Hornmasters on Rapid Tonguing, Part I


We all need speed! To begin this survey on the topic of rapid single tonguing, Farkas in The Art of French Horn Playing advocated a soft “too” or “doo” to make a “much lighter seal that allows very rapid, light tonguing.”

Farkas returned to the topic in The Art of Brass Playing with four aids toward development of rapid tonguing which he summarized

…briefly: 1.) focus the lip “buzz” accurately on the desired pitch, 2.) move only the tip of the tongue, and only in an up-and-down direction, 3.) make the stroke of the tongue as short as possible, and, 4.) do not create a tight hermetic seal, but let the tongue touch lightly—almost to the point of letting air escape between notes.

These four aids will do wonders for increasing the speed of the tongue, but only when combined and used in complete synchronization.

From previous readings you should be noting that on suggestion number 2) Farkas is not correct, MRI studies show the direction tonguing is more of and oblique motion that is neither up and down nor forwards and backwards. But to think of the motion as small and near the tip of the tongue can be helpful.

Fred Fox in Essentials of Brass Playing made an observation that I am sure most experienced brass teachers could make.

Many players claim they do not have a “fast tongue.” This is not necessarily the case. The fault usually lies in not practicing specific exercises designed to develop a fast tongue. To develop a fast tongue on has to practice fast tonguing exercises.

Fox suggests working patterns of eighths, triplets, and sixteenth notes and keeping the attack hard. At the point where one is completing the sixteenth note patterns

…you may start to feel as if your tongue wants to fall out of your mouth, or is getting paralyzed. Persist, the tired feeling is occurring because you are starting to exercise a specific set of muscles. They will grow stronger with practice.

Barry Tuckwell in Playing the Horn notes that for rapid tonguing

The tongue is usually given too much to do, and this slows down fast repeated notes. To avoid this always keep the tongue at the bottom of the mouth, out of the way, until it is necessary to begin another note. Then only put it forward at the last possible moment—in much the same way as a piano hammer works.

In Practical Hints on Playing the French Horn David Bushouse feels that tonguing is quickest if you think of the motion being essentially up and down but also indicates that the true motion may be somewhat different.

Try this: first, say a series of the syllable thoo quickly, then follow with a series of la. Notice the awkwardness of the forward and back motion of thoo contrasted with the lightness and quickness possible with la. For fast tonguing, retain the toe syllable but try to achieve the up and down quickness of la. For the very fastest possible tonguing, it is necessary to lighten up the attack with a legato doe syllable, which requires less time for each new attack.

Verne Reynolds in The Horn Handbook opens his section on tonguing by noting that “A fast single tongue is the horn player’s good friend.” He continues,

A reasonable, but necessary, single tonguing speed allows us to play four notes on each beat when the metronome is set at 138-144. Some players seem to have been born with a fast tongue; others need to develop speed. The tongue can tire quickly, causing us to lose speed after several groups of notes.

Reynolds thus suggests that

Speed is developed by using the work and rest principle. If, when practicing for speed with the metronome, fatigue becomes apparent, simply rest for six or eight beats and continue.

Thinking back on my lessons with Reynolds, I am sure he loved my fast single tonguing! It is a skill we all need to master.

mri-hornStepping back from the sources above to the MRI resources and vintage X-ray videos cited last week it would be good to reflect again on the questions below:

  • Is the tongue the shape you thought it was?
  • Is it moving in the direction and to the place you thought it was?
  • What does the tongue do in different registers?
  • How about that double tonguing?

I have long suspected that many of the moderately advanced players out there with problems with rapid tonguing are trying too hard to do what conventional wisdom or words on a page in a book said to do. We do have power as teachers to tie our students up in knots.

Of all the classic horn method books the most extensive and focused resource on rapid single tonguing is the Brophy book. It will be the focus in our next installment in this series.

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