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.