Let’s talk about tonguing, shall we?
For something so simple in theory, there are certainly quite a few variables which might impede your progress. Articulation on string instruments or the piano can clearly be seen, but it is much more difficult to identify potential articulation issues on wind instrument since we must rely only on what we hear. (Unless you go high-tech and film the inside of your mouth while playing.)
If you aren’t satisfied with the quality of your articulation, ask yourself these questions below to see if you can identify possible problems. Most importantly, never neglect the quality of your articulation in pursuit of articulation speed.
(You might also want to check out my complete guide to clarinet articulation for a more in-depth overview on this subject.
- Are you using the tip of your tongue to touch the tip of the reed? The reason we want to use the tip of our tongue is to minimize the surface area that touches the reed, which allows for more delicate attacks. We also want to touch the upper tip of the reed because it allows us to temporarily stop the sound (aka tonguing/articulation) by using less pressure. Want to see this in action? Remove the clarinet from your mouth and use your finger to press the reed against the mouthpiece to imitate your tongue. Notice how it requires more pressure the lower down you go? That’s why you should be aiming closer towards the tip of the tongue.
- Are you using the same part of your tongue to touch the same part of the reed for every single note? If not, your articulation will not sound symmetrical and you run the risk of pops or other unwanted attacks.
- Are you moving your tongue too far back when not in use? The greater the distance between the tongue and reed, the slower your articulation will be.
- Are you inadvertently moving your embouchure? An unstable embouchure equals an unstable sound, so check to make sure there is absolutely no excess movement in your chin, jaw, lips, or anywhere else when you are tonguing. Remember, just the tongue should be moving (much easier said than done)!
- Are you using the best articulation syllable to achieve your musical goals? Every clarinetist has their preferred articulation syllables (tah, tee, tu, doo, dah, dee and a variety of other options), so take some time to see which syllables give you the results you want. (Learn more about what syllables I use and why in my complete guide to clarinet articulation.)
- Are you maintaining the same quantity and speed of air? In my experience, many tonguing problems have nothing to do with the tongue at all, but are rather a lack of steady air. Try slurring the passage first, then try to recreate the same sound and air flow with the printed articulation.
- Are you playing with good posture? Make sure you don’t dip your chin towards your chest while you’re playing so you don’t impede your air flow. Also, release any tension from your body, whether you’re tonguing or slurring.
- Are you playing with tension? Locate any tension in your tongue, jaw, embouchure, fingers, arms, back, or anywhere else which might be impeding your articulation improvement.
- Are you practicing articulation too much? Too much articulation work can quickly deplete physical and mental endurance, so make sure you are productive and efficient during the articulation portion of your practice routine. (For what it’s worth, I spend about 10-15 minutes a day on articulation exercises, but feel free to modify this to fit your schedule.)
I hope these tonguing troubleshooting tips help you improve the quality of your articulation! What articulation advice do you have for other clarinetists?
P.S. You might also be interested in my article on double tonguing for clarinetists.