Ask J: Tonguing, Articulation, and Airflow

I am having a problem with tounging, especially when I'm playing legato.I feel uncomfortable, I ikeI might have a crappy attack, the note may not speak, or something will go wrong.

Its pretty agrivating sometimes, and it's making progress on the legato movement of the all state piece, and the rhapsody for euph slow.

I kinda feel more comfortable when I toung directly on the back of my teeth, opposed to on the roof of the mouth directly behind them.but when playing above the staff, tounging directly on the teeth feels kinda ackward and like a long strech....but it does kind of make things cleaner.

so, what are a few things that I should keep In mind???

Hi there- thanks for your question!

Articulation can be a funny thing- it’s almost a “Jedi mind-trick” in that, by visualizing (or thinking) the articulations in your head, you immediately engage the appropriate musculature (and tongue placement in the mouth). When I’ve struggled most with articulation, I almost get an obsessive focus on the tongue and the sound that isn’t working, and then everything seems to get worse (as you mentioned, it gets more aggravating).

Here’s the solution:

  1. ALWAYS focus on your air- the tongue is a light (and momentary) interruption (read here- NOT STOPPING, that leads to other problems) of the airstream. When we focus on the tongue, we almost always forget the #1 rule- BLOW THROUGH.
  2. While the air is moving in a non-stop fashion, think “TOH, TOH, TOH” for staccato, “TOH, DOH, DOH, DOH” for legato or “TOH------------------” then non-stop air for valve slurs or trombone glissando practice.
  3. In general, the tongue hits about where the back of the tooth meets the roof of your mouth (or a little lower) and as you play lower pitches, it gets closer to right in-between the teeth. Note: It’s only literally between the teeth on VERY low tessitura playing--down in the low pedal register. The lower you play, the more “quasi-legato” the articulation becomes--it ends up becoming a very light “doh” or even a “noh” or “loh” depending on whom you listen to.
  4. In short- break it down (do all of these at a slow tempo, then after all are successful, gradually increase the tempo)
    • take the passage that you’re having trouble with and first play a whole note on the first pitch of the passage.
    • next, play a series of progressively shorter pitches without sacrificing the CONTIGUOUS AIR SUPPORT (i.e. fully connected) - halves, quarters, etc.
    • then play the rhythm of the passage on a static pitch (maybe down an octave for a high passage, then up in the proper octave)
    • Finally play the passage in an additive process- 1st three notes, 1st four notes, etc. until you complete it.

I suspect the reason it feels “kinda awkward and like a long stretch” is that you are over focused on the muscles of the “tonguing” and not thinking about blowing through the passage, note, and horn- always focus THROUGH the instrument and passage, not “to” it.

Hope this helps- please check in and let me know how it works out!


“I practice today, so that tomorrow, I will suck less than I do today.”