“Starting” notes with the tongue

There’s a common misconception about woodwind articulation, that notes somehow “start” with the tongue. So, how do you start notes with your tongue? Does your tongue somehow strike the reed, making it vibrate? Try it, I’ll wait.

Hit that reed with your tongue as hard as you like, but I suspect nothing will happen until you add air. The truth of the matter is that air starts the vibration—the tongue actually stops it.

photo, Evan Long

So why use the tongue at the beginning of a note—why not just start the air? Try it as an experiment. Starting from zero air pressure, very gradually add air. You will probably hear air noise first, and then tone. Can you predict precisely when the tone will kick in? Using the tongue allows the note to be “released” after sufficient air pressure is in place, avoiding the airy and unpredictable note beginning.

Thinking in terms of the tongue releasing the note rather than kickstarting it leads to more efficient, controlled, and subtle articulation.

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