The Tongue Cut Off!
( This article was published in “The Horn Magazine”, Vol. 5 No. 2, Summer 1997)
Those readers whose quality of repetitive tonguing stays consistently tidy and clear from the quiet and slow through to the loud and fast, will probably find little of use in this article. Please jump directly to the very interesting section on historic brass-rubbings, later in this journal.
For the rest, perhaps you have wondered why it is that, below a certain speed, you can articulate a string of repeated notes with good clean attacks, whereas, at a faster tempo, each tends to begin roughly and muddies your overall clarity of playing. For years this puzzled me, but I think I Have now found an explanation and, even better, a solution. Better still, it’s free.
First, to clarify the problem, let me start with an illustration which everyone knows the first whole bar in the rondo from W A.M.’s fourth horn concerto(see below). Whether it is played on the Bb valve-horn, the F valve horn or the Eb hand horn, the problem is there: you might find that when you play it up to speed, forte, you get six rather rough attacks so you try it slowly and the articulation comes out nice and clean. You do the obvious thing and practise it slowly, a lot, maybe for days, but when you play it up to speed again it has hardly improved it still sounds rough and ragged. Help! What is going on here?
I aim to show that if your symptoms match those I have just described, then a potential solution lies just around the corner. But first we need to home in on the problem and highlight it, so lease follow these instructions carefully:
At a metronome speed of dotted crotchet = 126, take the first whole bar of the rondo; put repeat brackets around it and keep on cycling through the bar at about mezzoforte. Make sure you are playing sufficiently staccato so that there is a detectable silence between each note.
This next bit is difficult, so be very careful and persevere until you can do it and get someone else to listen to you if you are not sure you are doing it right. Begin to lengthen the silences so that the notes get pushed apart and the tempo becomes increasingly retarded until it is down to about dotted crotchet =45. Make sure the notes themselves do not become elongated as they move further apart.Meanwhile, keep an eye on every thing else you are doing, particularly with your abdominal muscles and your throat, to make sure that the only thing that changes from note to note is the speed of events not the way you do them.<
Next, maintaining the silences at the duration you have just reached, start to deliberately lengthen the notes. Again, take care not to change anything but the note lengths. Keep slowing until you arrive at around quaver= 76.
Now, by this point you should find yourself playing a string of very ugly, loud, square-sounding notes, each of which starts with the tongue and is cut off by the tongue to make silences roughly equal in length to the notes you are playing. If not, please try again and persevere until you can do it. Remember; some find this very difficult for reasons I hope will become apparent.
What I hope I have proved to you by putting this little excerpt under what is, in effect, an aural microscope, is that during fast staccato tonguing you stop each note with your tongue, Actually, there is no other way, at high speed, to get the little silences between the notes which produce the staccato effect, so rest assured you are doing the right thing by tonguing off at high speed. Incase you had not noticed this before, you have been breaking one of the fundamental laws of modern horn technique, “NEVER END A NOTE WITH THE TONGUE!”. Good for you, I say it was a pretty daft rule anyway. If, by this point, you are still with me and haven’t skipped in disgust to the brass-rubbings, there are, in the light of this revelation, several things to do. The first is to work out why such a rule exists and is so pervasive in horn playing. Then, having admitted to yourself that you really do, at least sometimes, end notes with the tongue, work out what can be gained from such a discovery .
So, why does this rule exist? Primarily to get novice horn players out of the habit of ending each and every note abruptly, which is the easy thing to do, and to encourage them instead to”tail-off” musically the ends of notes or phrases which is very difficult.
It may be interesting to consider the possible origins of this “classical” shaping of the ends (and to some extent the attacks) of notes and phrases. Tradition has it that a typically horn sounding single note should start more or less abruptly, reach its fullest sonority almost immediately and then taper away to silence. There are probably many reasons why this particular teardrop, or pear shaped “envelope”has become, in our musical culture, the one we default to when none other is specified, but the most compelling one I can think of is that when contrived on; brass instrument it imitates the envelope of a note played in a church-like acoustic. Inside a large resonant building even a staccato hand clap is transformed by reverberation, the proliferation of contained sound reflections, into a longer sound which will be perceived as having the teardrop envelope, i.e. it has a smooth tail off added to it.
Contriving such envelopes in non-resonant environments comes easily to the human voice but is much more difficult for the lips and breath of a horn player. It requires the kind of complex technical facility which is central to horn technique but very difficult to develop to a high degree. Inexperienced players who have not yet acquired the rounded attack and the taper to silence will tend to reveal their lack of both by playing square sounding heads and tails of notes which at least helps to avoid the embarrassment of accidentally slipping up or down a harmonic or two. So the rule: “Never End A Note With A Tongue Stop” can be thought of as a preventative teaching aid, at least in its origin. But time moves on and sometimes rules need breaking, or at least bending, to keep them flexible and to allow advanced players a little more freedom.
Now, to explore what can be gained from having found the bath-plug tongue-stop, alive and well, hiding between the notes of your fast staccato articulation: As I have suggested, cleaning up articulation by practising things slowly may not necessarily work. You play the thing up to speed again and nothing has changed, however wonderful it may have sounded at a slow tempo. My hypothesis, then, is that when we slow something down with the intention of working on the articulation we might inadvertently change not just the tempo but also the method of our articulation. We slow it down and then, without realising it, waste time practising some thing quite different, i.e. because we now have time to fit them in we give each note a nice tail off.
Traditionally, the requirement in horn playing to end all notes and phrases with a taper to silence has been so universal that the abrupt tongue-stop way of ending a note has become redundant, and is widely frowned upon. In contemporary music, however, the effect is often specifically required. 1 must say that I really enjoy playing these backward sounding notes. I like the way they end with a thump similar to the effect of letting the bath plug slam back in the plughole as the water is runningú out. In fact, broadly speaking, the bath plug analogy is not a bad one for explaining the simple mechanics of tonguing in horn playing: you pull out the plug and the water/air starts moving again (this is of course a simplification of what really happens) .
Go back to the WAM example. Does it sound even more ragged played on longer lengths of tube? Try it on the Bb horn, then on the F horn. If you are like the rest of us you will probably find it worse on the longer tubing, which is an interesting clue if we continue comparing the tongue to a bath plug.
When playing our example on the Bb horn a relatively small volume of air is flowing along a relatively short length of tube. This mass of moving air is abruptly halted at the precise moment the tongue plugs the passage of air through the mouth. When doing the same thing on the F horn there is a considerably larger, and therefore heavier, volume of air (travelling at the same speed) which has to be stopped dead. The result is a much heavier yank on the tongue caused by the inertia of all that suddenly arrested air flow which then immediately needs the powerful kick of a tongue-release to get it moving again for the next note. Simply put, this means that a stronger tongue is needed to stop and then release the flow of air in longer tube lengths or, alternatively, the shorter the length of tube, the less ragged and burbly the tonguing will sound. Please note my use of the words “stop and release”. I have chosen these carefully to avoid supporting the common misunderstanding that the tongue in some way catapults air out between the lips and down the instrument as if it were some kind of powerful piston. A similar common misconception is that the tongue accts in a way similar to a piano hammer miraculously striking the roof of the mouth to produce sound. The truth is that the tongue stops the flow of air by blocking its path, or allows it to flow by simply getting out of the way.
Having proposed that a strong tongue might be better than a weaker one at producing clean sounding staccato tonguing, it would be a sensible idea to test this out for yourself by setting up an exercise to strengthen it in the right sort of way. This is simple if you follow the instructions I gave earlier and spend some time working at the slow, rather ugly, square sounding abrupt starts and stops. If you do this exactly as I have explained you will probably find, after some time that the roots of your tongue will be aching with the unaccustomed work load which is a good sign that the tongue, which is nearly all muscle, is responding and will naturally become stronger with the exercise. You should feel this ache approximately half way between the tip or your chin and your Adam’s apple, up in the soft tissue between the bones of your jaw.
In my opinion there are very good reasons why tonguing, rather than merely blowing to start a sound, is a good idea. There are some players who advocate starting notes without involving the tongue at all. Presumably, this is to defend potential listeners from the imagined unpleasantness of abrupt attacks. To my mind this is taking the idea of smoothing and rounding everything off a bit too far. It is somewhat analogous to speaking without consonants (try saying this sentence with only the vowel sounds, omitting all vocal tonguing i.e. all the consonants).Playing just about anything without the added colour brought by at least some tongued articulation will probably sound dull and laboured.
Also there is a danger, when non-tonguing, of sounding late to the beat, particularly within a horn section. Generally speaking, it is almost always necessary to synchronise starts of notes with stimuli coming outside ourselves the flick of a baton, the nod of another player, the click of a metronome or click track. With untongued notes this is precarious as there will inevitably be an element of waiting for your note to get going when it is ready, rather than being in precise control as you are when tonguing.<
However, while I definitely advocate the use of the tongue to begin notes and phrases I must make it clear that it is not my intention to encourage the use of the tongue-stop in general playing this would be awful. I only hope to illuminate its specific usefulness as a technical practice aid. As such I have found it to be very useful in my own playing as have many of my students in theirs.
©1997 Pip Eastop
Note: When first published this article was met with a deafening silence from readers of the Horn Magazine and nearly all of my professional colleagues. So far I only know one professional horn player or teacher who has enthusiastically endorsed it – Anthony Halstead.
I have a suspicion that there may be many closet tongue stoppers out there. What do you think? Please email me with any confessions.