Most of us at some point get confused with our articulation, also known as “tonguing". I’m a big believer that if this aspect of our playing is not developed properly, it can be the biggest obstacle to better tone production, flow and general improvement on our instrument. Therefore, it deserves all the attention we can give it.
Let’s start by understanding the simplest concept of tone production. Vibration of the lips in contact with the air produces the sound of a brass instrument; this is what occurs in the middle of a long tone. If all the elements are working efficiently, our sound should be pretty relaxed, open and beautiful. There’s no reason why the sound should suffer or change when we start using our tongue to give definition or to articulate a note.
In my experience, the harder we tongue, the most our sound suffers and loses quality. Therefore, we need to find a happy medium between a good firm attack and great sound quality at all times. In this quest, “breath attacks" are crucial. The process of starting a note correctly with air is the best training possible towards acquiring a great first attack. When we accomplish that “perfect breath attack", our lips aperture and our air stream are working in perfect harmony. This will enable our sound quality to be the same from the beginning of the note. A good breath attack starts with sound right away; there is no hesitation or air heard before the sound itself. Sometimes these air attacks are misunderstood and we simply start with air, ignoring the importance of the sound immediacy, which is key. The analogy of a golfer stroke is my favorite one to vividly paint the perfect picture in our head of that first attack. The golfer positions himself next to the ball, setting up as correctly as possible before making any moves. Then, he visualizes the shot itself and the route of the ball. Finally, the club goes up and comes down in one motion hitting the ball on that sweet spot that will launch it either as far as possible, or as gentle and precise as he needs it to go. Our approach to starting a note needs to be the same. We need to set our embouchure before we make any sound. Then, we visualize what is about to happen and the music we want to produce. Finally, we take that efficient, full breath and exhale in one single motion making sure our air can start the note without the help of the tongue. Once this process is mastered then we can reinforce the proper use of the tongue.
Let’s remember that we want our first attack to repeat itself as efficiently and effortlessly as possible throughout any musical piece, therefore, our first attack should not be hard and labored. I’ve found that the mixture of a “du" syllable and the proper use of air will result in a much more efficient way to articulate than when “ta" is used. I’m not implying that a solid strong articulation is not needed, but it is much easier to obtain than a polished refined one. Besides the use of the “ta" syllable in a string of repeated notes at a higher speed will produce more tension than when “da" is used, resulting in extra work and most of the time the use of a forceful and tense air stream. This tension will not only affect our sound but it will also conflict with the flow of the line and the ability of improvement of a player.
Now that we have addressed the production of the first attack, let’s focus on the rest of attacks on a musical piece. We want to have a flow in our musical line that’s comparable to a singer or a string player. Unless we are playing a style of music that demands stronger attacks or these are specified on the page, we need our regular attacks to be as similar to our regular sound as we can. A way to visualize a proper concept for tonguing I like, is to imagine an open faucet with a very steady stream of water and our hand positioned next to it with our index finger extended. Then, we flick that stream of water with the smallest and easiest movement. In this analogy, the water is our air and the finger our tongue. The air never stops; that small and efficient tongue movement only interrupts it. This concept of thinking and playing will not only help the flow, quality of sound and playing experience in general, but it will also train our air to avoid nuances and involuntary movements we don’t want in our everyday playing. For example, those “twa" tendencies at the beginning of notes that a lot of younger players experience and are so difficult to get rid of.
A very valuable tool to help train our air and start getting this concept of playing implemented at a faster pace, is a book called: “The Breathing Gym". Written by Sam Pilafian and Patrick Sheridan, the breathing gym will stir anybody into the proper use of air, facilitating the way we use our tongue in the process.
A quality long tone followed by a string of notes trying to match the sound quality of that long tone is one of the best exercises to reach this goal of tonguing effortlessly.
Finding a way to articulate more efficiently is a quest to be conquered by each individual on his own, a teacher or a mentor can only do so much. These are tips that helped me through the years; I hope you find them useful as well.