How Articulating the Wrong Way Can Screw Up Your Sound

Saxophone ArticulationWhat if I were to tell you that by using your tongue properly (and yes, I realize that sounds kind of creepy), you can boost your tone quality up a good notch? You might think, “Well that doesn’t make sense! What about the embouchure, throat, air support, tonal concept, reed, mouthpiece? Aren’t those the things you need to get working properly to get a lovely sound?!”

Well of course, those things are just parts of the puzzle, but I’m here to tell you right here and right now that the way you articulate your notes also affects your tone quality – big time.

Saxophone Tonguing Pitfalls

Moving the Tongue Forwards and Backwards Instead of Top to Bottom

Next time you’re practicing your horn near a mirror, pay attention to your throat and see if it moves each time you articulate a note. If you see your throat moving while tonguing, then you know we’ve got a little problem on our hands. The movement of the throat is probably hindering the stream of air going into the instrument, which makes your sound that much smaller.  What’s happening here is that the tongue is probably moving forwards and then back with each articulation, and that, my friends, is stretching the throat up and down.

In addition, the tongue-heavy attack causes an abrupt and  transition between the touching and the release of the tongue, giving your sound an ugly harshness.

No good. 

Instead, try touching as little of the reed as possible with as little tongue as possible. The tongue should move up and down instead of forwards and back. To see this principle in action, try tonguing forwards and backwards, and then try tonguing up and down. I think you’re going to hear quite a difference.

Moving the Jaw Up and Down While Tonguing

Lord knows it’s easy enough for us saxophone players to clamp down on the reed at any given time. But in order to keep the lower jaw loose and set to allow for the maximum amount of reed vibration, we have to make sure that our tongue is not drawing the lower jaw up with it every time it touches the reed. Based on some of the wonderful tips I’ve gleaned from one of my favorite saxophone and music educators, Bill Plake, I recommend the following:

  • Get in front of a mirror and whisper ‘la-la-la.’ If you see your jaw bouncing up and down, it means that you don’t yet have that independence.
  • If you find your jaw tightening up when tonguing, work on this exercise as much as possible.
  • Take this same skill into your playing. While tonguing, see if your jaw is moving down with each attack. With a bit of practice, you’ll soon be able to articulate cleanly without causing unnecessary tension.

The Point

The point here is, don’t let the movement of your tongue affect the movement of air moving through the saxophone. Keep an eye out for the pitfalls mentioned above, and I guarantee you’ll be sounding noticeably better.