Thursday, September 18, 2014

Saxophone Skills: The Strongest Muscle - It’s Not What You Think!

This is the latest in a very popular series by Sarah Anne Wolkowski.

Tonguing should be a very easy topic. There are three things you need to know:

1. How to do it properly.

2. How to do it quickly.

3. How to follow articulation rules notated on the score.

Like the words decrescendo and diminuendo, the terms tonguing and articulating are often used interchangeably. However, it is useful to note that tonguing usually refers to the physical act of separating one note from the next, whereas articulation often refers to specific ways of tonguing.

The markings on top of notes are referred to as the articulation. Symbols like accents, slurs, staccatos, and tenutos direct the musician about how and when to tongue the notes.

There are articulation patterns. Your teacher might ask you to play a scale with a two slurred, two articulated pattern. There is also the very French staccato-under-the-slur articulation, which seems like an oxymoron, but is actually a very appealing and elegant way of tonguing.

Marcel Mule: Master of Articulation

How To Do It

-put the mouthpiece in your mouth and form the correct embouchure
-open your mouth and take a big breath
-push the tip of the reed against the tip of the mouthpiece with your tongue
-exert your support muscles in preparation
-release your air stream into the mouthpiece while releasing your tongue at the same time
-la voilà!
-you’ve just started the sound by tonguing one note


-out loud, say “ta” which is the most common tonguing syllable for the woodwind instruments
-you could also say “too” or “tû”
-feel how the tip of your tongue touches the roof of your mouth when you do this
-take a big breath and play a long tone on your saxophone
-after you have established the sound and feel comfortable, say “ta” by touching the tip of your tongue to the tip of the mouthpiece, closing the reed against the baffle, which is the area just underneath the tip rail
-hey, you just did it again - way to go!
-take a big breath and begin the long tone again
-when you feel ready, repeat the syllable “ta” several times (ta, ta, ta, ta, etc...) WHILE YOU KEEP THE AIR STREAM CONSTANT

This very basic exercise is excellent because it demonstrates that tonguing is simple when you play with a well supported air stream. Nine out of ten tonguing issues (totally unscientific statistic) have nothing to do with your tongue and everything to do with a lapse in the air column. This is definitely not a which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg issue. A well supported sound MUST come first. Tonguing second.

The tonguing motion is actually quite subtle. As you’ve probably guessed, the tongue is the strongest muscle in the body. It’s primed and ready to go. Maximizing your tonguing technique is all about the wind power behind the sound. Don’t forget! You play a wind instrument, and it’s how you use your air that makes everything else possible. You could always become an accordion player. Just sayin’.

How To Do It Fast

I have a super little practice tool I call Four-Three-Two-One, or 4-3-2-1. You can use this on any material: scales, études, pieces, with or without a metronome. Take the series of pitches you would like to work on. Tongue each pitch four times quickly as if you were playing four sixteenth notes. Once you finish the phrase, repeat, tonguing each note three times, as if you were playing a triplet on each note. Continue the pattern with two eighth notes, and then one quarter note.

Your tonguing speed improves, your finger to tongue coordination improves, and your familiarization of the sequence of pitches improves.

For a more intense routine, set the metronome a-clicking, and play through all your scale work with eight articulated. That is, tongue each pitch eight times, evenly. It’s easiest to visualize two groups of four sixteenth notes, with the metronome set to click at the quarter note, or once for every four notes.

This is a truly satisfying exercise! It’s invigorating and athletic, and it feels great. Why deny yourself the slightly heroic feeling of accomplishing this physical endurance test?

Hear that fanfare? It’s Rocky running up the stairs with you!

C’mon! Maynard Ferguson!

How To Follow Articulation Rules

So, what are the rules? All notes must be articulated, unless they are under a slur, in which case, only the first note is tongued. If there is a repeated pitch underneath a slur, it must be articulated to differentiate its rhythm.

We all want to respect the rules of good articulation, so why do they so easily get glossed over? Too much information. Your brain can’t process all the details at once, and if one element gets dropped, it’s usually the articulation.

I like to think of the elements of music as the spokes of a ferris wheel. Each spoke represents one element. There is one for the pitches or notes, one for the rhythm, one for the tempo, one for the dynamics, and one for the articulations. When all the details are respected, and the wheel is turning, the magic starts! Your mind is completely absorbed, rotating quickly through each element, for a full and engaging performance.

If you can’t seem to follow all the articulation rules in a particular passage, it’s time to slow down and tease apart the material. Breaking complicated information into smaller units always facilitates understanding.

Take the offending passage. Just play the pitches. No rhythm, no dynamics, no articulation, just a slow stream of notes. You may want to repeat this several times, just to get acquainted with what is, in effect, a tone row. Attention history keeners: this is like deconstructing the passage by turning it into a cantus firmus.

Next, clap or count the rhythm out loud. Put the pitches and the rhythm back together. Ask yourself: can I play both elements accurately at the same time?

If so, add the articulations, but dial down the tempo substantially. You’re just about to add another layer of complication. Your brain will need a slower tempo to deal with this third tier. Think of this process like building muscle tone. It’s those agonizing, slow movements that make you stronger. Slower is better. Your brain will assimilate the information more fully.

If you can play the passage slowly but correctly, you’ve won. 99% of the real work is done, and increasing the speed will be easy.

Tonguing is a fantastic part of wind playing. It’s very satisfying to coordinate your finger technique with your tonguing technique. This is the very definition of traditional virtuosity.

Series presented by

Sarah Anne Wolkowski, B.Mus (McGill) M.Mus (U. of Alberta)
Saxophone Performance and Instruction

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