck!

      Dave

      April 28, 2011 at 10:44 am
  • Lyle Sanford says:

    Hi, Dave – Tried to generalize something you said here over in a post of my own.

    http://registeredmusictherapist.blogspot.com/2011/05/flexible-stability-vs-contorted.html

    Still trying to “get” what you’re saying here -> “Adjusting the attack to match the other members of the concert band should be a matter from addressing the breathing, not the tonguing.” I think it’s one of those things that makes verbal sense, but needs an experiential epiphany on my part to fully take on board.

    May 7, 2011 at 8:09 pm
  • Jonathan West says:

    I hadn’t heard about that infra red study, but it makes perfect sense that professionals, who have of necessity had to learn how to achieve higher feats of endurance, have managed to spread the effort of the embouchure more evenly through a larger group of muscles, so that no single muscle gets overtired quickly. And in many cases I’m sure that have no idea that this is how they have done it.

    As for this

    Adjusting the attack to match the other members of the concert band should be a matter from addressing the breathing, not the tonguing.

    I’m pretty sure I understand what you mean. The point is that sound is achieved primarily by means of air support. It is the passing air which provides the energy which vibrates the lips. The embouchure merely determines the frequency and overtones. An analogy is the string of a violin. It is the bow which provides the input of energy which causes the string to vibrate. The pitch of the sound depends on the length, weight and tension of the string.

    Tonguing is the means by which the airflow is interrupted. When you are tonguing, you are temporarily preventing the air from getting through. But once the obstacle is removed, it is the air support which determines the sound.

    Hence, tonguing and attack is more about breathing than tonguing.

    May 8, 2011 at 10:14 am
  • john says:

    It appears to me that tongue arch is creating a small chamber of variable volume behind the lips, the volume changing adjusting the pressure in the chamber, which then influences the frequency at the lips, the whole system subject to the state of fitness of the lip musculature. For example, a high arch enables relatively high pressures to be concentrated in the small volume of the chamber, which seems to help high frequencies.

    I can’t think of how this knowledge helps one’s playing, but it appears to be the way it works.

    June 3, 2011 at 10:17 pm
    • Dave says:

      I can’t think of how this knowledge helps one’s playing, but it appears to be the way it works.

      At the very least, this understanding will let you spot check your tongue arch to ensure that it’s working efficiently. Some players and teachers assume that the tongue level shouldn’t change (and honestly believe that they don’t, in spite of contrary evidence). Experimenting with exactly how much to arch the tongue for a particular register can be valuable practice.

      Thanks for stopping by, John.

      Dave

      June 5, 2011 at 12:18 pm

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