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Thomas J. West Music

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A Common Beginner Band Problem: Improper Articulation

Posted on May 14, 2011 at 10:58 AM


In traditional elementary band instruction in American schools, students typically work their way through a published method book. One of the aspects of perfrorming on a wind instrument is using the tongue to separate the column of air into various lengths of rhythm - a technique commonly referred to as "tonguing" or "articulation". It is often a technique that is overlooked or omitted completely from students' development at the elementary level for a variety of reasons.

I was reminded yesterday how articulation is often neglected in many elementary programs when a potential alto saxophone student for my school played for me. As he played through his prepared piece, every pitch began with a fuzzy "foof" sound rather than a crisp, defined initiation to the sound. This is the typical sound of a student starting and stopping the air flow to separate the notes rather than use one column of air and using the tongue to divide the air flow.

Another common method of separating notes that inexperienced students use it improper use of the tongue. For single reed instruments, students often use the flat upper surface of the tongue against the table of the reed instead of the tip of the tongue at the tip of the reed. This produced a "thunk" or "thud" articulation. For flutes and brass, a common misuse of the tongue is to place the tongue between the teeth instead of at the base of the top center teeth, producing a "th" quality.

Perhaps the most unusual incorrect articulation style I have ever discovered was executed by one of my middle school french horn students. Her articulations were fuzzy, and for the life of me, I could not figure out what she was doing. Every teaching technique I know to work on articulation didn't work for her. As I played with her on my own horn and tried to match the sound she was producing, I finally figured it out: she was actually articulating with the lips themselves using a "puh puh puh" technique. The embouchure itself was separating the buzz into rhythms by pressing the upper and lower lips together.

Poor articulation can also be caused by a reed that is either worn out or too stiff. If a student has been playing on a reed for too long, the reed will no longer respond to crisp articulations even if the student is using the tongue correctly. A new reed that is too stiff will produce a similar effect.

Articulation training should be a part of any beginner's instruction as soon as they have to play a rhythm other than long tone.

This article (c) 2011 Thomas J. West. All content on ThomasJWestMusic dot com is licensed under a Creative Contributions Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. Please contact the author before publishing on or off-line.

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Reply Nancy Moser
12:50 PM on May 14, 2011 
I'll never forget this one that happened a long time ago in one of my beginner classes: a flute player that kept articulating with a "th" sound. "Th, th, th, th, th." I tried everything (I was a new teacher at that time, so it probably wasn't much). Finally, I thought to ask her to say the word "table." The poor kid said "thable."
Reply anonymous
12:31 PM on May 19, 2011 
A common problem, yes, but remember they are beginners and in my 17 years of experience articulation has not been a problem. Now, granted, there are students that do not process information the same way and do not associate what you are telling them with the process of articulation. I learned early on that you have to come in the back door and find out what works for them. I'll use myself as example: Just after my parents rented an "American Masters" trumpet and I was on my way out the door, I asked the music store rep about making a sound on the trumpet, and his response was: "What would you do if I put a piece of paper on your tongue?" Of course the "proper response" was to say I'd spit it off. But my fifth grade brain said "why would I want a piece of paper on my tongue in the first place?" My answer to him was that of course I would take it off.
Reply ★ Owner
1:12 PM on May 19, 2011 
Thanks for the comments! I agree that in general beginners do not have trouble with the concept and execution of proper articulation. The point of the article is that I have fairly regularly received players into my middle school program who have obviously never been taught to articulate, or were taught but never had the concept reinforced by playing individually for their band director. "They're just beginners" doesn't hold water with me. As soon as they are ready to perform any sort of repeated rhythm, they need to be taught to articulate correctly.