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Woodwind Articulation

Loraine Enloe | August 2009

    A trick to teaching clarinet and saxophone players to articulate cleanly is to imagine the point of contact between a player’s tongue and the reed as a joint. If a joint in the body is out of line, it can be very painful, and similarly the quality of the intersection of tongue and reed directly relates to the quality of clarinet and saxophone articulation.

Mechanics: Two Parts to This Joint
    Teaching articulation begins by having students recognize the parts that  make up the joint. The reed is the first side of the joint, and the location for that joint connection is paramount.  As students many of us learned that the point of contact with the reed during articulation either did not matter or that contact at the tip of the reed was the best.
    I spent much of my undergraduate clarinet study trying to figure out exactly what to do and continued to be frustrated by a click sound in my articulation. I was taught to make contact with the thin­nest part of the reed at the tip. Once I moved the connection further down the reed, the click immediately disappeared. 
    Ideally, the point of contact should be about 1/4 inch in from the tip of the reed. Now I show students a reed that has a indelible red dot just at the right spot so they can see where contact should occur.
    The other part of the joint is the tongue, or more specifically the end portion of the tongue. As a young student, I learned to play with the tip of the tongue making contact with the tip of the reed. The articulation that resulted was an ongoing source of frustration for both me and my teacher because the sound was less than anyone could desire. Years later as a graduate student, I learned the best placement for the tip of the tongue was on the top surface where contact occurs with the reed.
    A note of caution: when you teach students not to use the end tip of the tongue, some players may slide into tonguing with the middle of the tongue, which is another difficult habit to break. It is important to show them what you mean by the very end of the top of the tongue. It’s pretty close to the tip.
    Now that the two parts the joint are clear, you have to be able to teach   students how to connect them by articulating. The easiest way is based on using a steady air stream and learning to actually touch the reed with the tongue.
Tickled to Learn
    I learned how to teach articulation from Kelly Burke, a professor of clarinet at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This method is fun for students and has worked for me every time. I often teach articulation on the first day of instruction, after students get a good first tone using just the barrel and the mouthpiece for clarinet students and just the mouthpiece for alto saxophonists.
    1. Once students assemble the instrument, ask them to finger a written middle C on clarinet or second line G on alto saxophone.
    2. Have them start the air by blowing into the mouthpiece. At this point the sound should start with an air attack.
    3. While they hold the tone, ask them to lightly touch the red spot on the reed with the end of the tongue but just until they feel the vibration of the reed tickle their tongues.
    4. Next they should move the tongue away just enough to allow the reed to vibrate freely. In other words, the movement away from the reed is very small. Be sure they do not draw the tongue back into the mouth. The tongue needs to stay very close to the reed at all times. Warn students that this will tickle. They are going to laugh.
    5. If the students follow instructiions, the pitch will drop slightly when they touch the reed with the tongue.
    6. Repeat the process until each student can touch the reed (and be tickled), come away from the reed, and touch the reed again three or four times with one breath.
At this point it is important to use a  continuous air stream; the students should not be afraid to touch the reed with their tongues. Next ask them to press the reed a little harder until the tongue pressure stops the reed from vibrating, even though the air stream never stops.
    Once the reed stops vibrating, have the students take the tongue pressure off, while keeping the tongue just off the surface of the reed. Students quickly realize that they are learning two types of articulation: in one the tongue just interrupts the vibration of the reed, and for the other the tongue pressure actually stops the reed vibration. Students have actually learned legato and staccato articulations, although I do not use the names at this point.

Troubleshooting Articulation
    If the articulation sounds like someone is driving rivets, chances are the student’s tongue is hitting the reed as he learns the tickle method. Also, using any derivation of a t syllable will result in harsh articulation. If you prefer using a syllable to teach articulation, try dee for clarinet and dah for saxophone. The tickle method should eliminate most thwacking.
    When the articulation sounds unfocused, it indicates anchor tonguing or tonguing with the middle portion of the tongue’s surface. Mushiness can result when the tongue touches the roof of the mouth, rather than the reed. Finally, a lack of clarity can occur when students do not apply adequate pressure to the reed to stop the sound. Learning just how much pressure to put on the reed comes with practice and correction from the teacher.
    If a student cannot control the articulation or maintain a consistent style or articulation speed, the best course is to review the tickle method and the idea of the joint. Clarify exactly which part of the tongue touches which place on the reed, thus creating the joint.
    Students who do not know how to articulate can come up with some creative ways to put space between the notes on the page. Their efforts, however, contribute to an overall muddy articulation sound through­out the ensemble. Teachers do their students no favors by ignoring these struggles. If you do not know how to fix a problem, for your student’s sake, don’t be afraid to ask for guidance.
    Some students cannot articulate more than four counts without fainting from the effort. I have fond memories of creative articulation methods as a high school clarinetist. I was one in a cast of thousands in an outstanding program, so my band director never knew my foibles. At one time in my high school clarinet career, I was separating notes by stopping my breath to stop the sound. Well, I easily flew under my director’s radar screen that year; I could only huff at moderate and slow tempos. No doubt, some of you know young flute players who have articulation huffing down to a fine art.
    Stopping the air is not an option for articulation. Further, I don’t condone pulsing the air and often look at my students for the telltale movement at the base of the throat (between the collar bones) showing that the air is pulsing and not steady.
    When you try to clear up a huffing or pulsing problem, it’s easiest to go back to the tickle method and insist on continuous air flow and a steady tone from the student. The key is that the contact between the tongue and the reed only puts a dent in the air flow.
    Ponderous, slow articulation results from relaxing the tongue. However, if the tongue stays relaxed and close to the reed, I can almost assure you good speed. After students have the tickle method down, they can articulate very rapidly. I often play call-and-response games with young students so that they can learn to articulate quickly in a relaxed, fun lesson.
    One of my favorite rhythm patterns is four 16th notes followed by a quarter note. With fast articulations the shorter the note value, the more legato it should be played. So, when I play the 16th-notes quarter-note call-and-response game, I have the students touch the reed just enough to interrupt, but not stop, the vibration of the reed. 
    By the end of the first year when students have a characteristic tone and know how to articulate both legato and staccato phrases, I begin to teach double tonguing using call-and-re­sponse games with the syllables dee, gee rather than tuh, kuh, which is often used by brass players. I use one eighth note followed by two 16th notes and a quarter note in the game. Students single tongue the eighth note and double tongue the 16th notes.  Again, I stress relaxation and a very light contact with the reed.

Small Movements
    Teaching articulation is related to the mechanics of the joint: knowing which part of the tongue touches which part of the reed. The tickle method can also show students how to develop both legato and staccato articulations with the very small movement of a relaxed tongue. Finally, students learn light, consistent articulation that will serve them throughout their playing careers.