In my previous blog post I addressed several prerequisites to clean articulation. Now I would like to continue the discussion with strategies to improve articulation, increase clarity, and improve your students’ ability to perform in varied styles.
There are two main variables within style as it relates to articulation. First, the front of the note can be pronounced with differing degrees of intensity. For instance, a stronger accented note may require a “toh” syllable while “doh” may be suitable for a lighter onset such as staccato. The next variable to consider is the space between notes. A staccato articulation usually will leave a great deal of space while a legato tongue will have very little separation. Regardless, it is very important to note that style contrast cannot alter the fundamentals of tone production!
For optimal tone production, it is important to maintain a characteristic vowel shape regardless of the style. For low brass musicians I recommend an “OH” vowel. This means that the oral cavity and throat should be positioned as if you are saying “OH” while playing. It is also important to conceptualize the sound of each note as “brick shaped.” This requires focused breath support at the onset, even support and speed through the body, and an “OH” release at the end. Note shape can be visualized through the wave form analysis feature on apps such as Tonal Energy.
How do we produce an onset with a consistent level of clarity? It begins with “air pressure.” If a faucet is said to have sufficient water pressure it means that the stream of water is strong and fast. Likewise, an instantaneous and focused air stream will improve clarity significantly. But it is important to remember that without water there is no water pressure, and there is not air pressure without a significant amount of wind.
Improper tongue placement is often a cause of poor articulation. For low brass musicians I recommend a forward tongue placement with the tip of the tongue touching the middle of the top teeth. At times muddy articulation can be fixed by directing students to touch their teeth with the tip of their tongue. Speech and articulation correspond to one another and tongue placement can be further refined through verbal practice. Direct the student to say a rhythm to the desired syllable. If a student is too harsh a softer consonant such as “doh” may be useful. If their tonguing is weak a stronger syllable such as “toh” may be appropriate. If the student is used to moving their jaw while they speak, they may also do so while playing their instrument. Whenever possible, excess physicality is to be avoided.
Breathing Gym techniques such as the “bow and arrow” or “paper airplane” can be used as a kinesthetic reinforcement of articulation. I strongly advocate the use of “wind patterning” to practice breath support and articulation. This requires the musician to blow air and tongue without vibrating the lips. This can be executed away from the instrument or through the instrument while fingering. Additionally, the intensity of the air can be measured by wind patterning onto a piece of paper. A focused onset will sound as if the paper is being flicked with your fingers.
In conclusion, these prerequisites and techniques are a means to an end - to have the physical ability to perform in varied styles, and through active listening, to communicate a unified musical message.
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