How Can I Tongue Faster?

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Neil Leupold made these suggestions in March 1995:

"Set your metronome at around 50 beats per minute, where each beat is a quarter note. This is a legato exercise, intended to develop sensitivity between the tip of the tongue and the tip of the reed. Begin with a full breath, tonguing one note per beat on, say, throat G (or throat E for stability, if you like) for as long as you can sustain the note. Attempt to create as smooth a connection as possible between each repetition of the note, allowing the tip of the tongue to merely brush gently across the tip of the reed, creating as minuscule a separation as possible between each rendering of the note. Do this exercise a couple of times, taking in a full breath each time and playing the study until you run out of air. Attempt to sustain the note with the air, allowing the tongue to "ride" on the stream of air, as relaxed as possible.

Performing a slow exercise such as the one above will allow you to concentrate separately on a number of different aspects pertaining to well-defined articulation:

  • The tip of the tongue should not be very far from the tip of the reed
  • The same area of the tongue's tip should strike the reed every single time
  • The tongue should be raised in the back, focusing the air stream, allowing the air to relax the tongue muscle (which means you're supporting amply from the diaphragm) and sustain the vibration of the reed without any distortion of sound with each release of the tongue from the reed
  • The embouchure must be firmly set (not tense, mind you), such that the reed is allowed to vibrate evenly and without inhibition
  • MOST important: The AIR initiates and sustains the sound - not the tongue. This is why it's so important to relax the tongue - in order to allow the air to do its work.
If the tongue is tense, that tension will carry over into the embouchure (and vice versa), interfering with vibration of the reed and frustrating the player.

It is common knowledge that articulation studies also have a remedial effect on a weak or poorly defined embouchure. Basically stated, it's impossible to effect a good staccato when the embouchure is improperly or inadequately developed. Interestingly, the simply act of articulation studies has a way of exercising the muscles of the embouchure, as well as conditioning one to properly focus the air stream in order to effect the most desirable articulation style.

Another possible exercise: Set the metronome between 50 and 60 beats per minute, where each beat is a quarter note. This whole exercise should be played in the key of C, with no accidentals. Starting on chalumeau C (below the staff), slur from C to G in 16th notes (as if you were playing the scale) and back down again. Upon arrival at C again, play it staccato and reverse direction, ascending up the first five notes of the scale STACCATO, and staccato back down again. You are, in effect, playing up and down the first five notes of the scale - legato the first time, staccato the second. When descending the scale the second time, in staccato, do not continue all the way back down to C again. Instead, stop at D and use it as a new starting point.

When you reach D on your staccato descent, play it twice - once staccato as a completion of the first scale, and then play it legato as the starting point of a new scale beginning on that note. All of this should be done in tempo.

The logic behind playing a scale segment legato first, and THEN staccato, is that you are first acquainting yourself with the sensation of allowing the notes to be created and sustained solely by the air column. Repeating the segment staccato is merely an introduction of an interruptive mechanism to the reed (not the air!), wherein the reed is momentarily prevented from vibrating, but the air column remains CONSTANT. This is crucial. Allow the air to do the work, sustaining the note, sustaining the vibration of the reed, and allowing the tongue to relax as it moves ever-so-slightly forward (assuming it isn't very far from the reed tip to begin) and lightly brushes across the tip of the reed to halt its vibration for a fraction of a millisecond.

Continue the exercise from chalumeau to clarion C, and then back down again, five notes at a time."


Again, a few more comments from Neil in February, 1997:

Something which my old teacher once said to me was, "You have to have a good embouchure in order to have a good staccato." I didn't understand his logic at the time, but I decided to apply the concept in reverse, thinking, "Well, maybe working on my tonguing technique will spark some development in my embouchure along the way."

His recommendation for the process was to learn how to play as perfectly a legato articulation as possible, to the level where the separation between notes was nearly imperceptible. This requires the tongue to be very very light, which in turn requires a great deal of relaxation.

I began by picking throat G with the metronome set at somewhere in the 40 range. The complete exercise involved simply playing legato quarter notes (4 of them), followed by four 8th-note couplets (8 notes total), followed by four 8th-note triplets (12 notes total), followed by four 16th note quadruplets (16 notes total). As I played this seemingly brainless exercise, I began to focus my attention on a number of different areas of technique, beginning with the point of contact between my tongue and the reed. Because the exercise proceeded at such a slow tempo, I had time to focus one-at-a-time on each area of relevance and pay serious attention to indicators which let me know whether I was moving in the right direction.

Point of Contact Between Tongue and Reed
Many players advocate that the point of contact upon the reed by the tongue should be slightly back from the very tip of the tongue. Everybody figures out what works best for them, and having the tongue contact the reed precisely at the tip of the tongue turned out to be the best configuration for me. As I performed the exercise, I "searched" for the physical sensation, by my tongue, which informed me that the very tip of the tongue was, in fact, making contact with the reed. Over the course of time and development (this may seem a little gross), I began to practice articulation studies so much that the tip of my tongue actually bled a little bit. This wasn't a problem, for the tongue heals very quickly (I've heard it's one of the fastest healing parts of the body, for whatever reason). Paying attention to the physical sensation, in conjunction with the red "marker" made it very clear whether or not I was using the correct area of my tongue when articulating. As an aside, I heard an anecdote where Robert Marcellus worked so hard at his tonguing during one particular practice session that his embouchure began to "give out", and he started spewing spit and blood out the sides of his mouth as a result, not satisfied with the progress he was making. This diminished my alarm when I would finish a practice session and find my reed saturated red, a small chunk of flesh missing from the tip of my tongue. Needless to say, I don't think this type of extremism is at all necessary for steady advance in the area. The blood & stuff will NOT occur, by the way, merely from the legato exercise described above.

Air velocity and support
Something that every developing clarinetist must work on over the course of his/her growth is long tones. Doing long tones has countless benefits when done consistently and with good mental focus. Performing the aforementioned legato tonguing exercise also does double-duty as a long tone exercise, the difference from "normal" long tones merely being that you insert the tongue at a steady interval while sustaining the flow of air upon the reed. Why is this helpful? Because in order to achieve the ultimate lightness and legato in the tongue, you must teach yourself to let the air: a) relax the tongue and b) facilitate uninterrupted vibration of the reed. These two components in tandem will pave the way to effortless tonguing at as fast a speed as you are potentially capable.

Bear in mind that learning any manifold skill is an additive process whereby the endgame is to integrate all disparate elements of the skill into a singularly unified concept, actuated via a single mechanism. In the case of tonguing (as in the case of so many other areas of consummate clarinet technique), the advanced and proper use of the air stream is the actuating mechanism. Your goal is to be able to simply breathe deeply and have the tongue assume the proper relaxed configuration inside the oral cavity automatically, where its function is subordinate to the flowing air column, and it makes contact with the reed at the proper contact point all by itself.

Thus, while you are lightly brush-stroking the tip of the reed with the tip of your tongue (say "tee-ahh", or perhaps "Lee-ahh" while your lips say, "oh" -- these two ideas can be integrated by saying "tee-ew"), switch focus in the middle of the exercise and notice what you are doing with your airstream. If your tongue is properly shaped (arched in the back of your mouth, touching the back molars with the sides, but flat and low in the front), the air should flow over the arched tongue in the back, automatically directing a focused air stream toward the front across the reed (not down into the mouthpiece). That air stream must be under continuous support from the diaphragm, and the diaphragm is the only part of your anatomy which should manifest any physical "tension" whatsoever while you play. This applies at all times, regardless of context. If you are sustaining proper diaphragmatic support, then begin to focus on the velocity of the air stream as it passes through your embouchure and across the reed. At lower dynamic levels, your air support and velocity need to be increased in order to sustain consistent vibration of the reed, lest physical tension arise in the lips or jaw and work against free reed vibration. At all times, in all playing contexts, the physical cause of unwanted tension in the body during playing is a result of an unsupported air stream, where the diaphragm relaxes and tension travels to another body part, confounding relaxation and control. This includes the tongue. Once the transfer of physical tension has begun, it is often difficult to counteract, even when ample air intake and support are restored.

Tongue Position
In order for the air to do its job, all other variables in technique must be individually and systematically eliminated. Stable tongue position is vital, which means you must establish the correct configuration and then recreate it on command every time. The tip of the tongue at all times should be positioned as close to the reed as possible without actually making contact. This makes the process of articulation a very subtle one, requiring the utmost relaxation and control, especially at the very tip. When the tongue is arched in the back using the syllable "ew" while saying "oh" with the lips, the tip of the tongue should automatically drop flat in the front of the mouth, conveniently placing it in a position level with the tip of the reed. The act of articulation at this point is then a "simple" matter of moving the tongue a couple of millimeters forward, making contact with the reed, and then quickly pulling it back those same two millimeters to its starting position. The principle is very simple, but the process of conditioning the tongue muscle to assume the correct position and then be relaxed enough to quickly/delicately touch the reed tip and pull away again demands much meticulous focus and attention to physical sensation and sound effect.



"I think the best thing to do is to start out tonguing quarter notes at 60, then eighths, then 16ths, and move the metronome up 2 beats (if possible i.e. 60 - 62) and start the process over again. Make sure the back of your tongue is kept high. The way I do this is to feel the sides of my tongue against my back molars." - Kristen Grattan 4/95

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