Tongue Talk
Posted by Chase Sanborn

The tongue helps determine the forcefulness of the initial air expulsion (the attack), the velocity of the air to follow and the duration of each burst of air (staccato vs. slurred). The primary syllables involved are aa, oo, ee; daa, doo, dee; and taa, too, tee.

The vowels (oo, aa, ee) determine the tongue level, which affects air velocity. Whisper these sounds and notice that the back of the tongue arches up towards the roof of the mouth for the ‘oo’ and ‘ee’ syllables. This increases the speed of the air, facilitating faster lip vibrations for higher notes. Sing a very low note quickly followed by a very high note. Do it once with ‘aa’ syllables on both notes, then again with an ‘ee’ syllable on the higher note. It is much easier to change registers with a change of tongue arch level.

The consonants, ‘d’ and ‘t’ affect the forcefulness of the initial attack. The tongue strokes are similar; the tongue pulls away faster for the sharper ‘t’ syllable. When practicing tonguing, make sure you work on both staccato and legato tongue styles.

Following is my approach to tonguing. Others’ may differ. When inhaling, slurring or sustaining, the tip of my tongue contacts the gum below my bottom teeth. At the moment of attack, simultaneous with the compression and expulsion of air, the tip of the tongue jumps up to contact the gum above the top teeth, then snaps back down to the starting position. The more rapid the tongue strike, the sharper the attack. For a series of attacks, the tongue hovers just behind the upper gum, reducing the distance it must travel for each attack.

The movement of the tongue must be precisely coordinated with the fingers. Faulty coordination is often the cause of indistinct articulation. (See my previous column on finger dexterity.)

Timed breathing–relating the inhalation to the tempo of the music–helps to minimize stuttering attacks or a feeling of being tongue tied on the initial attack as the tongue gets ‘trapped’ by the column of air.

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