There are more than a few…controversial…clarinet topics. Once you learn the basics, you learn that nothing is really as basic as it first appears.
One of these hot topics? Articulation and tonguing.
This is why I’ve waited so long to publish this complete guide. I’ve done guides on tuning, resonance fingerings, long tones, and other clarinet fundamentals, but discussing articulation to an audience of predominantly clarinetists seemed a bit ambitious, to say the least.
Please note: Before we dive into this complete guide, I want to make it very clear that there are many different articulation beliefs, philosophies, fundamentals, and concepts in the clarinet world. Ask a room full of clarinetists about their articulation, and you’ll receive a resounding variety of answers. I’ve chosen to share the tenets of my articulation philosophy, but I encourage you to learn as much as you can about articulation so you can form your own ideas and discover what works best for you.
And now, without further ado, let’s talk articulation.
Articulation (or tonguing, as it’s sometimes called) is simply the act of using your tongue or air to separate or reiterate notes. Think of tonguing like bowing on a string instrument or finger motion on a piano. If you want to get a bit wild, you can think of tonguing like left hand motion on a theremin. As I continue my theremin journey, I’ve realize this is a useful visualization tool to help portray clarinet articulation.
Just like achieving your ideal sound, developing beautiful and agile articulation is a lifelong journey. Tonguing is a skill that must be practiced consistently and carefully over many weeks, months, and years to achieve maximum results.
According to our patron saint of articulation*, Reginald Kell says:
Tip of the tongue, tip of the reed is the golden rule for delicate staccato….I like to believe…that the art of staccato playing is one of the easiest things we can hope to accomplish, for there is so little movement involved. Actually it is not so easy, as there is only a small margin of safety. The distance the tongue should travel is probably no more than a quarter of the distance involved in the blinking of an eye. Therefore futile movement of the mouth and jaws should be avoided; interference of this nature can only add to the problem.
(*Btw I’m only halfway joking about Kell being our patron saint of articulation – his 17 Staccato Studies is one of my favourite resources to help develop beautiful clarinet articulation and staccato. Additionally, I encourage every clarinetist to listen to recordings of Kell to hear his beautiful articulation.)
Despite the many different articulation opinions out there, I think it’s safe to say that we can all agree on a few things:
- Use the tip of the tongue for traditional articulation. Using the tip allows the minimum amount of tongue to touch the reed, which allows us to create a light articulation. Using too much tongue surface area can result in a dull, thuddy articulation.
- Maintain minimal distance between the tongue and reed. The further back your tongue moves between every articulation, the slower your speed will be.
- Avoid excess tongue pressure on the reed. Reeds are delicate pieces of cane, so a forceful tongue pressure might damage the reed or create a poorer quality articulation.
- Touch the tip of the tongue to the tip of the reed. This is the golden rule of articulation. Use the tip of your tongue to touch the tip of the reed. When the tongue touches the reed, it closes the reed against the mouthpiece, temporarily resulting in a closing of the aperture, thus creating a stop in the sound. (Just to clarify: the tip of the reed does NOT mean the upper reed tip as seen from an overhead view of the clarinet. This will chip the reed, hurt your tongue, and in the case of one unfortunate student, cause your tongue to bleed through the instrument.)
Goals of articulation
- Quality of sound. Even the slightest motion of the tongue can disrupt the air flow. Pay careful attention to the sound you create when you tongue notes. Does it sound the same as when you slur? Is it the same quality in all registers? Does the quality match across the dynamic spectrum? My prime directive is to always play with a slurred sound across all registers and dynamics, no matter what articulation style or phrasing I am using.
- Evenness of articulation. Once you’re happy with the quality of sound, make sure that the attacks and releases are all fluid and even. Avoid popped notes, which can be a result of too much tongue pressure, embouchure adjustment, biting, or faulty air. The key word here is symmetry.
- Speed. There’s a reason I’ve listed this goal last. You should only reach faster speeds after you are happy with the overall quality and evenness of your articulation at slower speeds. Spitfire articulation can be impressive, but only if it’s done so with a nice sound.
- The tongue should move minimal distance away from the reed.
- The shorter the note, the longer the tongue rests on the reed. Conversely, the longer the note, the shorter amount of time the tongue will rest on the reed.
- Think of the tongue like the water pressure beneath a faucet – it’s there at the ready, waiting to be used. The tongue and air are like the faucet and water pressure. Always use long tone air support, regardless of articulation style.
- Make sure you use a light tongue without any excess tension or pressure.
- There should be no chin or embouchure movement as you articulate. Any instability in the embouchure will result in an unsteady sound.
- Tonguing speed is developed slowly over time. Once you are happy with the quality and symmetry of sound, gradually increase the speed, making sure that you don’t lose quality as you gain speed.
- Articulation is best practiced in small, concentrated doses. The tongue fatigues more easily than other muscles used for clarinet, so too much articulation practice yields the law of diminishing returns.
- Articulation can hide a multitude of sins in music. The brief separation between notes gives your fingers time to reach their proper destination. This can be useful, but make sure you are not developing any poor technical habits as you develop your articulation.
Here comes the fun part – what is the proper clarinet tongue position and syllable?
You’ve probably heard an assortment of syllables. Tu, tah, tee, du, dah, dee, and any other collection of consonants and vowels.
Let’s break it down into two parts, the consonant and the vowel.
The consonant will determine the what part of the tongue makes contact with the reed. “T” is more direct while “D” is more subtle and shaded. These are the two most popular consonants, although you can experiment with others to see what you like best. I use a combination based on the desired musical effect.
Now on to the vowel. The two warring factions are typically “ee” and “ah,” although there are several other syllables used by clarinetists. Ee promotes a higher tongue position in the mouth, whereas ah moves the tongue to the lower part of the mouth. This tongue position, along with your embouchure and other positions of the oral cavity, comprise the concept known as voicing. (I’m working on a complete guide to voicing for future publication, where we’ll go much more in-depth into this subject.)
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe in maintaining constant tongue position – I channel my inner vocalist. When you sing a lower note, the tongue is naturally lower in the mouth. As you go up the tessitura, the tongue moves higher. I believe this creates the most beautiful sound on the clarinet (or at least it does for me), so I don’t believe in forcing the tongue to stay in one part of my mouth throughout the entire range of the clarinet.
That being said, I encourage you to experiment with vowels, consonants, and overall tongue position to find out what yields the best results for you and your sound. Tongue position can make a big difference in your sound, so use this to your advantage to create your best sound.
Tongue position experiment: Sustain an open G while changing your tongue position. Use a variety of vowels and consonants to hear and feel the different responses on the instrument. Who knew these tiny adjustments had such a major effect on our sound?
Breath attack vs. tongue attack
Now that you know exactly what your tongue should be doing for proper articulation, let’s introduce a new kind of articulation – breath attacks! Instead of starting the sound with the tongue, you can start the sound with the air/breath to create a more nuanced response. I generally use breath attack on delicate entrances (especially in the altissimo register), but breath attacks can also be used for guttural diaphragmatic accents. It is important to develop and refine as many different articulation styles as possible, as each one can be used in a variety of different musical situations.
Other types of articulation
- Double tonguing. This is when you use two different parts of your oral cavity to create a faster articulation by saying syllables such as “dig-uh” or “tuh-kuh”, allowing you to increase your articulation speed. (Just like in single tonguing, the syllables are up for debate.)
- Triple tonguing. Like double tonguing, only using three different parts of your tongue. One syllable includes “tuh-kuh-tuh, although there are several other syllables commonly used. If you are looking to develop double or triple tonguing, you can learn a lot from flute, trumpet, and general brass pedagogy.
- Flutter tonguing / growling. If you can roll your ‘r’ then you can flutter tongue. If not, you can growl or “gargle” using the back of your throat for a similar effect.
- Slap tonguing. To do this, you will need to create suction between the tongue and the reed to mimic a slapping sound effect.
- Lateral tonguing. Instead of moving your tongue back and forth to and away from the reed, you move it laterally (side to side). Some musicians believe that this can achieve faster speeds than traditional tonguing.
- Anchor tonguing. This is a bad habit many wind players can develop in which the tip of the tongue rests behind the teeth and you use the middle or back of the tongue to make contact with the reed. (Note: This is generally avoided on clarinet and can be very difficult to correct, but I have chosen to include this here as a point of reference for various articulation techniques – I do not recommend using this articulation on clarinet.)
Clarinet articulation resources
Here are a few of my favourite exercises and resources to learn more about clarinet articulation:
- Reginald Kell 17 Staccato Studies (also Clarinet Staccato from the Beginning)
- Gustave Langenus “Tonguing Study” from Book Three of Complete Method for the Clarinet (No. 11 – page 22)
- Robert Stark Daily Staccato Exercises
- Randall Cunningham Tongue Twisters
- Fernand Gillet Exercices Sur Les Gammes, Les Intervalles, et Le Staccato Pour Clarinette
- Reiner Wehle Clarinet Fundamentals 1: Sound and Articulation
- Avrahm Galper Tone, Technique, and Staccato
- Allen Sigel Clarinet Articulation
Keep in mind that tonguing exercises don’t have to be fancy – you can practice scales in a variety of articulation styles and patterns to develop quality articulation on clarinet.
I hope this information is useful as you embark on your clarinet articulation journey! What other tonguing tips or advice would you add to this list?