Does the Tongue Start the Note?

Articulation on brass instruments is a relatively simple affair, or at least it ought to be. I frequently admonish the young teachers in my methods classes to teach tonguing to beginning students not by using anatomical explanations of tongue placement, but by simply telling students to say “tah.” As students progress the variants “dah” and in select cases even “thah” are added, along with “kah” and “gah” that are introduced for multiple-tonguing patterns. And, of course, there are the changes of vowel shape needed to change registers; “thaw” is a favorite for the lowest notes on bass trombone and tuba, along with “tee” for the highest notes on all the brasses, and several other intermediate vowel shapes. Explaining articulation using consonant and vowel sounds that students already know from spoken language is one way to prevent the paralyzing effects of trying to think in detail about how the body works while playing while at the same time avoiding the use of unwanted types of articulation such as “pah” and “hah.”

When playing brass instruments a tongued articulation is used at the beginning of each note except when slurring, in which case the tongue strikes only on the first note of the slurred passage. The near-ubiquitous presence of tongued attacks can promote a certain felt dependence upon the tongue to begin notes. This is especially common with trombonists, who are able to truly slur less frequently than other brass players, but it happens with others, as well. When this happens there is sometimes a long pause between the breath and attack (which negatively impacts timing) and often the student will plant the tip of the tongue behind the upper teeth very early, and then allow the air to back up behind the tongue for a split-second before releasing it, making the tongue a sort of gatekeeper for the airflow at the beginning of each note. The result is a predictably explosive beginning to the note, though some students will manage to do this with more refinement. Still, the achievement of a truly delicate attack in this way is impossible, to say nothing of a good legato tongue.

When a student comes to the university articulating in this way (not an uncommon occurrence) one of my first questions for that student is “Does the tongue start the note?” Most students answer in the affirmative, though a few surmise from my even asking the question that the correct answer is “no.” Either way, I demonstrate that the tongue does not begin the note by playing a series of notes using breath attacks. Here there is no tongued articulation, and yet notes still occur. I then indicate to students that the necessary ingredient for a sounding note is vibration, supplied in the case of brass instruments by air blowing through the lips and causing them to vibrate. The tongue is engaged at the beginning of the note, but it is not absolutely necessary for the note to be present. The only necessities are air and buzz.

So if the tongue does not start the note what does it do? Simple: it shapes or defines the attack. Its job is to eliminate the unwanted sounds of breath attacks and of smears when legato tonguing on the trombone, and to give the beginning of each note the desired character, whether gentle, forceful, or something in between. I tell students that the default articulation ought to be one where just enough tongue is used to provide clarity, avoiding the uncertain beginning of a “hah” attack. From there the strength of the articulation can be increased or decreased as needed to produce the correct sound in any given context. We do this all the time in our spoken diction; articulating on a brass instrument should be no different. At no time should we play as if the note sounding at all is dependent upon the tongue striking at the beginning of the note.

Is the use of the tongue an important part of brass playing? Sure, but is a tongued articulation necessary for tone production on a brass instrument? No. Cultivate a way of playing in which air and buzz are primary (because they are!), and enjoy the freedom of being able to use a variety of tongued articulations to shape the attacks as desired but without ever depending upon the tongue to start the note.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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