Thursday, October 16, 2014

Saxophone Skills: Le Slap

It’s a noisy world and getting someone’s attention isn’t always easy. I tend to prefer subtle and gentle ways of interjecting. Tapping someone on the elbow or catching his or her eye quietly achieves this goal.

There is a musical equivalent.

Take anything: a tune, a scale, a short passage, a snippet. Play it through once as written, then repeat using slap tongue.

You can do this in front of an audience, just before band rehearsal, anytime. Common responses include murmurings of disbelief, ‘What is that?’ to instantaneous mimicking as observers try to copy the sound by clacking their tongues, ‘Tok, tok’. Sometimes it’s the silent but effective gesture that is most dramatic - the dropping of the jaw combined with a widening of the eyes. That’s when you KNOW you got ‘em!

Percussive sounds are not unusual in music, so why does this technique invite such surprise and wonder? It’s because no one is expecting it to come from the saxophone player! Replicate this noise on a drum, and, yawn, no one will even blink.

So, you want to impress people in weird and wonderful ways by becoming a slap tongue wizard or wizardess. There’s more than a little magic in this favourite extended technique.

The biggest mystery?


Of course, as any magician, sorcerer or wizardess will tell you, it’s all about technique. Just another reason technical knowledge is so awesome. You can boggle the minds of others while staying as cool as a cucumber.

Persistence is the name of the game. Don’t give up. Saxophonist Tanvi Nanda figured it out in a couple of weeks. It took saxophonist S.A.W. seven months!

Looking for some inspiration? Rudy Wiedoeft composed and performed several pieces which feature this technique. “Sax-O-Phun” from 1924, is subtitled, “A Study In Laugh And Slap Tongue”. The sheet music is available, as are recordings of Wiedoeft playing his composition. While the music was composed with maximum entertainment value in mind, there is no denying that Wiedoeft is an impeccable technician. His slaps are clear, resonant and satisfyingly solid.

Today, slap tongue has become a versatile stylistic tool, playable on any note, at any volume, with or without resonance.

You can practice slap tongue with:

  • the entire saxophone
  • just the mouthpiece and the neck
  • the mouthpiece only
  • just the reed

Working with the reed only has several advantages. If you’re forming an embouchure, your lips are closed over the mouthpiece, and it’s impossible to see what your tongue is doing.

We tend to teach regular tonguing by using the syllable, “Ta” and basing our understanding on sensation. We feel what’s happening inside our mouths.

When you eliminate everything but the reed, you can open your mouth and examine how your tongue is actually functioning to create the slap.

Of course, this is best done in front of a mirror.

It should be said that slap tongue isn’t an extension of regular tonguing. You are using your tongue in a different way.

How To Slap with Just the Reed

  1. Open your mouth and balance the reed on your bottom lip.
  2. Press the reed down slightly.
  3. Pull your tongue back, and flatten.
  4. Bring your tongue up to cup the front end of the reed, creating suction.
  5. Pull your tongue back and listen for the resulting baby slap as the reed rebounds against your bottom lip.

You got it? Cool beans!

This skill transfers to any of the combinations listed above. You will get the full effect of this technique when you use the mouthpiece. Instead of rebounding off your bottom lip, the reed will SLAP against the mouthpiece when your tongue lets go of the reed.

If you want a slap tongue with a certain amount of resonant pitch, breathe in, put the air column under pressure by exerting the support muscles, and with the release of the tongue you will catch the essence of the note your are fingering.

There is an excellent video on YouTube by clarinetist Jean-Pierre Sarzier. Type in, “clarinette bambou: le slap” and he will very clearly show you how to slap tongue using a single reed. His explanation is en français, but no matter. His demonstration is so clear that even non-francophones will understand.

Discovered by a select group of musicians in the Golden Age of the Saxophone, slap tongue has enjoyed a well deserved renaissance. It is often referred to as an extended technique. Perhaps. Certainly, it is to other instrumentalists who don’t have the ability to do it. You can’t slap tongue on a trombone. To the outsider, the sound it creates is unusual, and thus easy to classify as something beyond a normal skill set.

For saxophonists, however, the sound is uniquely idiomatic. If we put on our saxophone glasses and peer through the lenses, slap tongue appears to be a natural outcome of the design. C’est très normal, and a lot of fun.


Thank you for reading this series on saxophone technique. Of course, there is still much to discuss. Book to follow. Is there something about saxophone technique you would like explained? In the spirit of collaboration, I invite anyone to email me at sarah@saxophonebythelake.com with the topics you would like to see explored in greater detail. For instance, someone made an insightful and interesting comment about reed strength at the end of, "Three Crimes of the Saxophone Kind." Reed strength will be a topic in the book. I look forward to reading your ideas!

Series presented by

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

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