Pip Eastop, Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

Horn player, Photographer, Trumpet player

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Tonguing simplified

Tonguing is really simple, but hornplayers have a lot of problems with it.

I think most of these problems stem from overcomplicating the issue.

To simplify everything, let’s define tonguing:

Tonguing is (nothing more than) the movement of the tongue from one position to another. These positions are:
0.  Obstructing the airflow – by being in the way of it.
1.  Not obstructing the airflow – by being out of the way of it.

I’d like to illustrate that with a fingering exercise.

Pull out and remove one of your tuning slides. It doesn’t really matter which one. Make sure that when you blow air through the horn it vents out through one of the disconnected pipes (use a valve or two if you need to).

Now, while blowing air through the horn, put a finger over the end of the open pipe to block it. Then take the finger away to let the air out again.

If that worked okay (no air leaks) now do the same while playing a note – any note. Block and unblock the tube while you are playing. Please make sure you try to keep a steady tone going, even when the tube it blocked.

So your finger is working like a two-position switch. Let’s call these positions, “1” for when you can make a sound and,  “0” for when you can’t. In other words: 1. lets you make sound,  0. stops any sounds. A useful analogy would be water spurting out of a hosepipe and stopping when you put your thumb over the end. Alternatively, it’s like a light switch – two positions – 1 and 0 – on and off.

When you’ve got bored doing this, put the slide back in and read the next bit very carefully.

Tonguing is when your tongue does exactly what your finger has just done – the only difference is that it’s doing it on the other side of your lips.

Get a note going, then stop it by putting your tongue in the way – BUT DON’T STOP BLOWING (this is the same as NOT turning the garden tap off or NOT shutting down your local power-station). Then take your tongue away – if you kept the blowing pressure constant during the OFF then the note should start up again – exactly as it finished but sort of in reverse. We are not talking about particularly nice notes here – just tonguing.  We are talking blunt, uncultivated tonguing and tongue-stopping here.

And that’s it. Tonguing and nothing else – no frills.

Getting nice rounded starts to notes and nicely shaped notes is, of course, very important but these things are not part of the tonguing mechanism. If you want to work on your tonguing then you need to know what it is – and (at least as important) what it isn’t.

All of the subtle musical nuances in note shapes are controlled by varying the volume of the notes – something which the tongue does not control.

Keep things simple: tonguing is a simple binary switching mechanism – On or Off.

There is more about tonguing in an earlier post here.

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I’ve come across many curious and delightful misconceptions about tonguing. I’d like to collect them and list them here. Please, if you have one – leave it here in the comments section.

Common tonguing misconceptions:

  • The tongue works like the hammer of a piano – it strikes behind the upper incisor teeth and somehow shoots notes through the instrument.
  • That the tongue must never touch the lips, or protrude between them. Believe me – EVERYONE does this. (Get any hornplayer to prepare to play a note and FREEZE just at the last fraction of a second before starting it. Then, without changing anything, take the mouthpiece away. See the tip of the tongue showing? Ha ha!)

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