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Fast Tonguing for Beginners

Fast Tonguing for Beginners

Ed Dumas

Never underestimate the number of things that you can learn from your beginning band students. The things that they will teach you as the teacher, though, will likely be less about music and more about how people learn and the challenges that they may face. The first article I wrote for this blog was titled, “Set, Exhale, Inhale, Play.” It was a discussion on how to circumvent the natural inclination of beginning band students to breathe as they raise the instrument into the playing position. If students do not get that order correct, a good number of them will develop a closed throat in their playing that will dog them for years to come. If you are not familiar with the concept presented in that article, this is a very good time to review it, and I would strongly encourage that.

I would like to present now, another concept that beginning band students taught me about their learning how to breathe on a wind instrument. I noticed quite early that some beginners would take a breath for literally every note that they played on their instrument. I also knew that this was a problem that could not be allowed to become a habit, as it could discourage many students from carrying on.

This problem is particularly common for flute players due to the flute naturally having such low resistance. If the beginning flautist has not yet developed firm embouchure corners (side of the mouth where the top and bottom lip meet) and a small aperture (the opening between the lips), then the air will escape too fast. This will cause the student to “gas out” very quickly and need to breathe far too often. While this problem is very common with flutes, I have seen “breathing for every note” in every other wind instrument as well.

Now, I have talked to flute players about this problem by explaining that they must play more than one note in a breath, better would be two complete measures in the beginning days. We have talked about small aperture and creating resistance in the embouchure because the flute has almost none. I have talked to all band students about how the music does not sound “musical” if you breathe for every note. I have even sung or played the song back to them with a breath for every note, and then more correctly used longer breathes and phrases to make it sound more pleasant. I have even played for them long slurred passages and passages with a rapid succession of notes to show that in some music it is simply physically impossible to breathe for every note.

Yet, none of those concepts worked for every student. Most of the ideas listed above worked for most of the students, but no matter what I said, there always seemed to be a small group that persisted in breathing for every note. I knew that this doomed their satisfaction in the band to the point that they would not stick with it in future years.

I also knew that I needed the students to feel what it was like to extend the air and play “more than one note per breath.” Talking about it did not seem to be enough, because, in the first few weeks of playing, they did not have enough skill on the instrument to do some of the types of playing that I was describing. If they could not yet play more than one or two pitches on their instrument, how could they play a rapid succession of pitches to understand how to not breathe for every note? If the flute players, in particular, had very soft embouchures, how could I get them to firm up their embouchure to play longer than one note in a breath? I needed to create an exercise where students couldn't succeed unless they did the breathing correctly, and this exercise needed to be playable by beginners on the second or third day with extremely limited skill. Waiting any longer risked setting in motion a habit that might be hard or impossible to break later on.

I then also began to notice that it was the flute players that demonstrated this breathing for every noteproblem the most. I was also seeing this problem on other instruments, such as clarinet or sax, particularly where the embouchure was set very loose. My light bulb started to go on when I saw that it was the same students breathing for every note that also had the most trouble getting tonguing happening in their instrument. This was not a coincidence. 

 Even with so little skill on their instrument, I knew that I had to get them tonguing right away or risk losing them forever. So, about the second or third day of playing their instrument, I would present the idea of tonguing. Rather than drawing out on the board for the students a rhythm in musical notation, I just wanted them to do it and feel it on their instrument. We can worry about what it looks like in notation later.

So, using my own horn, I would play a measure of rhythm for the students and ask them to copy me. We would use a concert D, which is the middle note of what is usually the first five pitches presented to beginners Bb, C, D, Eb, & F. I like this pitch for this exercise as it is more likely to give most students better success. It has easier fingers for flutes, gives clarinets and saxes some fingering on the instrument to “hang on to,” and gives the brass players a pitch which is less likely to jump harmonics on them.

My starting rhythm would be something like two quarter notes, two eighth notes, and one more quarter note (Tah, Tah, Tee-Tee, Tah). You need not describe this to the students, just play it and have them play it back. I asked them to do it in a “Call and Response” kind of activity. “If I change, they changesort of thing.

Invariably, in the beginning, some students will mess up the playback because of not being sure when to start their response. Very quickly, though, they will learn to play it in time without a delay after your “call” measure of 4 counts. Continue with a call and response giving the students plenty of opportunities to practice their tonguing.

The next step is to not wait after they have given their response to your call but to present another call still in time right after their response. Give them plenty of repetitions to practice this new skill as well. Now you have established in their mind practicing the skill of tonguing while they are learning a stronger sense of time. You can continue this exercise for several minutes changing the rhythms of the measures each time. I have never met a class of students that did not enjoy this as a fun challenge.

As soon as the students have more than one pitch available to them, practice the call and response using different pitches. If you change pitches, they must follow. Invariably some students will miss when you change pitches, so when that happens just remind them to listen for the pitch change as well.

When I first started doing this exercise trying to get beginners to have a chance to practice the skill of tonguing without the worry of failure, I began to notice that many of the players who would breathe for every note were now having to change their method of playing. They could no longer keep up with the class when taking a breath on every note, particularly during the eighth notes. To do the task successfully, they had to change their breathing to complete several notes in one breath. Most would then soon be exhaling for a complete measure during their response to this exercise.

At this point, it seemed to me that tonguing was the answer to the breathing for every note” problem. Well if there is one thing that I learned growing up, it was “If a little bit is good, then more must be better!” I actually learned that lesson too well as a kid, and often have to remind myself that most of the time, only a little bit is best. But in this case, more was definitely better.

Just to have some fun with the students, I started adding more eighth notes in a measure and placing them on different counts in the measure. Then the students wanted more challenges, so I added in some sixteenth notes. We were now mixing up quarters, eighths, and sixteenths in various rhythms. Eventually, they were playing back to me a complete measure of sixteenths in 4/4 time at about quarter note equals about 106 or so. Note that this was not after weeks, it was after days at most, sometimes even just minutes! As long as I did not try to get them to intellectually understand what they were playing, they could do it. They just needed to copy me.

So, now I realized that I found the magic exercise to fix their breathing such that students could only be successful if they breathed correctly. The students that were struggling with extending the air were now rapidly working through that issue. Embouchures were tightening up and tonguing was beginning to happen all at the same time. The best part was that I did not have to talk about it, we could just play something that automatically fixed their breathing!

This became a natural warmup for beginning band students from then on. Each day for the next month or two, we would start with just a few minutes of call and response. The students loved the game and it really helped focus their minds on the task at hand, which is to play the instrument.

Once I committed to doing this warmup with beginners each day from about the second or third day onward, I rarely ever saw students who insisted upon taking a breath for each note. In later grades, if I did come across a student that was struggling with extending the breath, then I would roll out this exercise once more to help them focus on the correct task. The rest of the class would not need to know who I was directing the exercise toward, as they all loved a simple Call and Response activity for fun.

Practice fast tonguing with your beginners early and often for the best success. Assume that your students will not practice it unless you model it for them in class first. When they can intellectually read and understand smaller divisions of the pulse, then you can present them with some written rhythm studies to play in class. At this point of seeing sixteenth notes written on a board or paper for the first time, students are often surprised when I would tell them, “You have already played this, but you just did not know what you played!” But if you never present fast tonguing right from the start in band class, assume they will never practice it at home either!

A Note About Positive Thoughts

When I was about seventeen, my father began to give me driving lessons in the family car. My father was a licensed and working driver instructor, so I had the benefit of spending countless hours practicing driving for free. One of the most important lessons that he taught me was to consider what thoughts were going through my brain while I was in charge of a very heavy vehicle which had the potential to take a life. He wanted to make sure that I was thinking positive thoughts, and not negative thoughts.

Now a definition of a “positive thought” here is in order. Oftentimes students today interpret a “positive thought” as meaning some thought that was positively self-affirming to them, such as “You are capable of doing this.” The opposite negative thought would be something like “You suck at this!” While of course, I would never want students to make negative self-defeating thoughts about themselves, this is not what my father had in mind.

My driver-instructor father was far more concerned with action thoughts, things that we do or do not do. To him, a positive thought was to keep in mind the ACTION that should be completed. A negative thought would be a listing of which action you do NOT want to do. My driver instructor father was trying to get me to keep in mind the positive actions that I needed to complete to stay safe as a driver, and NOT to obsess over the negative actions that could potentially kill me. So far, his words have proved to be very wise.

Here is an example. If I found myself following too closely to the car in front, he would instruct me to think “Keep your distance.” Repeating that mantra while driving helped me not rear-end the car in front.

Using the negative opposite, though, did not have an equal effect. Saying the statement “Don’t have an accident” while driving still has an action component to the sentence, which is “Have an accident.” Since the brain does not understand well the difference between positives and negatives, most people when stating a negative or “Don’t” statement, then still focus on the wrong result, which in this case would be to “Have an accident.”

Therefore, you are far more likely to have an accident if you tell yourself “Don’t have an accident!” The solution is to state what you WANT, not what you DON’T WANT. Hence, the statement “Keep your distance!”

Now apply this brilliant logic to the problem above of first-year band students breathing for every note. Do not tell them, or encourage them to tell themselves “Don’t breathe!” They will surely breathe more often since they are focusing on that action!

Instead, tell your students to “Extend the air!” when they are breathing too often. Tell them the positive action you want, and they will far more likely give it to you. It will likely not work every time for every student in the beginning, but it will certainly help to move them all towards your objective of not breathing for every note or every pitch change on their instrument.

With some thought, this simple advice can be applied to so many problems in the students’ world of music. Have some fun finding other positive directions for the many actions that you want your students to achieve. Then you will find that the challenge for you is to always remember to “state the positive.”

You can begin this philosophy when your students are practicing fast tonguing on their wind instrument by not telling them “Don’t breathe!” Instead, tell them “Extend the air!” It is guaranteed to keep them focusing on the correct action that you are looking for, and your students will understand much faster!

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