Tonguing and Accuracy

Trombonist and music educator, Dr. Rodney Lancaster, sent me a link to a short essay he wrote on tongue placement and accuracy.  It’s a quick read and offers some suggestions on how to practice tongue placement.  In practicing out of Claude Gordon’s bass clef book Lancaster found that working on his tongue position greatly improved his accuracy.

First, I have to offer a disclaimer.  My knowledge of Gordon’s approach is second hand, I’ve never ready any of his books.  I have closely followed some online discussions about Gordon that included former students of his and watched some players warm up with it, so I think I have the gist of it.  That said, take my comments with a grain of salt (good advice even if I do think I know what I’m talking about).

In my opinion, Gordon’s approach overemphasizes pedal tone practice.  If your pedal tone/false tone embouchure doesn’t match your normal playing embouchure you should definitely spend your time instead working on connecting your high range embouchure down and stay away from a lot of pedals.  Frankly, I think there are better things for trumpet players to practice that do the same thing without risking developing multiple embouchures.  Trombone players in general seem to be better able to play pedals with their normal embouchure (something about the construction of the instruments, perhaps, or maybe the size of the mouthpiece).  However, trombonists sometimes change their embouchure to play pedals in which case I usually recommend they adjust their routine to connect their normal embouchure down, rather than pedal range up.

At any rate, Lancaster’s essay discusses his experience practicing Gordon’s exercises on trombone and using them to work on the position of his tongue inside his mouth.

In tonguing these arpeggios, you will teach yourself where the tongue should be placed on each given note.  For example, one must tongue lower for low notes and higher for a high note.  Having said that, as you practice part two, memorize (subconsciously perhaps) where you had to place the tongue for each given note.  It is a type of muscle memory exercise.

You don’t even need to practice out of Gordon’s book to work this idea out, simply play any exercises that both change registers and are simple enough you don’t need to focus on what to play but can simply consciously be aware of where your tongue strikes when you make the attack.  Other than tonguing on the lips (which I feel distorts your embouchure formation unnecessarily and doesn’t work any better than tonguing off the lips), don’t try to change anything you’re doing.  Simply be aware of any changes in the placement of your tongue as you make the attack.

Most players will find that the higher the pitch being attack, the further up and back in the mouth the tongue tip will strike.  For example, for a low note the tongue tip my be on the lower edge of the upper teeth (sort of a “thu” or “tu” syllable).  When attacking a higher pitch the tongue tip may strike above the upper teeth.

Once you get an idea of where the tongue strikes, repeat and pay attention to the level of tongue arch as you change registers.  Most players will find that as they ascend the tongue will arch higher in the mouth.  A lower register note will have a tongue position closer to an “oh” sound while a very high note might be close to an “ee” tongue position.

Much like embouchure, the specifics of tonguing are going to differ according to the player’s anatomy, however I think the above descriptions are generally what most players should strive for.  Most players will allow their tongue tip to hover in their mouth while playing, but there is a common variation where the player will place the tongue tip behind the lower teeth and gums while slurring and sustaining pitches (just after attacking the pitch).  The tongue arch is increased by pushing the tongue forward while anchoring the tongue tip.  Another variation keeps the tongue tip anchored behind and below the lower teeth at all times and attacks the pitch with more of the middle part of the tongue coming up behind the upper teeth and gums.

Some players will notice also that they pivot the instrument down as they go up.  It might be helpful to acknowledge this but I thing that one should not exaggerate the movement.  Some players may pivot the opposite direction or have no discernable pivot.

Lancaster doesn’t define “pivot” here, so I’m going to assume he means tilting the horn while changing registers.  As he notes, there’s a lot of individual variation that happens to horn angles with different players.  It’s partly related to Donald Reinhardt’s definition of “pivot” (a term he coined, which I avoid for the very reason that most brass players use this term as Lancaster seems to be).  Efficient tonguing is going to interact with your embouchure motion, horn angle changes, and breathing.  Making corrections to one mechanical principle often requires some corrections in another, even when the other was working just fine before.

So this week I’m inspired to practicing tonguing and tongue placement more.  Personally, I find that attacking pitches with the tongue tip striking behind or above the upper teeth and snapping the tongue tip down to anchor below the lower teeth for slurring and sustaining to work best for me.  There are a number of different tonguing variations that can work for other players, so if you want to work on your tonguing start off by simply being more aware of where your tongue strikes and its position while holding out notes and go from there.