Solving Saxophone Tonguing Nightmares
Dr Michael Duke
Sydney Conservatorium of Music
Does your articulation sound heavy and ponderous? Do you struggle to tongue at faster tempos? If there is one recurring issue that students of the saxophone bring to me, it is that of articulation.
There is a spectrum of articulation that all good musicians require for their tonal palate, but developing a true, light, connected and flowing legato is the key to tonguing success. Once this is achieved, all other articulations will follow.
So, where to start? Initially, it is advantageous to try and diagnose what is going on. Many saxophonists are working too hard – applying too much pressure on the reed, resulting in heaviness. Often it is the position of the tongue and the motion we use to articulate that is less than optimum, causing unwanted tension and a sluggish action. One way to see if you are using too much of the tongue is to look in the mirror while articulating: if you are moving the whole tongue, you will see the area between the chin and neck moving. This is not what you want! If you are moving only the front part of your tongue, you will not see any external movement.
Another quick way to check is to tongue on the mouthpiece only. If too much tongue is involved in the articulation action, the pitch will move with each stroke.
Most of us were taught to articulate with the mantra “Tip of the tongue on the tip of the reed”. Although well intentioned, this is not the most effective way for students to develop a relaxed articulation that can be executed at speed. To do this, most saxophonists with an average tongue size must pull it back and slightly upwards. In maintaining this tongue position, extra tension is created that will result in a more difficult path towards articulation at speed. Instead, I would slightly vary the mantra to “Front part of the tongue on the tip of the reed”. The point of contact should be approximately one centimetre from the tip, allowing for a more natural and relaxed tongue position. Note that I am not advocating for articulating in the middle of the tongue, as this can lead to too much contact on the reed and possibly a heavy, slapping articulation.
When attempting to both lighten up and increase the speed of articulation, one of the best places to start is by removing the tongue from the equation completely. Many saxophonists rely on the tongue to “kickstart” a note, instead of utilising good air pressure and support.
Not using the tongue will quickly teach the saxophonist to increase the air speed before the start of the note, rather than making the ineffectual breathy air crescendo that is often a root problem of poor articulation. This is particularly useful (and initially somewhat challenging) for beginning a phrase or during staccato passages. Practise a slow breath-attack scale with a rest between each note (metronome approximately crotchet = 78). Then, proceed to alternating between the breath attack and introducing regular articulation. The breath attack must never be “breathy” and should not have audible air before the note. To achieve this, the air column must be pressurised.
The regular articulation should be as light as possible, matching the core tone of the breath attack. I like to think of the regular articulation as consisting of 90 per cent air attack and 10 per cent tongue. Practising air attacks will also aid in correcting voicing issues or a tight embouchure when beginning notes in the low register. Any extra unwanted tension must be released from the embouchure for the note to sound in the correct octave.
The ultimate aim here is to momentarily stop the reed from vibrating with minimal interruption to the air flow. If the tongue is not on the tip (the sharp edge of the reed) and is instead being applied to the underside of the reed, a deadening of the vibrations will occur. With more pressure, this will result in the reed closing off the tip hole and the note will stop. But, so will the air flow! The resultant sound is a very heavy and disruptive articulation. Instead, think of articulation as an off action. Pull the tongue off the reed to articulate (as opposed to putting it on), thus creating a lighter approach. In doing this you are using less pressure on the reed and allowing for minimum interruption to the flow of air. The reed and/or tongue do not need to close off the tip opening. Maintaining a constant air flow through the instrument while articulating might seem contrary to many students, but with practice this will allow the articulation to be smoother and more connected.
The development of staccato and marcato articulation can also be done through the above exercises. Staccato articulation should be practised in a classical setting by stopping the air (not the support) with the diaphragm, and not by placing the tongue back on the reed (“tah”, not “tut”). As the tempo quickens, the end of one note will become the beginning of the next. I prefer to think of this action as the tongue starting the new note, as opposed to ending the previous one.
To increase tongue speed, it is best to begin by refining the articulation action while minimising contact with the reed. Simply working with a heavy tongue action will be akin to banging your head against the proverbial brick wall! Instead, we need to use the least amount of effort for the maximum result. Where possible, look to release tension and aim for a more natural and relaxed approach. It takes time and patience, but the results will be worth it!
Thinking of various syllables can help to promote different types of articulation attacks. The commonly taught “tah” can be clear and precise, but in many young students, this syllable can easily lead to the heavy explosive attack discussed previously. “Dah” provides a smoother more rounded attack, with “lah” having the lightest of all articulations.
The aim is to have a continuous air stream (as in playing a long tone) that is not being chopped into small parcels when tonguing. You could liken it to the action of a smooth rock being skimmed across a lake. Air support will provide the “surface tension” and the tongue can then bounce off the tip of the reed, rather than blocking the tip opening and plunking into the lake with each articulation! To master this, any number of exercises (or in combination with scales) can be used. The following exercise is a simple but effective one:
Once these concepts have been put into place, increasing the speed can be achieved. The tongue is a muscle, and in order to build up speed you will need to take time to train it. Begin with short bursts of articulation. The following exercise will help to train up the tongue and build stamina. This is also a good time to think again about the concept of the rock skimming on the water, with each successive note in each group being lighter than the first:
Dr. Michael Duke is Associate Professor of Saxophone at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Sydney University. He has given multiple masterclasses and performances throughout the USA, UK, Asia and Australia. As a member of HD Duo and the Nexas Quartet he has commissioned and recorded numerous new compositions for saxophone.