An inside look at tonguing (and more) on the horn

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One of the big, important topics of horn playing is tonguing. A new video making the rounds this weekend is the newest episode of Sarah´s Music, the classical music program by hornist Sarah Willis from Deutsche Welle TV. The episode of interest, “Music and Science,” may be accessed directly here. From the episode description,

Sarah and the team go to the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen, Germany to meet scientists who are using the latest MRI and Motion Capture methods to find out exactly what goes on inside a musician´s body whilst playing an instrument. Sarah talks to kinesiology professor Peter Iltis, head of the MRI department in Göttingen, Prof. Jens Frahm and motion capture specialist Erwin Schoonderwaldt.

“The good part” starts about 1/2 way through the show and it is well worth watching.

The topic is of huge interest as, so far as I know, no horn teacher out there has X-ray vision! I believe that the Willis episode is part of a larger MRI horn study involving Iltis and others, looking not just at tonguing but also at the use of the tongue and oral cavity in general. I understand from recent posts on the Facebook feed of Eli Epstein Productions that Iltis also did MRI studies at the Max Planck Institute with Epstein and with Richard Seraphinoff, and that Seraphinoff fashioned the horn that was used. (He used a similar horn, plastic tubing connected to a natural horn corpus, for practice when I traveled with him on a road trip years ago. And yes, it is the same Peter Iltis of Dämpfer Mitt fame. A brief review is here).

It is a great topic that only recently could be studied safely. Last year I was able to see my own tonguing via ultrasound when assisting a student of mine, Alex Austin, with his Barrett honors thesis project here at Arizona State. I feel I have a very clear handle on how I tongue but, at the same time, I feel sure that certainly I have taught people who used rather different tonguing motions and that the descriptions of tonguing in some well known, older horn books can’t possibly be physiologically accurate. I have tried to address that issue various places in my Horn Matters writings, and for an overview with a connection to this article check my review of the recent publication by Eli Epstein, Horn Playing from the Inside Out (begins here).

Modern MRI studies have opened up this study further in a new, safer way, and I certainly look forward to seeing more of the findings from these MRI studies. [UPDATE: There is another MRI horn video online here. Video quality not as high as you might wish, but includes a close look at Beethoven 3 (starting about half way into the video) with a focus on the larynx and vocal chords.]

Until then, there is an older and not nearly so safe study you can check out on YouTube. I wrote about it in a bit more depth in an article back in 2011 (here) and also in 2010 (here, with a focus on jaw position), but in short it is actual X-ray video of horn playing, filmed as a part of Joseph A. Meidt’s 1967 dissertation, “A Cinefluorographic Investigation of Oral Adjustments for Various Aspects of Brass Instrument Performance.” The video (direct link here) is actually quite similar to what you see in the new Sarah Willis episode, with her MRI video being clearer and offering more detail about the interaction of the back of the tongue and the throat. The big technical difference is this one is performed on a valved horn and allows performance of scale passages into the low range. It is still a little spooky to watch as it is X-ray video, but worth checking out as you can clearly see the tongue motion and jaw position changes by range.

And to close, to those that say looking at videos like these encourages paralysis by analysis, I understand your point but still would say you are better off approaching things from a physiologically accurate direction, and these resources can help in understanding that physiology.

University of Horn Matters