All music is an articulation exercise (or could be made into one)

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In response to the question “How should I practice articulation?”, I always answer “everything is an articulation exercise, or can be adapted into one”. Spending more money on expensive Leduc editions will not help your tongue. Reading theories about where the optimal point of articulation is (behind the teeth, on the palate, between the lips) can give you ideas but not answers, since nobody seems to be in 100% agreement.

Since nobody can look into your mouth and tell you where to put your tongue, I’ll repeat another truism: all articulation practice is tone practice. Your ears will tell you what works. Good articulation requires just as much awakening of the ears as the tongue.

“But I have an OK tone, it’s just when I use my tongue for any amount of time it starts to sound bad!”, you may answer.

“Good!” I say, “So the ears are switched on.”
The short answer to this problem is that when you engage the tongue, the air behind it has to keep going despite a short interruption. Many players forget this and instead of increasing abdominal support to keep the energy behind the air stream they tighten the embouchure, or even worse, use the jaw to help the tongue! This is what causes fatigue and lack of control in long articulated passages.

It could also be the tongue is working too hard. My former teacher Bernard Goldberg used to admonish me be saying “you are only slicing air, not last week’s bagels”.

There are a few checkpoints: maybe the distance between the Du and Gu of double tonguing is too great. Some find it useful to shorten this distance by thinking the Du Gu action as having a vertical (up and down) dimension to it as opposed to just a back-and-forth motion.

How to establish efficiency? There are no shortcuts. I’ll go out on a limb and say that if you seriously, seriously devote time to this aspect of playing, your body can’t help but adopt the most efficient means possible – if you include your ears and brain in the process. The ears tell you when it’s good and your brain tells you to stop, re-investigate when it’s not good or when you’re fatiguing yourself. This process will repeat itself a zillion times. Like any muscular activity we need diligent, consequent practice and patience to establish new habits.

Try the following with Mendelssohn’s Scherzo, it’s an adaptation of Aurèle Nicolet’s method:

Break the solo into manageable passages (for example, the first passage could be the first 13 complete bars)
Play the passage slowly legato – each note focused and resonant
Play the passage slowly with ha ha articulation (no tongue!)
Play the passage with flutter tongue (either kind, throat or tongue)
Play the passage double tonguing every single written note (g,g,b-flat, b-flat,c,c,d,d,etc…)
Play the passage as written

You notice I try to avoid advice on placement and mechanics of the tongue, and mention of particular “schools” like the French School, which is supposedly the ace of articulation. That may well be, but listen to old recordings from the early 20th century English virtuosi, holy smokes, they could hold their own! Also, South Indian musicians, whose native Dravidian languages use retroflex sounds, where the tongue is actually pointed backwards, can move their tongues at lightning speed. Just listen to any mrdangam player doing the rhythmic solmization of konnakkol (that ta-ki-di-mi stuff)!

In a nutshell:
Ears are just as important as the tongue.
Remember the air produces the sound, not the tongue.
Invest wisely, get more on your return! In this case it means a long-term committment to intelligent practice.


Double Double Tongue

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Working on the Berio Sequenza, I’ve been trying to figure out ways to double tongue faster. Theoretically, I presume, one should be able to double tongue exactly twice as fast as one can single tongue. [1x ST = 2x DT] So if I can single tongue 16th notes at mm.=120, why can’t I double tongue 32nd notes at the same speed? It works sometimes, but only for a short burst of time.

Here’s how I’m working to prolong it: practice double tonguing as fast as possible independent from the beat – not trying to fit two or for or however many on a certain note. It’s kind of like how you try to get vibrato to sound smooth, not sounding like 4 or 5 to a beat but just natural. Try it with the tongue!

Take Taffanel/Gaubert e.j. no. 4
I’ll play the ascending line slurred, then descending with double tonguing as fast as possible independent of the beat, but keeping the fingers in time. Usually I start with tempo mm.=100 then work up. Then I will switch, ascend with double tonguing, then descend legato.

Going back and forth between fast articulation and legato gives a good rest for the tongue, and it’s a good way to focus on the tempo again. (For some reason, my brain can turn off when articulating fast!) When I feel confident, I will try articulating ascending and descending.

One thing that helps: with the tongue moving so fast, it really does interfere with the airstream. Therefore, you really need a steady support from the abdominal muscles – it actually helps when keep them firm and moving in and up when exhaling.

Berio uses this technique of double tonguing as fast as possible in his woodwind quintet also – so it’s good preparation for his other works!

Photo: Arthur Sassa/AFP-Getty Images File


The Value of Time II

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Here’s a run-down of what I’m up to practice-wise. Not interesting reading for sensation seekers. Sorry. But now and then I need to keep tabs on the household stuff.
Yes, having a 6-month-old bundle of joy does compromise one’s practice time, especially if one is also working. So I’ve been very vigilant about keeping time and here’s what it comes out to:

  • 4 min. Tai Chi hand exercises
  • 8 min. Harmonic and Trill warm up
  • 8 min. Scales/ Taffanel Gaubert
  • 10 min. Scales with articulation and excerpts with articulation*
  • 8 min. Tone, dynamic and vibrato exercises from PL Graf’s Check Up
  • 4 min. movement of Bach Sonata

That’s a total of 42 min. just basic maintenance! Plus goofing around, sipping tea, messing with the tuner/metronome, stretching, looking for pencil = 8 min. So the whole ” maintenance and warm up” lasts 50 min.! Hmmm. Well, I think I’ll stick with this for now, plus I plan on adding 15 min. of Moyse next week when I have fewer rehearsals. To explain: I am having to build up after a hiatus since September. I have been playing regularly since October; however, need to be in Solo Recital Form within a couple of months, and the above regime with added Moyse is what it will take. Then there are the pieces to practice…..

* I include some repertoire in my warm up – esp. with articulation. There was a time (1996, to be exact) that I warmed up on Berio’s Sequenza. Yes, I was that fit (and nuts!). Otherwise, it could be Mendelssohn’s Scherzo or Carnival of the Animals. Today it was Zappa’s Echidna’s Arf (for the 5-tuplets) and Black Page no. 1 (for the 11-tuplets)!

It seems I can’t leave the house until I’m sure my tongue is in working order, and that my articulation is clean. Sort of like having clean socks and underwear, you should always be prepared! There are people who won’t leave the house unless their shirt is ironed, or their shoes are spiffy, I’m not that picky…..

Some of you may also wonder why I do scales before tone studies. That was Peter Lloyd’s idea and I find it really works for me. Get playing first, get things working first, then to concentrated exercise on tone.