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The Ensemble Sound Blog Series #4: “High-Definition Articulations”

September 6, 2016


Welcome to the Ensemble Sound Blog Series. The blog posts in this series are meant to help you think through and hopefully help you come up with some ideas on how to achieve your ideal ensemble sound!  As always, these posts are not meant to tell you what to do, but to hopefully make you think more about what you are doing!


“That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something that you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.” – Doris Lessing


Part 4:


In part 3 we talked about “The Power of 1-1”, why it should be done every day, and how that same exercise can be taken even further to work on more advanced ensemble concepts. In this blog we will look at 2-1, which focuses on tonguing from the Essential Musicianship: Ensemble Concepts and their importance to the power 5.


“High Defintion Articulations”


Once students have an understanding of 1-1 and most importantly understand how and why to keep their air constant for 4 beats, we can start to take a look at 2-1. Working on 2-1 and understanding it’s importance (or maybe relationship is a better word) to our ensemble sound was one of the more important changes that I made in my teaching. In our first year of submitting for Midwest, we had my college band director come out and work with our students, which was before I read “On Teaching Band” and started using the Essential Musicianship Books. I will always remember what he said getting in my car as we were heading to lunch; “Chris, the group sounds great, but you have to work on your articulations”. I remember thinking, ok, what does that mean? I felt like we were articulating clearly and performing the style of the music, so at the time I was sort of stumped on what he meant. I can now go back and listen to that group and/or all of my previous groups and understand completely what he was talking about. It was not that my students were not tonguing; it was that they were not all tonguing the same way and more importantly, it was the amount of tongue that was being heard in the sound. The tongue was affecting the clarity and the overall ensemble sound of my group. He went on to say “tonguing is the hardest skill for young bands, including high school, to perform.” I totally agree.


Let’s first talk about the tonguing concept. Every note has a beginning, middle, and an end. The beginning of the note would be the articulation, the middle would be the tone, and the end would be the release. The job of the tongue is to “define” the beginning of the note or offer a clear definition of where each note begins. The goal is to get to the “middle” of the note as quickly and purely as possible. When working on tonguing with my students, I often joke with them that the “middle” of the note is actually a bad description of tone because if we are are articulating correctly, we should reach the middle of the note almost instantaneously. I believe that it is goal number 12 of 2-1 in the Essential Musicianship Books that states “the same part of the tongue goes to the same spot with the same strength every single time”. This statement absolutely blew me away. It is basically saying that every note, no matter the length or the style, is tongued exactly the same way. The space or lack of space between notes creates style and the amount of air behind the tongue creates volume or accents. There are different thoughts about how the tongue should be used when working on style and I know I have been pleased with the results using this concept. I am also not saying that there are times where the tongue may need to be used a little bit more for certain musical statements. The idea that the tongue does the exact same thing every time no matter what is a challenging concept to get across to my students but easy to evaluate.


As with all of the fundamental concepts, the students need to be able to tell you how to properly articulate on their instruments. This helps with students being able to self evaluate and understand how to adjust if necessary if they believe they are not articulating to the best of their ability. Each instrument will vary slightly on the tonguing technique needed but for the most part the concepts are the same. In most cases it is some variation of “tAH”, “tOO”, “dAH” or “dOO”. (I will explain later why I write the “t” and “d” in lower case and the “AH” and “OO” in upper case later.) The vowels with the “t” and “d” are representing the vowel shape that each instrument should be using to produce the best sound. When I am introducing or reviewing this concept with my brass students I use the “dOO” syllable. I choose to use “dOO” at first because as we are vocalizing the syllable, it is the easiest to get my students to understand that the only thing that moves when they tongue is the tongue itself. I also prefer “d” over “t” as the “d” is softer sounding than the “t” and later on if we need some additional clarity in style in a certain piece of music we can move to the “t” to get the additional emphasis that we need without sacrificing sound. I do not prefer to use “dAH” at first because it is natural to have the chin drop when saying “dAH” and can inadvertently teach students that their jaw moves when they tongue. Once student grasp the concept that it is only their tongue that is moving when they articulate then we can use the more open sounding “dAH”. It is very important to constantly monitor a student’s mouth area as they are learning to tongue to make sure that the mouth remains still.


Once a student understands the tonguing syllable needed for their instrument it is time to have them understand what the tongue is doing when they say the syllable, how to do it correctly, and why. Again, the more your students can tell you about what they are doing, the better they understand how to do it and to self evaluate. Here are the main points of what the tongue should be doing when articulation is done correctly.


  • The tongue strikes where the teeth and gums meet.

  • The tongue should move up and down, not back and forth.

  • The tongue should be in the down position 98% of the time (vowel shape).

  • The tongue needs to move quickly  as to return to the down position as fast as possible.


These are the exact concepts that I teach to my 6th graders (beginners) every year. This past year in our summer band classes (we hold a 3 week “camp” for our incoming 6th graders right after school gets out in our school district) when I was introducing tonguing, a student (a trombone player-insert joke here) who remember has only played their instrument for 8 days, taught me an even better word to use while teaching the up and down motion of the tongue. He said that the tongue should “rebound”. I absolutely love that! He said the word accidently while we were reviewing how to tongue from the day before but as soon as he said it, my mind was blown! He certainly left that class thinking he was the man! The tongue does move up and down but what I love about the word rebound is that it makes the tongue movement just one motion not two. The tongue moves up, connects with the roof of the mouth, then instantly rebounds back the bottom of the mouth. It absolutely makes the thought process more fluid and less mechanical. It was another great example that you can learn from anybody, anywhere, as long as you are open to it!


I said earlier that I would explain why I use a small consonant and the vowels larger when I write tonguing syllables. When working with my students on the concept of just how little of the tongue sound we want in tone production, I draw the syllable two different ways on the white board. First I draw the syllable “Dah” as exaggerated as possible. I draw a whole note up on the board above the syllable as a representation of sound so they can have a visual reference of the sound length. When I draw the larger “D”, I have it take up more length from left to right. Then I draw next to it another whole note and below that write “dAH”. This time the “d” takes up very little of the whole note and the “AH” takes up almost all of the whole note signifying that we need to get to the “AH” as quickly as possible. This gives the students a concrete visual representation of what we want to hear as we articulate.


I also use the analogy of the difference between the clarity of a 4k Ultra high definition TV playing a 3-D Blu-ray movie as compared to watching a VHS tape of the same movie being played on a standard definition TV. (Though it may be time to change that to a DVD as I’m starting to get the “What’s a VHS?” question). We talk about the difference in the picture quality and why the quality is better and relate that to the tongue and the clarity that is needed at the beginning of the note. We basically relate the tongue to the pixels and the picture to the quality the sound. I can then quickly reference it by calling it “Hi-Def” tonguing.


Now that we have talked a little about the tonguing technique let’s look at 2-1 and how it can help. 2-1 follows the same pattern as 1-1. It will have a measure in which the students play and then a measure in which the students rest. The pattern first starts with a whole note, then moves to two half notes, four-quarter notes, eight eighth notes, then triplets, and finally sixteenth notes. There are different variations on the patterns for each rhythm as well as different articulation marks including tenudo, staccato, and lifted. I will be honest that we very rarely do the entire exercise. Most often we only go through the eight eighth note section with the different articulation markings and then stop the exercise. We will add the triplets and the sixteenth notes if we specifically need to work on those rhythms in a piece of music we are performing.


To start the year and also in the beginning version of the Ensemble Concepts book, we use a more simplified version that follows the same pattern but only has the whole note, two half notes, the four quarter notes, the eight eighth notes and then ends on a whole note. It also does not have any of the articulation markings so every thing is played at full length and connected. Click here to hear a recording of our group performing 2-1. This is an outstanding way to help the students transfer the idea that the air never stops as they are playing no matter the rhythm being played. If your group can play just the simplified version at a high level, the overall tonguing technique in your group will greatly be affected. This is why I like 2-1. It is a gradual increase of the number of notes the student has to play and starts with a whole note just like they did in 1-1. When you rehearse 2-1, it is important that your students start the whole note with same sound and vibrancy as they did a few moments earlier in 1-1. As the responsibilities increase as more notes are added, it is just as important to make sure that the volume and the tone does not change. If so, this means that the students are changing their airflow as they are tonguing which will result in loss of the ensemble sound quality.


2-1 has a lot goals or reminders for the students written directly underneath the exercise. Just like in 1-1, this makes it easy to help keep your students focused on something to listen for and work to improve. If you want your students to learn to be able to listen to themselves and to the group and be able to evaluate and adjust, it is important that you are always guiding them on what they should be listening for. Everyday practice on this guided concept will eventually lead to your students being able to listen and adjust instinctively.


The main goal that we work on is to make every note start the exact same way. Again, 2-1 is a nice progression as it starts with 1 note in the measure, then 2, then 4, and then 8. During the rests between the notes I will often say “now 2 notes that sound the same, now 4 notes that sound the same etc”. If we get to a certain rhythm and they did not perform it well I can easily have them repeat the problem measure by telling them to do so during the rests. When the exercise is over, you can easily have a quick discussion by asking your students what they heard. You could ask questions like;


  • “Which measure did all the notes sound the most alike?”

  •  “Which measure did we have the most struggle making the notes sound the    same?”

  • “What do you think the cause was of why we struggled?”

  • “What can we do to make it better?”


By asking these questions you are making the fundamentals time more engaging to your students as well constantly guiding them in developing their own self listening and ensemble listening skills.


Once students can play the simplified full-length note version of 2-1, we add in the staccato quarter notes and eighth notes, and the lifted quarter notes and eighth notes. Only move onto these articulation styles when your students understand that the air always moves forward and is constant even when space is created between the notes.


Another visual representation that I use to help students understand that the beginning of the note never changes is I draw a sort of chart starting with a whole note on top. Directly below that I will draw one half note with the beginning of the half not directly lined up with the beginning of the whole note above that. Underneath the half note a quarter note, followed by a lifted quarter note, then a staccato quarter note, then an eighth note, a lifted eighth note, a staccato eighth note, and finally a sixteenth note. It is important to make sure that the beginnings of each of the different note lengths are lined up directly underneath each other. I will then ask the students what the difference is between each of the notes. They will tell that the length of each note is different. I will then draw a line down the list at the beginning of each note so the line connects every note length. I will then ask the students where those notes are connected and they will tell me at the beginning of the note. I will then ask them does the line connecting each note length have anything to do with the length in which the note is being played? This is where we get a good “ah ha” moment. They will answer no and I will finish then by asking, then does the tongue have anything to do then with the note length? This is another easy visual example of how to help your student understand this concept.


In a future blog post I will talk about some ways to take 2-1 even further and to help make sure that the tongue is not affecting the ensemble sound in any other way than just clearly defining the beginning of each note. Working on your students tonguing technique is an extremely important element in the development of their own playing ability as well as your overall ensemble sound. Thanks for reading!


Check out the other blogs in the Ensemble Sound Blog Series:


Part 1: Deciding on Your Sound

Part 2: The Power 5

Part 3: The Power of 1-1: Episode I: The Return of the Power 5

Part 3: The Power of 1-1: Episode II: The Quest for Purity

Part 3: The Power of 1-1: Episode III: The Journey Continues

Part 5: Bridging the Gap: The F Remington

Part 6: Sustains: The Final Chapter



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