One of the major things that is a real sticking point with trumpet students is articulation. This guide takes you through everything you need to know about single tonguing on the trumpet.
A common misconception that I hear often, particularly with younger players, is that we articulate the note by hitting the aperture with the tip of our tongue.
That’s completely the opposite.
Brass articulation is done by retracting the tongue at the start of the note, rather than extending it.
Something that we haven’t talked too much about is tonguing and articulation. Let’s start fixing that.
What is trumpet articulation?
The basic definition of the word articulate is to make clear distinct and precise. So on the trumpet, we have two different ways that we can play notes — we can either slur them, or we can articulate them.
When we articulate notes on the trumpet, we use tonguing to make each note a little bit more clear, more distinct from preceeding and succeeding notes.
Well, how do we articulate?
We use tonguing to articulate notes, the rest of this guide explain just that by diving in-depth into single articulation.
How to single tongue the trumpet with speed and clarity
There are two different ways to use our tongue to articulate on the trumpet. The first is by using the syllables “ta” or “da”, and the second is by using the syllables “ka” or “ga”.
Of all these, the most natural way to think of single tonguing and produce that articulation effect on the trumpet is to voice the letter “t” or “ta”. You can also say “to” or “ti”.
“T” or “ta” tonguing
Notice where your tongue strikes every time you voice the syllable “ta”.
The tip of your tongue is striking the roof of your mouth just behind the front upper teeth.
It is not coming between the teeth—between your lips to close the aperture of your embouchure, it is striking behind the teeth.
Instead of saying “tha” so that your tongue closes your aperture, you are saying “ta” or a “t” consonant.
The next thing you need to do is practice that syllable with air. That would sound “ttttt… tttttt…”. You try.
Now the exact placement of your tongue differs a little for everybody but it needs to be just behind the teeth, typically where the gum and roof of your mouth meet.
It is very important that your tongue does not come through the teeth because if it does, it’s going to touch the lips and sploit your embouchure. It will stop the vibration.
You can usually hear this in beginners.
In single tonguing there is no point where the tongue comes through the lips and stops vibration, even in between notes.
If that happens you’ll get a very crass, harsh sound. And it also gets very difficult to tongue fast. Move that tongue back and strike the roof of the mouth instead.
This way, we can move the tongue much faster and much smoother and it sound nice and rounded with a good sound.
Another way you can tell if a trumpeter is tonguing between their teeth is if the notes are fuzzing out a lot when they play, or if they are playing a lot of wrong notes.
If they are aiming for a G and then they hit a C or something else, for instance, a lot of time it’s because the tongue is exploding the air through the lips and they can’t control that aperture of the embouchure.
Keeping the tongue behind the teeth will easily fix that.
Another way you can tell incorrect single tonguing, even with yourself, is to use a mouthpiece visualizer like we did in how to form a trumpet embouchure in 4 steps. Have a look at it if you haven’t already and you want to learn the exact 4-step method used by world renowned trumpeters to form a consistently reliable trumpet embouchure every single time.
If you’ve gone through that guide, holding a visualizer up to your lips and doing a basic articulation will point you to that problem, so you can remedy it as explained above.
You’ll see if the tongue is coming between the teeth and touching the lips.
So “ta” single tonguing technique is the best and easiest way to improve and maintain a good articulation through all of your playing.
Breath attack vs. single tonguing
One of the things I’m asked about a lot is how to get a clean articulation consistently at the beginning of a note or phrase.
This is something that tends to hold a lot of us up because we get a little confused about how tonguing actually works at the start of a note.
What we are doing with a single tonguing is blocking and then releasing the air. It’s that release of the airstream that makes the sound start.
The important thing about getting a nice clean articulation at the beginnning of a phrase or note is to make sure that we start the air with the tongue in place already blocking the airstream. It’s that release that makes it clean and articulate.
When learning tonguing, we tend to get a bit unco-ordinated with that, which makes it harder than it needs to be.
If you start a note just with the airstream, on the other hand, without any blocking or tonguing, it will sound airy. This is a breath attack.
The articulation for a breath attack will not be as nice and clean as for the single tonguing attack.
Top 4 essential tips for single tongue articulation on the trumpet
Tip #1 — Know the pitch beforehand when start a note with single tonguing
When starting a note, you don’t necessarily want a breath attack of the note first and then block it after the breath attack.
You have to know how the air goes for a particular pitch, and place that air in place with the tongue in place—already blocking the air stream—to get a proper single tongue attack, as it were.
Tip #2 — Keep the air moving to single tongue faster
The thing that tends to hold us up and make up go slow when we are tonguing a sequence of notes, is that we get into the habit of doing what we’ve just done and start the air along with the tongue.
Instead, for a sequence of repeated notes, whether it’s the same note or a musical phrase, what we need to do is just keep the air moving at all times and block it with the tongue.
You don’t need to stop the airflow in between notes and you don’t need to blow any extra air.
It is getting that continous air flow that allows us to get the tonguing nice and clean on a sequence of repeated notes.
Because we are not starting and stopping the airflow every time, it means that there is less motion in the embouchure restraining the air as it starts and that means we can get our tonguing to go much faster.
This is still single tonguing.
That takes some moving parts out and let’s our tongue move much quicker.
Tip #3 — Both “ta” and “da” can be used for single tonguing
The same concept applies of single tonguing whether you are using a “t” ot “ta” tonguing or a “D” or “da” tonguing. The only difference the change of syllable makes is ow cleanly it allows the tongue to release the air.
This basically translates to how much meat of the tongue you’ve in the way of the airstream.
Tip #4 — Start slowly to develop co-ordination
Of course when you’re developing that co-ordination to begin with, it is important to go slowly, particularly if you’re playing things that aren’t on the same tone, so you can get it nicely, cleanly, and consistently.
For instance, if you are playing a simple scale pattern uo an down, start playing that slowly with the regular single tongue before moving to double tonguing.