Hornmasters on Average Tonguing, Part III: Fox and Berv


Continuing our series, we turn to two more Classic horn methods for their notes on tonguing, both of which hit on some ideas outside of the conventional wisdom on the topic.

Fred Fox in Essentials of Brass Playing has quite a bit to say about tonguing. He begins his general discussion from the angle of improving the attack. “A cough is a sudden exhalation of air” and for Fox elements of a cough (especially the “diaphragm hardening”) mirror tonguing on a brass instrument, and may be applied to the concept of an attack.

Exactly how soft or explosive an attack is depends on the timing between the diaphragm hardening and the tongue release. An attack can be soft and still use the diaphragm action as discussed. Start a note on the instrument with the suggested sudden diaphragm hardening action but with no tongue at all. Notice that no matter how hard a cough action is used, without the tongue, the result is a soft spongy start. Play the note again, this time using the tongue start as used when saying the syllable “da.” This start is also on the soft side because no time was allowed for pressure to build up behind the tongue….

Coordinating the timing between the tongue and the diaphragm determines the percussiveness of an attack in “piano” or “forte.” The more the tone delays the release the harder the attack. Being aware of this relationship between tongue and diaphragm helps alleviate one of the common problems of brass players, the “stutter” attack. This occurs when too much pressure is allowed to build up in back of the tongue causing the release to be explosive. To avoid this result one should more consciously plan to release the tongue closer to the moment that the diaphragm hardens.

Fox has a definite opinion on the topic of tongue placement in articulations.

Where should the tip of the tongue be placed when attacking a note? There are a few possibilities, such as touching only the lips, touching the upper palate only, touching the upper palate and the teeth simultaneously, and touching only the upper teeth.

Touching the lips is not advisable because when the tongue touches the lips it tends to part them slightly and they are not in compressed position for the buzz. This can result in a last minute adjustment of the lips at the moment the air is passing between them causing a momentary “hiss” sound before the lips are completely set to vibrate. The other usual extreme is for the tip of the tongue to contact the upper palate and front teeth simultaneously. This results in a slightly spongy, unclear attack.

The most efficient contact point for the tongue to contact on attack is the lower edge of the upper teeth, as low as possible but at no time touching the lips.

…The result is a more solid block of air and a firmer attack.

Another related general point made by Fox has to do with lip movement when articulating notes. In short,

The less movement noticeable when playing, the better. This is not a question of looks, it is rather a matter of efficiency. The fewer moving parts, the less possibility of error. Look in a mirror. Play a note for a quarter, rest for an eight beat, then play the note again. If you can see that the lips relaxed during the eighth rest, then there is excessive movement.

…Avoid a quivering “jello” embouchure.

The lips are in front of the teeth. There should be no reflex action between the tongue movement, and the constant firmness of the lips.

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According to Harry Berv in A Creative Approach to the French Horn

Because of its large, conical tubing, its relatively small bore, and its deep funneled mouthpiece, the horn does not respond readily to articulation….

The tongue is all-important to the attack and release of air into the mouthpiece. Properly employed, it initiates the sound with a distinction and precision comparable to a finger striking a piano key. In addition to controlling the release of air into the mouthpiece, the tongue determines the accuracy of the attack no matter what the degree of tension and no matter what the dynamic requirement. Because of the deep funneling of the horn mouthpiece, the horn’s small bore and its conical tubing—which is longer than that of any other brass instrument—the activity required of the tongue is greater and the attack itself must be more emphatic.

Before the attack, the tongue is behind the two top front teeth and lightly touching them. The tongue never at any point goes beyond or outside the lips.

Berv suggests the use of the syllable “tu” combined with a “light but decided thrust of air” in an exercise that involves spitting out a small object such as a grape pit. He also has another exercise and suggests that

An excellent aid in improving and refining a centered attack is a nontransposing mute. With a cloth or chamois wrapped around the whole mute, tightly insert it into the bell, making the bell almost airtight. This creates more resistance to the airstream, thus requiring the tongue to work much harder…. You will notice that after the mute is removed, the tongue will be lighter and capable of greater speed, which alleviates the problem of sluggishness.

This last point brings to mind one of what I thought at the time to be odder things I ever heard recommended. It involved warming up while playing a mute. It still seems overall like a bad idea to me, the mute would impact centering and tone color among other things. But perhaps the theory behind it had to do with something related to increased resistance. I have noticed that some technical passages seem easier when played on my Silent Brass mute, but I am not convinced that adding resistance to the airstream is a good idea to improve tonguing.

In any event we are only half way through the resources I have lined up for this overview on tonguing.

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