Tonguing Basics for Saxophone Players

I’ve been making YouTube videos about playing the saxophone since 2016, and over the past 5 or 6 years I’ve covered a lot of topics. However, one very crucial element that I have not yet made a video on is articulation.

That changes today. Tn this video I’ll go over the basics that everyone learning the saxophone needs to know.

Even if you’ve been playing for a while you should watch this video as I may cover some things you don’t already know, or present you with a helpful alternative perspective. If you teach saxophone, you may want to share this video with your students.

Articulation & Tonguing

We have 2 main ways to start a tone on the saxophone, the air attack and the tongue attack.

You can start a note just by blowing into the saxophone.

At some point the air velocity is enough to get that reed vibrating and create a tone.

A tongue attack is where you use the tongue to control the precise moment that the reed vibrates and produces that tone.

There are pros and cons to both of these methods as well as appropriate times to use them and less appropriate times.

When and where you use the various attacks is a matter of style and that’s a topic for another video. I just want to cover the mechanics of each with you today.

Air Attack

Obviously, an air attack might cause you to be less rhythmically accurate with the start of your note.

It is also highly impractical when it comes to repeated notes as you would have to start and stop the air stream over and over which is not desirable and could make you hyperventilate.

The tongue attack can make you more rhythmically accurate and also allow you to repeat notes. However, tongues can get tired pretty quickly and can only move so fast.

Stopping a Note

There’s another part of this that often gets overlooked and that is the other side of the note: how it ends.

You can also stop a note in 2 ways.

  1. Cut off the air stream
  2. Stop the reed from vibrating with your tongue.

Whichever type of attack you use, the goal should be to start each note with the ideal sound and intonation. That’s where things get a bit tricky.

It is very common for players to make adjustments in the beginning of their note. Sometimes the embouchure is too tight at the start of a note or the note comes out louder than we wanted, and we have to adjust. 

This is where long tones can be our best friend. Playing long tones can be a great opportunity to practice getting a consistent tone throughout each note.

I generally practice my long tones with an air attack since this allows me to get used to producing a tone without any movement in my mouth.

Tongue Attack

The act of tonguing notes can actually cause changes in our embouchure that we don’t want. So while I don’t use a lot of air attacks when playing, I practice with them as a way of eliminating a potentially problematic variable.

Now let’s cover the mechanics of starting notes with the tongue. 

The most important thing to realize is that the tongue is not making the sound. It’s still the air stream causing the reed to vibrate that creates the tone, the tongue is just acting like an o- off switch.

If your saxophone were a house, your air stream is the electricity and the tongue is the light switch. You need to have the electricity (air stream) first to get the lights to come on.

So before you tongue a note, there needs to be air pressure built up behind it. Try blowing air and then sealing off your mouth with your tongue while maintaining the air pressure. I’m still pushing that air but it can’t get out.

As soon as I release my tongue from the roof of my mouth the air starts again at the same velocity.

You can do this exact same thing with the saxophone mouthpiece. With your tongue resting gently on the reed, start the air pressure. The moment you release your tongue the tone should start.

You can use the tongue to stop a note in the same way. While you are holding a note, touch your tongue to the reed again to stop the vibration and the note will abruptly stop.

You could also cut off the air stream to stop the note.

Notice the difference in sound between those two options

Articulating in Music

If you are playing a series of notes you’re going to have to choose whether to tongue them or slur them.

The word “slur” here refers to connecting those notes with the air. When slurring, you don’t tongue between each note.

Typically in any given musical phrase, you would tongue the first note to get a nice clear attack and then use a mixture of articulations depending on your stylistic choices.

Often, the articulations are implied on the sheet music.  A rounded line over the top of the phrase indicates that we want to connect all of those notes.

There are tons of nuances you can add when it comes to articulation, of course, but that’s beyond the scope of this particular video.

Keep the Power On

If you are playing a series of notes tongued or slurred, It’s very important that you keep the air stream steady as you play. You do not want to be starting and stopping your air with each note.

That’s one of the pitfalls with tonguing. We want to keep that air stream constant regardless of what we are doing with our tongue. Remember the air stream is like the electrical current that’s always present so that when we flip the switch, the lights come right on.

Try practicing anything you already know how to play, with these 2 basic articulation patterns. All tongued and all slurred.

Then you can try practicing with a mixture of the 2.

You’re going to come across all of these in written music and it does take some practice to get your tongue ready for this.

Tongue Placement

This is one of those things in the saxophone world that is inexplicably controversial. Some people say use the tip of your tongue, others say use the back, others say stick your tongue to the back of your bottom teeth and use the middle of it on the reed.

Here’s the correct answer. Each one of us is different physically. Some people have longer or shorter tongues and larger or smaller mouths.

Your personal physiology, and the amount of mouthpiece in your mouth, is going to determine the optimal tongue placement for you. 

Experiment and try to find the sweet spot where you can articulate notes cleanly without disrupting your embouchure and while staying relaxed.

I’ve added this video to my free beginner/refresher course, so if you haven’t already watched the other videos in this series check them out here.

That’s all for now, looking for more lessons on Saxophone Fundamentals? Check out the “Saxophone Embouchure Tutorial.”

Also be sure to follow BetterSax on Facebook, InstagramLinkedIn, and YouTube to stay up to date with us for news, giveaways, and other saxophone tips and tricks.

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