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What is tonguing on the clarinet and saxophone?

It's been a while since I blogged about the details of playing music, so I thought I'd write something about one of the key skills in playing the saxophone and clarinet: tonguing. All wind instrument music is affected by the shape of your mouth and your tongue. I'll talk about mouth shape, and how to structure your airflow, some other time,

But first, tonguing.

Tonguing allows you to punctuate your music. It provides the capital letters and pauses. With tonguing, you can shape your expression of your piece and break the music up into phrases - just like a sentence in speech, or in writing. Without, it or if you use, it, badly, your "music can, sound: very" confused, and hard to. Follow.

Tonguing mainly helps us to begin a note clearly. You perhaps made your first sound on the instrument by simply blowing air and hoping for a note. However, just blowing makes it hard to control the volume and tone of a note, and also the timing of exactly when it starts. By placing your tongue on the reed, you prevent it vibrating and making sound, so you can set the air pressure in your mouth. You get the intended sound immediately when you take your tongue off the reed. It's kind of like using the handbrake in a car before you do a hill-start - you need to get the engine ready to go before you release the brake. (For non-drivers, it's like putting your foot on the pedal of a bike at the same time as holding the brake)

Most notes should be started with your tongue lightly hitting near the tip of the reed, as if you are saying the word “tee”. If you have several notes in a row, it is as if you are saying “tee-tee-tee” into the instrument, while you are blowing (although you don't voice the 'ee' bit with your vocal chords. More like saying 't__ t__ t__').

Get tonguing sorted straight away - before fingering, before scales. Focus on just one note, then move on from there. You have to tongue your notes without thinking about it, so fix it before worrying about getting a complicated piece under your fingers. Tonguing is more important to get right from the very beginning because it's very hard to correct ingrained mistakes later on. In fact, many students who have come to me as more advanced players often have issues with their technique that relate back to issues with tonguing.

I recommend you teach your body how to tongue without your saxophone or clarinet at first.

  • Shape your mouth in a good embouchure, and blow air firmly, so that you hear a loud, hissing sound (but not a whistle).

  • As you blow, try to whisper loudly the words “T__, t__, t__.”

  • Your air, as you blow, should be coming nonstop as if you're holding the button on an aerosol.

  • Your tongue will block the airstream as you whisper "T__, t__, t__", but you should keep the pressure of the air continuously with your blowing muscles. This will feel strange, because our body naturally likes to put a pause after each word when we speak.

Once you have mastered tonguing without any part of the instrument, I'm going to let you use a bit of it.

Grab your mouthpiece, and set it up with the ligature and reed but not the body of your instrument. Put the mouthpiece in your mouth and shape your embouchure as if you had the whole instrument. I want to you to speak “tee, tee, tee” with the mouthpiece in your mouth.

Your focus should be to notice which part of your tongue is hitting the reed. Your tongue should tap the reed, from the underside, near the tip of the reed. Your tongue should feel flat, not curved upwards, and you should feel the end of the reed really close to the end of your tongue. You should be able to feel when it is correct as it will prickle or tickle your tongue. It should not hurt, and you shouldn't be stabbing the end of the reed with your tongue.

When your tongue hits the reed, the reed stops vibrating instantly and that gives you a clear distinction between notes. Your tongue needs to hit the thin, flexible bit of the reed. If you hit it too far down, it stops vibrating but doesn't block the airflow and you get a fluffy, mumbling sound when you restart.

To find the right depth for your mouthpiece, put it about an inch into your mouth and lay your tongue flat on the reed. Then move it slowly out of your mouth until you find the tip of the reed is just at the tip of your tongue.

Don't stop your air pressure when you place your tongue on the reed. This is such a common error! If you stop the air pressure every note, you have to restart it before you can play another note (car analogy again: kind of like switching off the engine every time you brake). Your tone suffers and becomes unpredictable.

The jaw needs to remain still. Be alert that as the tongue moves, the jaw could move too - which is really bad. Look in a mirror as you play. A moving jaw will affect the timbre (feel) and intonation (tuning). In the mirror, focus on bringing the corners of your mouth firmly in to anchor your embouchure, kind of a staged smile or grimace. Also, imagine speaking with a really posh accent, where people say 'ears' instead of 'yes'.

To emphasise: your air pressure stays firm, and your tongue stops the reed vibrating. The opposite is called “fake tonguing” and is sometimes seen in self-taught players. People get try to punctuate their music by stopping the airstream at the back of the throat (the "glottal stop"). Think of a less 'posh' accent, say from EastEnders, where they say "Laan'an" instead of "London" or "wo'evva" instead of "whatever". Without making any social commentary, those apostrophes would murder your music.

And now, I permit you to pick up your instrument, reattach it to your mouthpiece, and start practising again...

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