Hornmasters on Legato Tonguing


As a prelude to his general discussion of tonguing in Chapter 9 of The Art of French Horn Playing, at the end of Chapter 8 Philip Farkas kicks things off with a brief discussion of legato tonguing. Legato tonguing involves making a connection between the notes. In a legato phrase the player

… must keep the air pressure going almost continuously in order to keep each note sounding until the start of the next note. But the very act of starting another note with the tongue interferes with the air-column for the moment of time required to prepare the “attack,” which is, after all, only a pulling away of the tongue in order to let the air flow. Therefore, we are faced with this problem: legato tonguing consists of starting each note with an attack and yet keeping each note connected to the next with no space occurring between. But the act of tonguing stops the air-flow for the time that the tongue is in position for attack. Obviously, then, the tongue must not get in the way of the air-stream any longer than necessary to produce the attack. It must be flicked into place just the instant before the attack and out of the way again immediately…. The articulation “doo” should be very carefully defined by the tongue, as the articulation “too” hermetically seals off the air column, completely disrupting its even flow.

Gunther Schuller devotes a short chapter of Horn Technique to the topic of legato tonguing. His focus is on developing the full range of articulations for the sake of musical expression.

In essence, tonguing is nothing more than a musical ‘decoration’ of a note. It should not be just a means of ‘getting’ the note. This is most important to remember if one aspires to any degree of sensitivity in phrasing. I feel that graduations in tonguing should be developed as early as possible, since limited tonguing abilities can quickly become a serious handicap, and make the proper performance of a great deal of the repertory well-nigh impossible.

Toward the goal of developing that full range of articulations he makes reference to breath attacks.

…tonguing is a variable decoration of a note or a phrase, dependent entirely on the musical context. If any doubt remains as to the validity of this theory, the player can easily convince himself, by placing the mouthpiece on the lip for any given pitch, and without using the tongue, blow air into the horn in increasing volume until the note starts vibrating. It is axiomatic that the amount of air necessary to start the note is a minimum amount. If the player can learn to guarantee this minimum air support, he can then be free to ‘decorate’ the beginning of a note with any degree or variety of attack possible.

For general legato performance Schuller recommends “articulating a ‘dah’ or ‘doo’ instead of the ‘tah’ or ‘too’ of normal tonguing.” Also he notes that when legato tonguing “it is essential that the air be sustained exactly as in pure legato playing.”

- - Please visit: Horn Notes Edition on Amazon - -

Farkas returns to the topic of legato tonguing in The Art of Brass Playing and again recommends the syllable “doo” as ideal for legato attacks. He summarizes his thoughts on producing a fine legato as follows.

1. Keep the lips buzzing between the slurred notes.
2. Carefully time the up or down glissando buzz so that the slurs are smooth. If the glissando is made too slowly, intervening notes will have time to sound, spoiling the legato. If made too fast, slurs will be dry and hard.
3. Support the continuous buzz with a steady air-column, one which does not sag or weaken between the slurred notes.
4. By the subtle use of vowel formations in the oral cavity, aid upward slurs with “oh-ee” and downward slurs with “ee-oh”.

Harry Berv takes a simple and direct approach to teaching legato in A Creative Approach to the French Horn.

I use the following method for perfecting legato tonguing. It is simple but provides the player with excellent results and helps to determine the length of the notes for any give legato style of playing.

Slur a C major scale starting on middle C up one octave and slur back down again. Do the same thing again, but this time tongue the notes of the scale so that the space between them is negligible. This simple exercise can perfect the legato tonguing to its highest degree. It will help you to coordinate the tongue, air intensity, and embouchure to perfect the tongued legato style of horn playing.

Verne Reynolds offers a solid discussion of legato tonguing in The Horn Handbook.

This tongue stroke is used to connect notes rather than to separate them, as in staccato playing. Most horn players feel that the legato tongue is closer to “du” than to “tu.” Saying “du tu du tu du tu” rather slowly demonstrates the more explosive quality of “tu.” Speeding up the tempo reveals that at faster speeds the “du” becomes more like “tu.”

A true legato tongue requires that the air flow be constant and unaffected by the tongue’s motion. Since the legato tongue is often used in phrases with slow-moving note values, the temptation is great to move the tongue forward too soon and too slowly. If the tongue starts too soon and remains against the teeth for even a short time, the vibration stops, a space is created, and the legato is destroyed. Even the most gentle of tongue strokes must consist of a continuous action, as fast as possible, and at the exact moment the note is to arrive. A slow tongue stroke causes a space between the notes; a fast tongue stroke allows the air to remain constant so that the vibration may continue.

After further discussion of the importance of avoiding a slow tongue stroke, Reynolds also notes that,

Beginning players with undeveloped embouchures must use the “tu” stroke almost exclusively until their lips will respond to the more gentle “du.” A more advanced player will want to start using “du” on notes after silence and not confine its use to connecting notes within a phrase.

He also has a note about rapid legato tonguing.

The legato tongue is very effective in fast-moving notes. Its use is mainly a matter of stylistic choice; a legato tongue is not appropriate for the third movement of the Mozart Fourth Horn Concerto, but seems just right for the last page of the Hindemith Alto Horn Sonata.

A final, context item should be repeated at this point. Earlier in this series we noted that in the MRI horn studies you can see the pulsations of the tongue that occur in slurs. Legato tonguing is a very similar action, actually, the difference being that the pulsations of the tongue are slightly more pronounced to generate an articulation. Harry Berv in this case gets the prize for the most simple and direct way to communicate this to a student: “Slur a C major scale starting on middle C up one octave and slur back down again. Do the same thing again, but this time tongue the notes of the scale so that the space between them is negligible.”

Continue in Hornmasters Series

University of Horn Matters