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Tongue Twister Triumphs

Ronald M. Pruitt | March 2019

David’s Daddy’s dog didn’t dig dirt in the dark.

    We never know where or when the ideas will come to us or how they will originate. I was teaching a trombone sectional to the third band at the high school. We were discussing articulation, and I was teaching the standard issue clichés, such as tongue more firmly and use the tip of your tongue. I felt like I was digging a hole in a swimming pool. For years I have listened to great teachers attempt to clean up articulation with very little success. Then inspiration struck. I asked a young trombone player a question about the exercise, and his mumbled response made me realize students could not tongue clearly because they did not talk clearly.
    I searched for articles on speech therapy and clearer speaking patterns, and repeatedly, tongue twisters were recommended. The next day, I passed out a short tongue twister – David’s Daddy’s dog didn’t dig dirt in the dark – to the ensemble, figuring that if nothing else, students would have a laugh and then speak a little more clearly. We repeated the exercise ten times, and as soon as we played again students were tonguing well.
    It was a joyful moment. I had discovered something that made a clear, immediate, audible change and the students understood the exercise. I began sharing my revelations with friends, who would listen, and they were getting the same results. The students immediately articulate more similarly and the clarity of ensemble tonguing happens as never before. We have used tongue twisters with junior high and high school classes and the effect is remarkable. 
    I began looking for more twisters focused on the syllable we use in our day-to-day playing and found “When a doctor doctors a doctor, does the doctor doing the doctoring doctor as the doctor being doctored wants to be doctored or does the doctor doing the doctoring doctor as he wants to doctor?” 
    The students were getting better at the tongue twisters. We could understand them when they spoke, and we were tonguing better together. I next searched for a tongue twister that would fit the articulations for a march: “A tutor who tooted a flute tried to tutor two tooters to toot. Said the two to their tutor, is it harder to toot or to tutor two tooters to toot?”
    I cannot explain the cerebral change that was happening with tonguing; I just know it was working and the students could hear it. We practice the tongue twisters every day before playing an exercise that focuses on articulation. We rarely go back to the tongue twisters while performing music, although we reference exercises during rehearsals, and I sometimes will catch students silently doing the exercises before playing. 
    The more I explored, the more I found. Two exercises to help with double tonguing are “Six sick hicks nick six slick bricks with picks and sticks” and “To begin to toboggan first buy a toboggan, but don’t buy too big a toboggan, for too big a toboggan is not a toboggan to buy to begin to toboggan.”
    I have also done this with the high school my school feeds into. As with my students, we heard an immediate difference. We are used to having to practice and rehearse for weeks before hearing something improve, but the tongue twisters were an immediate fix.
    Weirdly, this also helps with releases. I am unsure why this is the case. It may be that saying the tongue twisters causes students to listen more. Even in the beginner classes, if we say a tongue twister, then play an exercise, there is an immediate difference in the way they start and stop.
It is fun and silly and seems strange, but these exercises have made my students’ articulations cleaner. I can also understand them when they talk.­­