Articulation is one of the easiest concepts for trumpet students to grasp because it relates so closely to language. Most teachers (and most students) are aware of the basic tenants of a good single-tongue: the performer should interrupt the airstream by lightly tapping the tongue against the roof of the mouth (in the approximate place where the tongue would strike when pronouncing the letter “T”); beginners must learn to use a single airstream for repeated pitches, rather than “huffing” for each new note; the tongue should define the beginning of each note but not the end (i.e. “tongue-stopping”).
When brass players articulate, the contact between the tongue and the roof of the mouth briefly interrupts the flow of air to the lips, which the audience perceives as a break between notes. Thus, even though the tongue may delineate note-fronts, and even though the tongue may act as a kind of gateway through which the air must pass before the first note of a phrase can speak, the air itself still initiates the sound. When we discuss variables such as accents, note lengths, and slurs, we are really talking about the degree to which we permit an interruption of air flow to occur. With this in mind, the following guidelines are relevant to the primary (“T”) stroke of a trumpet player’s articulation:
- The tongue will hit in slightly different places respective to the teeth and roof of the mouth as the player moves through different registers.
- A trumpet player may wish to experiment with using slightly different parts of the tongue for different ranges and different note styles. (Some teachers prefer to teach the syllable “D” instead of “T”, but I find that this distinction is immaterial. A student who is capable of differentiating between “D” and “T” articulations is also capable of understanding the concept of a softer note-front and figuring out how to achieve this effect.)
- Some players use a technique called “anchor tonguing” (also known as “dorsal tonguing”) in which the tip of the tongue remains in contact with the bottom teeth at all times, and the articulation utilizes the middle of the player’s tongue. I do not ever teach anchor tonguing to beginners, but if a student naturally develops a preference for it then it’s not a concern.
- Articulation is interrelated with embouchure. One of the best ways to strengthen an embouchure is to repeatedly articulate a pitch in the upper register, attempting to get identical clarity on each iteration.
It should be apparent from this list that articulation is an imprecise science. Teachers who wish to work on single-tonguing will usually get farther by call-and-response-style lessons, by wind patterns (see below), or by singing than by attempting to micro-manage how and where a student’s tongue strikes. Players seeking to improve their own articulation should interpret the parameters listed above as license to experiment.
Multiple (double- or triple-) tonguing challenges many players because they first encounter the secondary (“K”) stroke after several years of playing; for this reason, I prefer to teach the “K” stroke as soon as the student has mastered the “T”. The secondary stroke uses the middle of the tongue regardless of whether or not the player uses an anchor tongue. In addition:
- Double-tonguing always alternates between the two syllables (TKTK TKTK), but triple tonguing can encompass any of three permutations: TTK TTK; TKT TKT; or TKT KTK. Most professionals consider TTK TTK to be fastest and cleanest, but most students initially learn TKT TKT because it more nearly resembles a double-tongue. This discrepancy results in frustration for college students whose professors demand that they switch. My preference is to teach TKT KTK so that the student gains full control of the “K” stroke from the very beginning and can then use either alternative.
- The “K” should strike as close to the front teeth as possible, to minimize the distance the air must travel between the point of articulation and the embouchure.
- The “K” should be indistinguishable from the “T” from the perspective of the audience. Usually, this objective requires players to practice the “K” in isolation (i.e. single-tonguing with only “K”s).
Ultimately, all articulation is useless if not backed by moving air. One of the best ways to evaluate a student’s use of air in combination with articulation (single or multiple) is through the use of “wind patterns,” in which the student does not use a trumpet or mouthpiece but instead moves the air through a non-vibrating aperture while using the same vowel shapes and articulation required for the music. (Vincent Cichowicz invented this technique after watching flutists; the lips should remain loose while performing it.) Central to the wind pattern are free-flowing air and consistent note shapes; the student should then transfer these qualities to the trumpet.
Looking for some practice on your multiple tonguing? This is my favorite double-tonguing exercise, which I learned from Richard Giangiulio. I’ve played it in all keys, major and minor, and in all octaves. It’s one of the top five most helpful things I’ve ever done for my playing!