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.


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