Friday, August 25, 2017


Articulation is on my mind these days. I am working on a new text on multibal tonguing and I remembered this article I wrote in 2006.  

In all the languages of the world, linguists can’t agree on the number of consonances there are. Some say there are around one hundred and others say there are over one hundred twenty. The disagreement comes from where to draw the distinction between consonances that are similar. The consonant T, for example, is quite different from language to language. In French T is pronounced with the tongue very forward in the mouth on the back of the upper front teeth, in English the T is placed on the rim of the gum at the point just before it rises up to the roof of the month, and in Chinese the T consonant is made high on the roof of the mouth; all are quite different in the way they sound.

If we can agree that there are over one hundred consonances in Languages, and if we can agree that articulation is virtually the consonance of the musical language, then how many types of articulation are there in music, and much more specifically, how many  types of articulation do we have the possibility of producing on brass  instruments?

Vocal consonants have been used successfully in teaching brass instruments for a very long time; every brass player has learned to start a note with Ta, Da or an occasional Ka, but, in fact, there are huge differences between consonants in speech and articulations on brass instruments.

Nature created our vocal mechanism in a very functional and wonderful way; the sound source comes first and the consonant comes second. It works beautifully, the vibration from the larynx reaches the mouth and with vowels and consonances we have an infinite possibility of sounds, in fact, we have language.

But what happens when the articulation mechanism (the tongue) comes first and the sound source (the lips) come second? The results are so different that comparisons can be dangerous or at least difficult.

Still, most of our references to playing brass instruments come from vocal concepts. I was very surprised in 1990 when performing and recording Verdi’s Il Trovatore with the Maggio Musicalli di Firenze with Luciano Pavarotti singing the lead. I was amazed to hear Pavarotti vocalizing (warming up) on one of the exercises in my book, an exercise from the famous James Stamp trumpet book which I took and modified and which Mr. Stamp had taken and modified from the time proven copious repertoire of vocal exercises. From Maestro Pavarotti I was hearing this exercise in its original form for the first time. These old vocal methods work for brass instruments and they will continue to work, but there are a few differences that need to be addressed.

For example, what is the difference between Ta and Da? Ta, is what linguists call a non vocalized plosive, first we hear the sound of the consonant (articulation) then the sound of the vowel (tone); this works very well on a brass instrument. But Da, the articulation that we are taught to use for a softer attack is a vocalized plosive, quite a different situation. With Da, first is the vocal sound then the consonant. That’s not possible on a brass instrument, except when connected to a note that is already sounding. Ta and Da have nevertheless worked well for generations to guide brass students to discriminate different articulations, but they are limited in their scope.

There are four aspects to articulating on brass instruments and when a player can coordinate those four things, the capacity for a wide spectrum of articulations is enormous. The four aspects are:
1.        Airflow at impact.
2.        Embouchure resistance at impact.
3.        Tongue placement at impact.
4.        Air compression released by the tongue at impact; i.e. Articulation.

Of course, airflow at impact is determined largely by dynamic and register, the lower and the louder requiring greater airflow. Embouchure resistance is created when the air meets the embouchure. That resistance together with the airflow broadens even more the potential verity of articulations.

Tongue placement modifies attack in a very important way. Like the different Ts mentioned above, tongue placement changes the articulation from a clear instant attack when it is forward and a less instant attack with the tongue further back in the mouth. It should also be noted that generally the low register responds better with the tongue forward, even between the lips, and in the higher register to avoid being too abrupt, it works better further back in the mouth. The compression of air behind the tongue at impact determines the type of the attack. Suddenly, the potential becomes evident. The possibilities are enormous.

Now come two tasks: learning to use these four articulation functions and far more importantly, which mix of the four possibilities serve best our musical purpose?

With essentially an infinite number of possibilities these articulations need to be on demand from the information in our musical mind’s ear; this is one of the many reasons for listening to music of all kinds. The more we know and the more we have experienced, the more sonic vocabulary we have to call upon for expressing our own individual musicality. The danger here is that we too easily learn a small vocabulary of articulations and dogmatically continue using only those that are familiar.

In an essay on articulation, something should be said about starting a note without using the tongue at all. This can occasionally be a good therapy for correcting poor response but as a normal day-to-day articulation it is limited. Articulation is the fine-tuning of rhythm and most of the time the rhythmic energy of the music requires articulation be focused and clear.

In language when we are unclear with our consonants we have a tendency to sound either drunk or stupid, we all know that sound! But when clear consonants are returned in our speaking we can give the impression of intelligence! It’s very much the same with musical performance particularly in lower instruments. In low registers the human ear hears less clearly, therefore we who play in those low registers need to make a special effort in articulating clearly. Music becomes more enjoyable to play and to hear.

Hiroshima, Japan, January 22, 2006
Republished August 25, 2017, Oaxaca, Mexico