Articulation on Reed Instruments

2011 Symposium2

One of the areas of wind playing that students seem to have difficulty with is articulation–using the tongue to start and provide separation between notes. This is often referred to as “tonguing.” There are many varieties of articulation, and each one has its own challenges, but a player must master the fundamental technique of using the tongue to articulate notes before the finer aspects of articulation can be studied. For the reed instrument player, the tongue contacts the reed to end one note, and releases from the reed to begin the next note. Many players and teachers make the mistake of conceiving of tonguing as striking the reed with the tongue, but this way of thinking is destructive to good results. The tongue must be thought of as releasing the sound, and the stroke that is developed is one of pulling away from the reed to initiate a tone. The task that must be practiced is not “hitting” the  reed with the tongue, but removing it; therefore the student’s attention when directed to produce a “tu” or “ta” is producing the vowel, not the consonant. The tongue must get out of the way of the vibrating reed so that a good characteristic tone can be produced. The placement of the tongue on the reed is still important, because faulty placement will impede the student’s ability to remove the tongue from the reed, and to replace the reed so that the next note can be initiated correctly.

With this in mind, the correct part of the tongue must contact the correct part of the reed for best results. The tongue should contact the reed on the top of the tongue as close to the tip as possible. The actual tip, that is the end of the tongue should not touch the reed. Touching the reed with the end of the tongue encourages improper tongue movement, and often results in the back of the tongue getting in the way of the air flow. Contacting the reed on the top of the tongue near the tip allows the back of the tongue to remain down, and the front of the tongue to move up and down, on and off the reed.

The other side of the equation is where the reed should be contacted by the tongue. The spot is just below the tip. Here, the reed is relatively light and can easily be stopped from and started vibrating. Contacting the reed just below the tip will produce a clear and responsive articulation, and will avoid the odd noises and occasional pinches to the tongue that other points of contact produce. The tip end of the reed should never be contacted by the tongue. This usually occurs when the direction “tip of the tongue against the tip of the reed” is given. Taken literally, the student will bring the end of the tongue in contact with the end of the reed and end up with a pinched and possibly even cut tongue, and will not produce a satisfactory articulation for his or her trouble.

Once the tongue and reed are making contact correctly, there is more to good articulating recite-xugy1than just practicing moving the tongue on and off the reed correctly. Good articulation is extremely difficult, and at faster speeds nearly impossible, without good breath support. A strong steady air flow assists the tongue in falling away from the reed, and less is asked of the muscles in the tongue to sustain even strokes. For this reason, tonguing exercises are best done at medium loud to loud dynamics, so that the student can take full advantage of air flow to assist in making the articulations. Good breath support is also important because it takes more energy to set a reed into vibration than it does to maintain its vibration. Trying to start a well sounding note with poor airflow is nearly impossible. Before frustrating a student with a plethora of tonguing exercises to correct faulty tonguing, be sure his or her breath management is in order, and if not correct that first. Doing so will shorten the time it will take to develop better articulation habits.

It is best to develop a good staccato with short bursts of very fast notes, rather than long etudes and moderate tempos. An effective approach does not even require an instrument. Have the student say three notes (ta-ta-ta) as rapidly as possible with lips slightly parted and teeth together. Have the student repeat this many times, perhaps while watching television or while riding in the car. With teeth together, the student will be operating within the very limited space they are also afforded when a mouthpiece or double reed is in their mouth, and the necessity of good breath support is immediately apparent because  it is very difficult to get all three “tas” in if there is insufficient air. When the student does pick up the instrument, have him or her do the same exercise, but now on the reed instead of the roof of their mouth. Have them play the three rapid notes on each tone of a chromatic scale for one octave in a comfortable range. In time, expand to three rapid notes, and eventually to four.

Articulation can also be used effectively to learn to play rapid passages evenly. When an extended passage of sixteenth notes must be played, have the student practice the sixteenth notes with all combinations of articulations: two staccato/two slurred, one staccato/three slurred, three slurred/one staccato, two slurred/two staccato, one staccato/ two slurred/ one staccato, and then all slurred. Play the articulations at a slower tempo than written, and then end by playing the all slurred version at tempo or faster. Doing so will cause all of the sixteenths to become even when played all slurred, and tonguing is being rehearsed throughout the process.

Once a solid staccato has been developed, the various degrees of legato tonguing are relatively easy to develop. The tongue is not replaced so quickly on the reed, and the tongue contacts the reed with a lighter, more relaxed touch. Throughout work on articulation, care must be taken to preserve tone. The jaw must never be permitted to move. If this does happen, it is an indication that the tongue is moving at the back and/or is moving too much and so forcing the jaw to move to accommodate the errant motion. Playing a passage alternately with legato and then staccato articulation can be helpful in evening out the tone produced while articulating.

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