Tonguing – Air, Tongue Position


USING GOOD AIR has a great deal to do with getting clear tonguing/clear note beginnings!  If your notes are coming out “fuzzy sounding,” it is very often that there isn’t a enough air at the beginning of the note.  It helps to think of playing with accented notes.  Use more air until it comes out clearly.  If you have been in the habit of  not getting clear note beginnings you may have to really concentrate for a while. I suggest going for accented notes all the time with the goal of notes coming out clearly articulated.  Then when notes are coming out with true accents, it’s easy to back off a bit for regular sounding note beginnings.

It’s important to have PLENTY of  AIR ready BEFORE the note begins. When we accent, we get even more AIR poised and ready before the note begins. Even for regular note beginnings we want air slightly dammed up behind our tongue just before the note starts.

(details paragraph) I believe at the start of a note there is more resistance in our instruments themselves and in initiating lip vibration so that it takes extra air just to get a note started at the same volume. If you applied equal air to a note, it would start softer and swell after the note begins. Thus, causing what we call the “Twa, twa” sound. Thus, more air is needed at the beginning of a note.  And for the sound to be strong at the beginning of the note, the air has to be ready ahead of that time.

Our tongue doesn’t actually make any sound.  It’s the AIR making the lips vibrate. AIR powers every sound we make on the horn (one of my next posts will be about air).

The tongue should NOT STOP THE ENDS OF NOTES. The ends of notes should end as the air ends the note.


If we tongue from an ideal tonguing position, it can make note beginnings much more clear.  When we play from high to low, our tongue position  goes from high to low (a part of our tongue a little bit back from the tip arches up to a greater or lesser degree).

When we are tonguing, I believe it also works best if our tonguing position moves up and down with our range.  The corresponding syllables when we tongue are something like:

Tee, Ti, Tthah, Tha, Thoe, Thaw, Thu

So, even though we are going for a clear “T” sound, the actual mechanism of the tongue may be a “Th” for instance around middle G.

I’m not concerned with exactly where the tongue hits for each note. It tends to be very similar from person to person, but if it’s not exact, that’s fine.

Thus, for the higher pitches, the tongue hits well above the teeth. As the pitches progressively go down, the tongue comes to the place where the gum line meets the teeth, then it hits the teeth, then at the lower tip of the teeth, and for the very low range, even between the teeth, on the lip itself.

Like  many things with the horn, it takes some experimentation to determine exactly where in your mouth your tongue should touch for tonguing.

(extra information) I have encountered a very occasional student (maybe 2 or 3 out of 200) that tongued a lot higher in the mouth than others and did not change much through the registers.  In those cases their teeth angled in toward that back of their mouth.  If you are truly getting a clearer, easier “T” sound by other means, such as tonguing only where the gum meets the teeth, then I would go with that. I would emphasis that you determine what really does work best for you.  Sometimes in changing the tonguing position for the low range, (such as between the teeth for the C’s an octave below middle C) students were able to get much lower than they ever had before.

Also, in the high range, for me, top of the staff A’s and above, it’s helpful for me to deliberately raise  tongue position higher than what would feel natural. When experimenting with tongue position, I would do it carefully with a tuner. Tongue position has a great deal to do with pitch.

If notes beginnings are still coming out “fuzzy” or unclear, it often helps to think of using more surface area of the tongue to touch the teeth/gums.  Another way of saying that is to have the tongue just a bit more “smooshed up” against the teeth/gums.  Personally, only a couple of years ago, I adjusted my tonguing to use more surface area of the tongue from about 2nd space A to the F above that, which resulted in greater note security/better accuracy.  It required a bit of adjustment with air, so that notes weren’t over accented, but has worked well. When there is fast tonguing to do, the technique does not work as well; it would be best to use only the tip of your tongue.




A common impediment to good tone especially in beginners is having the middle/back part of the tongue too high.  It results in a nasal, closed off sound.  The fix of this is simply to lower the tongue position in the mouth.  Try to make an “Oe” formation (as in Tone) with the inside of the mouth, as though you had a jaw breaker in your mouth.  The tongue position does become higher as you go higher and lower as you go lower.  In the range below middle C and low G, you can think of having a golf ball in your mouth, because your mouth should open even farther still.

I encourage you to slowly open the back of your tongue until it is too low and you “fall off” the pitch.  I find just before that point is usually about right.

It also is good to have the corners of your mouth not too spread for good tone.  This may requite a shift from an “Ee” position to more of an “Oo” or “Oe.”  Having the jaw dropped down close to as far as it can go without losing the note is also a help for getting good tone.

The three aspects of lower tongue position, corners of the embouchure not too spread and the lowered jaw are all related. One aspect influences the other.  If you are needing the pitch to become lower, those three components as well as dropping the front of the tongue position down are things that help the pitch to become lower.

In general, we want the inside of the mouth pretty open as well as focused toward the aperture (the opening in the embouchure).  Playing long tones, long, held out notes, for working on tone is very good for this – I would recommend doing it with a tuner.  Something like arpeggios through the range of the horn is a good for this.  It’s important to constantly listen for your tone and make it as beautiful as you can.

The physical condition of your lip muscles has a lot to do with good tone.  Consistency in practice and playing is one of the biggest helps.  I also consider having whole body physical exercise as a huge help for good tone as well as good control, notes speaking more easily and good pitch.  Personally I like to swim, but biking, running etc. certainly works.  The day before I have something important to play for, it is a high priority for me to get in good exercise.  If its done the same day as playing for something that takes very much endurance, sometimes the lip muscles are tired out.  It’s important to get a feel for the amount and rhythms of whole body exercise as well as the workout for your chops (lip muscles) that is most beneficial to you. This helps your tone, endurance and lip responsiveness in general.



embocureThe chin should be firm (not bunching up).  The corners of the mouth should spread to a point but NOT too far.  As you go higher, the lip opening (aperture) should become smaller and not stretched.  As the chin muscles pull down it keeps the lip from stretching outwards too much.  (In Philip Farkas’ picture of 40 top professional players’ embouchures, they All played with the firm chin and corners not stretched too much  in what we call a smiling embouchure). The smiling embouchure will make your tone not as good/thinner sounding, not as good of control, not as good of endurance and usually sharp pitch in the upper register.

We don’t want to get too “puckered” of an embouchure either.  We would call it a “whistling embouchure.”  With a correct embouchure, it’s like we start to smile but stretch the skin across our chin.

Also do not want puffed cheeks; it’s an indication that areas of the embouchure are too loose.

Another thing we do not want to do is have the lower lip tucked under the upper lip too far to go higher.  A small bit of the lower lip coming under the lower lip is fine, but the primary means the pitch going higher should be by the aperture (lip opening) becoming smaller.  Having the lower lip sliding far under does not work well in the long range.  If you are getting this it easily in your best interest to change.  Usually if this is happening, the chin will also creep up in the high register.  One of the most helpful things to fix it is to pulling chin further down (and that’s the main fix for the “smiling embouchure” as well).

Sometimes a good way to help get a proper embouchure is to buzz WITHOUT the mouthpiece.  It’s difficult to get a “smiling” or “whistling” embouchure that way. However, when you get onto the horn, you DO have to shift your tongue position down,  or it comes out “nasal” sounding, pinched.  Even though that can happen, it’s worth the help in getting a correct embouchure formation.  When I’ve had students initially test out the horn as a possible instrument, I’ve had them buzz without the mouthpiece from the very beginning and occasionally go back to it.  Since I started doing that, I’ve had more students getting correct embouchures from the very start.


Sitting Position/Horn Angle

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The correct sitting position with the horn is VERY IMPORTANT!

It’s very easy to get a faulty horn position that will give you a crooked posture,  a bad horn angle and a wrong embouchure.

First rule: sit up STRAIGHT and bring the horn to you!

The horn leadpipe should be angled DOWN from the lip to the music (see pictures.)  Rare exceptions, involving players with an underbite, are described at the bottom of this page.

You should look straight over the lead pipe at the music.

You should NOT be looking at the music to the side as you’ll easily get an imbalanced, crooked embouchure.

Most 5th or 6th grade beginners have to adjust for the horn to fit because the horn is generally a bit large to start with. If so, it usually works well for the legs to pivot to the right a bit and the upper body to stay straightforward. This causes the bell to rest on the leg and the leadpipe to angle down as it needs to. A common problem is to have the bell is too far forward on the leg. If you are a beginner, I recommend having someone CHECK THIS for you!

If you are quite short and the horn is too tall to get the correct angle, the bell of the horn can even be rest on the edge of the chair. This can work well but only if the player is sitting up STRAIGHT and not bending down at all to reach the horn.

Taller/older players (around 5’6″ and above) may need to play with the bell OFF THE LEG to avoid hunching over to reach the horn. Bending your back to play is bad for air flow (important!), for your spine being straight, and for the mouthpiece angle (important, see below)

A faulty sitting position can cause a bad horn angle, and even make it almost  impossible to form a correct embouchure!


It’s hugely important to get a good angle with the leadpipe (the part of the horn just below the mouthpiece) where it comes down from the lip! Small adjustments of the horn angle can help you play more easily, higher, and with better tone.

I worked with three students in two weeks who changed their horn angle, and their range increased immediately by a fourth, (four scale tones higher)! All three angled the horn down more from the lip. They sounded a lot better and playing the horn was easier for them right away!

Usually, to get an ideal playing angle, it’s best to hold the bell off the leg. However, most 5th and 6th graders aren’t up for the challenge of doing that because the horn can get a bit heavy.  Here’s how you find the best angle for the horn bell resting ON the leg:

  1. Play with the horn bell OFF the leg or standing up.
  2. Experiment with exactly the best angle of the horn lead pipe to your lip.
  3. Then (sitting down) play with the bell ON the leg, making the angle as close as possible to your ideal position.

I recommend experimenting to find the optimum angle for you, even if you’ve been playing successfully for some time. The ideal angle is not exactly the same for everyone. You may be able to add a note or two to your range or play more accurately. I found my accuracy to improve significantly when I went from playing on the leg for many years to playing off the leg.

A lot of the time having the ideal bell position means having the bell scooted up closer to your body than what you would tend to do.

Again, older and taller students may need to play with the bell off the leg all the time to get an optimum angle and to avoid hunching down to reach the horn (bad for air support, back alignment, and horn angle).

In the lower range such as around written G below the staff and lower, it is very often helpful to angle the leadpipe upwards more from the moughpiece (not sloping down as much).

If you have a clear under bite with your teeth and jaw, the best angle for you may be with the leadpipe angling Up from your lip. Usually that would be a big problem, but for a small percentage of students it works better. I’ve had a few students with that adjustment that have played well even in the high range.

If you have an overbite, you may need to angle the horn down more than usual. One of the students who increased her range by a fourth after an angle change had a normal looking position but needed to slope the leadpipe significantly farther downward to find the angle that worked best for her.

Sometimes adjustments to the horn itself may be needed if a player has trouble holding up the horn and doesn’t get a good angle because of that. Often the pinky hook (where the left hand pinky grips the horn) is too far away from the mouthpiece, especially for small hands. It’s a relatively quick and inexpensive process at a music repair shop to have the pinky hook moved closer in towards the mouthpiece. Alternately, a hand grip can be ordered that temporarily attaches to the horn using Velcro andalso adds to security in playing.  These are found at or and are about $30 with shipping added in.

(more detail below)

More advanced players who own their instrument should consider attaching a permanent lever to the horn. Besides just getting a better angle, it can really help one hold the horn more securely and play better. About 65% of the professional players I know have a lever like this installed. Ken Pope carries a really good one made by Alexander Horns which is soldered on, as most are, but is very adjustable. A good detailed comparison of these levers or straps is found on John Ericson’s website,

The position of the mouthpiece on the lips is very important.  The mouthpiece should be resting and have more weight on the lower lip of the embouchure instead of the\ upper lip! This allows the top lip to vibrate and change notes freely. If your top lip has the mouthpiece angled in on it so that there is pressure on the top lip, I would strongly urge you to try changing the angle! A sloping up with too much pressure on the top lip makes it difficult to get high notes at all. Sometimes the problem is bad enough that instead of the top lip vibrating, the bottom lip vibrates. Some players struggle for years to play the horn under these conditions.

*Further details for the occasional student with the leadpipe angling up: I believe the key point is that there should not be extra pressure on the upper lip. It’s worth checking the air direction especially as you go higher that it is angling down and not up. This can be checked by using a mouthpiece rim. Handily, we have something we can use as a mouthpiece rim – on our second valve slide there is a ring that helps us pull out the slide. You can buzz high and low on that as though you were playing and use your spare hand to feel what direction the air is going in different registers. Philip Farkus published a book called A Photographic Study of 40 Virtuoso Horn Players’ Embouchures. In it, 39 out of 40 players’ air streams angled down in the high register. Most angled sharply down, some not as much. There was one player whose air angled upwards – usually this is something that very much limits range and progress but that one player made things work well for him.


Choosing Beginner Horn Players


If you are a band director who tests students out for compatibility on different instruments, here are some things I’ve done – the very most important part is that horn players are tested for being able to distinguish pitches well. I’ll have them do a repeat-after-me singing exercise, sometimes before trying the horn. (Of course if they match pitches badly, I don’t tell them that, only that I think another instrument would probably be a better fit.)

If I am testing a large number of students for horn embouchure compatability and there are a group of kids, I have them all buzz without the mouthpiece first. I’ve found this really helps get a good basic embouchure set right from the start. It’s true it can result in a nasal sound when they get on the horn until the tongue position is lowered a bit, but I’ve found it’s well worth the increase of a good embouchure settings.

If there are extra mouthpieces available I give some to the students who are waiting and have them practice going low and high but not so much they get the muscles tired.

I kneel down and hold the horn for them saving the time of showing them how to hold it. It’s safer for the horn too.

I have them play any note that comes out first and then see if they can match an E and G and middle C. I’ll have them try an A also, using my right thumb to hold down the 1st and 2nd valve at the same time. If they get that well, then B natural and upper C.

If they can get the middle E and G, I think that’s sufficient. Getting the A is good. If they don’t get the middle C, I’m usually not concerned. It’s just a matter of learning to loosen the chops a bit and find the right position (dropping the tongue/jaw more usually does it).

More important than getting the pitches is the embouchure position. The chin should be firm, cheeks not puffed out, and the lip corners Not spreading outward in a smile as they go higher (the lip opening should get smaller as they go higher, not stretched). If a student has been assigned to horn and tends to gravitate to an incorrect embouchure, I send copy of an embouchure picture with them. Sometimes in lessons I’ll give them a $1 (or $2) challenge to come back the next week with a correct embouchure. It’s well worth the $1!

*VERY IMPORTANT*  I test the students ear by having them sing some phrases after me!  If you were to give the students grades for doing that, I would only recommend the students who you might have given an “A” to.  Numerous times, I’ve recommended students that I thought were eager enough to overcome some problems in matching pitches, but have regretted it every time.  If a student has difficulty hearing the difference between notes, they can really struggle on the horn, and another instrument would probably be more rewarding for them. It’s true that learning to hear pitches is an improvable skill, but sometimes they’ll struggle along for years.