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Distinguished SOTW Member/Sax Historian
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Discussion Starter #1
You can't play the saxophone without a tongue. And as many of us have no doubt discovered, you can't play it well without a trained tongue. Articulation, effects, altissimo, and tone shaping all depend on this free flapping muscle, its memory, and its ability to move partially, rapidly, and sensitively.

Unfortunately, there are as many ways to train the tongue as there are tongues, and most of them only go so far. Along with sightreading, tongue use is one of the great "just do it" mysteries.

Thus, the invariable instructions to repeat a technique so many times a day (or worse - until exhausted) for weeks. Or months. Or years. The slow tonguer is in the same unfortunate position as the slow reader: the only cure for hi/r frustration is more frustration.

As a slow tonguer (and one-time slow reader), I have to ask: could it be different? I would like to explore the possibility that what is needed is not just training - drilling and banging on a limited set of techniques and tips - but education.

How can students and teachers use what they already know about the tongue in a better way? Can they overcome pitfalls and inabilities more intelligently, to speed progress and reward effort more fully along the way?

I admit this is a sensitive issue in traditional instrumental teaching. We all labor under the unspoken assumptions of an unacknowledged tradition: master and apprentice. Things like explaining, questioning, experimenting are all frowned upon to some degree. The finer points? Sorry. Practice practice practice. I earned it. So must you.

Of course practicing is everything - it teaches things words can never do. The problem with the master tradition? Practice is not just everything, it's the only thing. What the teacher can't or won't explain falls as a burden on the student. S/he is forced to practice unintelligently, when it ought to be - and probably is - possible to do so intelligently.

I think we on SOTW are openminded and educated enough to consider laying down some of those unwritten "rules" for a different approach - still a common sense method, but using much more of our common sense.

To that end, I offer a few ideas. They may or may not be worth exploring - see what you think.

1. Clues from speech

Sometimes in instructions on tonguing, we may be told to do something like "make a tu tu sound," or "put the tongue (this way) as if saying (this sound)." These are better than nothing, but they are necessarily vague. Could they go further? Say by including possible stumbling blocks? "If you get a spitty sound, try (this)," or "If the sound is too heavy, try (that)."

Tonguing instructions definitely could be improved by greater consciousness of how we speak. We're all good enough at it to be understood - it just may require some basic grounding in the physics of speech, to show the musician what s/he is doing physically when s/he pronounces various sounds.

Going down that path takes us naturally to
2. Clues from the tongue itself

As a slow tonguer, I am convinced that a major part of the problem is poor muscle awareness. The untrained tongue can work well automatically - say in speech - but when the requirement is to move consciously, as in saxophone playing, we often fail.

Tongue instructions on saxophone almost always assume you are aware of, and can consciously move, your tongue in parts. I should say "regions" really - it's one muscle, but it can move in various ways, places and shapes.

A common instruction for altissimo is to "arch the back of the tongue toward the back of the mouth." A common method for slap tonguing is to "make your tongue concave" to seal on the reed, like a suction cup. Simple, right? Not on your life -but that's all you get! Once again - you must practice unintelligently.

What if we developed instructions to create muscle memory - guided, as in item 1. above, by troubleshooting common ways the student fails to get results? "If your tongue will not seal on the reed, (try this) (or that)." Or for altissimo," If your note is sharp, flatten (here) or arch (there)."

The focus would be on isolating and differentiating regions of the tongue the student may not be aware of at all. Is the whole tongue tensing or thickening when the tip moves? Find an explanation - formulate an exercise. Is the back of the tongue hard to control independently? Explanation and exercise. And so on.

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As you may have guessed, I don't consider myself a teacher. Experienced and openminded educators will have to carry the ball from here. I would welcome their thoughts, especially if they've had some results approaching technique from a point of view that is deep, as well as comprehensive.
 

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Distinguished SOTW Member
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Fabulous post Paul. I've had this general idea bouncing around in my noggin for some time!

Compared to most folks, I seem to be quite devoid of tongue position awareness--I mean I really can't tell what position it is in when I'm actually playing. One idea that I've had is that, separated from the rest of the horn, the sax mouthpiece alone (or maybe the mouthpiece and neck) might generate salient tone differences that could act as guides for tongue position.

R.
 

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Distinguished SOTW Member/Sax Historian
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Discussion Starter #3
A promising possibility. However, there's little or no pedagogy I'm aware of, beyond suggesting playing various size mpcs in tune to various notes (eg A-440 for alto).
 

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Thanks for this, Paul. For anyone looking for some technical exercises, I'd highly recommend checking out the Rudy Wiedoft "Secret of the Staccato" book - although you might have to track it down through inter-library loan like I did...I believe it's out of print.
 

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SOTW Administrator
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Actually, there's a very long discussion concerning tongue position here.

The main thing for us slow articulaters to remember is that the tongue is a muscle, and as such, is trainable with exercise. I once went to a master class with oboist John Mack where he addressed this subject. He said that he was always a naturally rapid articulater (single tongue), but as he aged (he was well over 60 when this class occurred). he found that his tongue muscle was deteriorating along with other muscles due to age. He then shared that he was double tonguing many passages that he formerly single tongued.
 

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Discombobulated SOTW Member, Forum Contributor 201
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Donald Sinta's Voicing and mouthpiece exercises (a la Shooshie) are two methods for exploring the use of the tongue in voicing. You can only say so much directly about a subtle and nebulous act like shaping the tongue and mouth, so doesn't it necessarily come down to experimentation and exploration on the part of the individual player?

As to tonguing speed, I believe there's an individual limit that most of us bump up against and can't physically do anything about.
 

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Donald Sinta's Voicing and mouthpiece exercises (a la Shooshie) are two methods for exploring the use of the tongue in voicing. You can only say so much directly about a subtle and nebulous act like shaping the tongue and mouth, so doesn't it necessarily come down to experimentation and exploration on the part of the individual player?

As to tonguing speed, I believe there's an individual limit that most of us bump up against and can't physically do anything about.
As in 'white folks can't jump'. :)

There is indeed a physical limit, see 'slow and fast twitch muscles'.
 

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Distinguished SOTW Member/Sax Historian
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Discussion Starter #8
Donald Sinta's Voicing and mouthpiece exercises (a la Shooshie) are two methods for exploring the use of the tongue in voicing. You can only say so much directly about a subtle and nebulous act like shaping the tongue and mouth, so doesn't it necessarily come down to experimentation and exploration on the part of the individual player?
It's certainly magnitudes better than just dumb repetition of the same exercises. What we need to do, tho, is question how much we can say and how deeply we can teach. (I suppose someone will come along and say it's a distraction from musical concerns.)

As to tonguing speed, I believe there's an individual limit that most of us bump up against and can't physically do anything about.
There are cheats, like double-tonguing (the dugu dugu or tuku tuku method). They possess their own roadblocks and pitfalls, but are taught as if they're straightforward. If you get scooping pitch, choked tone, or can't reset to repeat the motion, the only answer is dumb repetition. I think we can do better, or at least try to do better.
 

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Distinguished SOTW Member, Forum Contributor 2012
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Is the back of the tongue hard to control independently? [i
My understanding is that that back of the tongue is arched and anchored between the molars on both sides.
In this position, you're pretty much done with the back of the tongue.

The middle of the tongue takes care of the vowel sounds.
The tip would have most movement.
 

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Forum Contributor 2011, SOTW's pedantic pet rodent
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The idea of employing different shapes through various consonants and vowels seems to be pretty general. I think that makes a lot of sense, pedagogically, given that language articulation will be well ingrained and is almost self explanatory. I agree that this could be refined (certainly refined *a lot* with stuff like slap tongue and altissimo) but I'm wondering if that would run a risk of being analysis for the sake of it? I mean, I don't need to know exactly what my tongue is doing in order to talk.
 

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Distinguished SOTW Member/Sax Historian
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Discussion Starter #11
True, but you likely learned to talk before you "learned to learn." Only trying it can determine whether it's over-analysis. If players who are stumbling over certain techniques don't find any help in further analysis, then yes, probably so.

I personally am verbally oriented as a result of nonverbal learning disabilities (not diagnosed until adulthood). So I suspect it would be better than nothing. But I may be looking thru my own lens. I have become a competent part-time pro, but with serious limitations that neither I nor any of my teachers have addressed successfully.
 
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