Tongue Twisters: Terrific Tips to Tackle Tonguing Trials and Tribulations

by Dr. Levana Cohen

From the studio of Dr. Levana Cohen

Ommy ies oothpicks oo angerine rees…What?!!  While we don’t know why Tommy Ties Toothpicks To Tangerine Trees, it serves as a good example for the importance of clear articulation.  Without proper articulation, music, just like sentences in language, loses expression, precision and clarity.  To speak…err…to play with clarity, precision, and expression, young musicians must learn to play with proper articulation.

Articulation is quite simply the act of starting and stopping the sound.

On a reed instrument there are basically two (accepted) ways to stop the sound.  One can either stop the sound by stopping one’s air or by stopping the vibration of the reed. 

The clarinetist often thinks of articulation as the starting and stopping of the vibration of the reed through the use of the tip of the tongue, hence the term tonguing.  There are some instances in which an experienced clarinetist might stop the sound by stopping his or her air however; this article will be focusing on keeping a well-supported steady stream of air flowing through the instrument as the sound is stopped by stopping the vibration of the reed with the tongue.

The following are sequential tips for the beginning clarinetist to form good tonguing habits.

1. Produce a well-supported sound 

  • The clarinetist must be able to produce a well-supported sound and be able to demonstrate good air support prior to learning how to tongue. 

  • The player should be able to maintain pitch and volume by keeping a constant, fast air stream, from the beginning of the note all the way through to the end of the note. 


A good way to introduce sound production to a beginner is by having them blow long tones through their mouthpiece and barrel.  Ideally, the student should play alongside the teacher (or a drone on a metronome/tuner) and match the sound they hear.  Depending on one’s barrel size, the pitch is usually a concert “F” or “F#”.

2. Say Tee Tee Tee

  • Keep it simple. If a person can say "Tee-Tee-Tee chances are they can easily tongue properly on the clarinet. 
  • Things to notice when one says Tee-Tee-Tee:

           Only the tip of the tongue moves and in so doing, it moves in an up and down motion not a            front to back motion.

           The back of the tongue is high in one's mouth. 

           The tip of the tongue flicks to alveolar ridge (the roof of the mouth between the upper two              front teeth)

3. Say Tee Tee Tee through the instrument

  • The player should not produce a sound on the instrument during this exercise. Rather, they should vocalize the sound Tee Tee Tee through the instrument. Again, the player should use their voice not the vibration of the reed to produce a sound during this exercise. 

4. Say Tee Tee Tee while producing a sound on the instrument

  • This time the player will produce a sound on the instrument normally by allowing the reed to vibrate. 
  • The player will first work on starting the sound by releasing the tongue from the reed saying Teeeeeeeeee.
  • Next, the player will start the sound by releasing the tongue from the reed but this time will continue to say Tee Tee Tee, articulating several times.
  • Sometimes this is all a player needs to tongue properly.

5. Try air playing while saying Tee, Tee, Tee

  • If the player is still struggling with articulation have them try blowing air through the instrument while releasing the tongue from the reed several times. 
  • This exercise is similar to #3 excerpt instead of vocalizing the sound Tee the player is blowing a steady stream of air through the instrument.

6. Try legato tonguing in slow motion

  • Sometimes, beginners have an adversity to touching the reed with their tongue. They say things like, "It tickles" or "It hurts" my tongue. This unfamiliar sensation of the vibrating reed against the tongue can be a surprising, intense feeling for some beginners. 
  • Have the student try resting their tongue on the reed gently, while the reed is still vibrating


             * The player can play through the syllable "Th" to achieve this. 

  • Next, the player will sustain a sound and rest their tongue on the reed while the reed is still vibrating and will work to articulate this way several times in a row in one breath. 


             * The player can say "Thhhhee," "Thhhhee," "Thhhhee" to achieve this. 

Levana Fb

Seattle born clarinetist Levana Cohen, is an avid performer and music educator.  Levana's artistry, dedication, and professionalism garner her repeat guest performances with numerous orchestras and chamber groups both nationally and internationally performing in such venues as Carnegie Hall, Symphony Space, The DiMenna Center, Flushing Town Hall and the 92ndY, sharing the stage and performing with such artists as Frank Morelli, William Purvis, Steven Taylor and the Emerson String Quartet

As a frequent artist-in-residence at the Banff Centre, Levana has participated in both woodwind master-classes and orchestral training programs there.  She has also performed several concerts with the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra under the direction of James Levine. 

Currently, Levana performs as principal clarinetist for the Astoria Symphony Orchestra and with the Trio D’Amour Wind Trio.  She can also be heard regularly in performance with North Shore Pro Musica and appears at universities nation-wide leading masterclasses, clinics and performing recitals and concertos.

Dr. Cohen holds both a Master of Music degree and Doctorate of Musical Arts degree from Stony Brook University under the tutelage of Daniel Gilbert.  She teaches clarinet at Suffolk County Community College, is a guest lecturer at Stony Brook University, coaches for the Metropolitan Youth Orchestras of NY, is a Vandoren Regional Artist, and operates her own private teaching studio in Port Washington, New York.

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