Hornmasters: Attacks, a Prelude to Tonguing


Tonguing would seem on the surface to be a fairly uncontroversial topic. We have touched on this topic in this series of quotations from Classic horn methods but now it is time to turn more directly to the topic.

Tonguing is a topic that every teacher has tips to offer. Looking at the big picture of this topic, this is one which Farkas lays down an approach but in reality it is just one approach. Tonguing methods and descriptions of tonguing methods vary widely. As such, this is a topic I have not looked forward to addressing. But address it we must!

What is an “Attack?”

We can produce a wide variety of articulations by tonguing notes. In English we would commonly call the start of any note the attack. In The Art of French Horn Playing Farkas clarifies his view of the concept.

The word “attack” is misleading, as it infers a thrust forward. The tongue dos go forward to a slight degree, but this takes place before the so-called attack and can be done quietly and leisurely, at least at the beginning of a passage. In fast passages, it is the very speed with which the tongue has to get into position for the attack which makes it seem as though the attack were a sudden strike of the tongue. However, by playing at a leisurely tempo we can observe definitely that the actual attack is a pulling away of the tongue which allows the air to flow between the lips.

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But by the date of publication of The Art of Brass Playing Farkas seems more comfortable with using the term “attack” in relation to starting notes.

We have only two ways to begin or articulate a note: by slurring to it from a previous note, or by starting it with an “attack” of the tongue. In two respects the tonguing of a note is the more important consideration because: 1.) The first note of a series must be started with the tongue; 2.) reiteration of the same note must be accomplished by tonguing. Even though slurring is a most important fundamental of brass playing, there are only two basic types of slur, smooth and forceful, whereas there are many types of tonguing. Therefore, let us discuss first this more complex articulation.

And Farkas still later, in The Art of Musicianship, “to avoid confusion,” referred to attacked notes as “enunciated,” defining articulation in general to include attacks and slurs. In short, over the course of his publications he varied his way of addressing the topic of what to call the process of starting notes.

For Harry Berv in A Creative Approach to the French Horn an attack was more than a word to describe an articulation. “Whether vocal or instrumental, attack is the mental awareness and physical action of initiating a given sound.”

Verne Reynolds in The Horn Handbook looks at the attack in a broader sense, that it is the composite process of starting any note. As to the word attack itself, “This seems a needlessly belligerent term, but rather than inventing a more decorous synonym we will continue with attack, since brass players understand that even the most gentle of note beginnings is called an attack.” Later he also makes clear that his use of the term “release” is in relation to the ends of notes, not the beginnings.

Douglas Hill would prefer that we avoid the term “attack” in Collected Thoughts on Teaching and Learning, Creativity, and Horn Performance.

You should not overemphasize the importance of the tongue or work it too hard. Simply understand its function as it primarily clarifies the release of the air. Some say that you must attack a note, but the whole idea suggests an image of your tongue as a large and dangerous knife. Think of the tongue more as a door that opens new vistas.

Personally, with all due respect to the above Hornmasters, I prefer to call it an attack, as this gives I feel the best mindset, as in going for notes with confidence. I am very hesitant to ever use the term “release” to start a note, as it can be a way of thinking that can lead directly to the dreaded “hesitation attack,” where players become unable to play entrances with perfect timing. And, I would add, conductors think of releases as being the ends of notes, not beginnings, so there is an additional confusion factor as well. I have a bit more related to the topic of releases in this article.

When we return we will explore the topic of average, general tonguing, on which the Hornmasters had much to say, with a bonus article with quotes from Dale Clevenger to start the discussion.

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