How Tongue Placement Relates to Range

by Weston Sprott

Originally published to

Q: Hi Weston,

Can you explain with a bit more detail as to how the tongue level you mentioned can be actually practiced. You mentioned the whistling technique and I conceptually understand it but it's kinda tricky for me to apply it in on the instrument. Do you use the syllable from low Ah to high Eee?

Right now, I can produce decent tones all the way from low up to middle Bb just above the staff with the Ah syllable but any higher than that, I just simply can't produce a sound since I'm disciplined enough to not force anything out by not using any tension or mouthpiece pressure. I'm almost convinced it's the problem with my tongue placement or shape if you like, which doesn't direct the higher air stream properly.




Hi there! Thanks for writing in. To answer your question, I do think that the tongue has to be placed in different positions for different registers. However, this isn't something that I consciously think about all the time. It happens a little more naturally. Obsessing over this type of thing can sometimes create more trouble than it's worth. For the most part, you can just hear the pitch in your head, try to sing it out of the instrument, and a lot of these tongue issues will naturally fall into place. In general, I don't think you want to be constantly overthinking where the back of your tongue is while you're playing, but if you feel like you have a real problem it is worth double checking to make sure nothing weird is going on. Basically, here is what I think is normal positioning for the BACK of the tongue as it relates to different registers....

Low to Middle Register = Low Back of the Tongue

Sing the syllable "AH" or "OH" as if you were saying the word "Tall" or "Toad". You will notice that the back of your tongue lays completely flat along the bottom of the mouth. This tongue placement leads to the air moving in slightly slower and warmer fashion than if the back of the tongue were more raised.

High Register = High Back of the Tongue

Sing the syllable "EE" as though you were saying word "Deed". You will notice that the back of your tongue is now raised. In fact, you will probably notice that the back of your tongue is actually touching your top row of molars on both sides. This placement leads to the air moving in a slightly faster and cooler fashion than if the back of the tongue were more lowered.

If you want something that falls in between, go for the syllable "OO" as is you were saying the word "Food". With this syllable you will notice that the tongue is somewhere in between the two syllables previously mentioned.

Long story short, I would play slow scales, preferably in whole notes at a quarter note equals 60. Start in the lower register using the "AH" or "OH" syllable, whichever feels most natural to you. Then slowly work your way up the scale maintaining this vowel sound for as long as it feels easy and natural. For me, I feel like my tongue starts arching a little bit after I ascend past the F above the bass clef staff. Go slowly enough that you can take note of exactly what is happening. Experiment with different amounts of arching and see what works best for you.

If you say that you start having some tone production/quality issues above middle Bb, my guess is that tongue placement is not the primary source of your issue. Tongue arching is usually something that gets more consideration about an octave above the register you're talking about. Rather, you probably need make sure that you have enough air moving easily past an open aperture. Work to make sure that as you ascend your corners remain solid/firm, the aperture remains open, the lips remain flexible enough to vibrate easily and the air is flowing freely. Without knowing you, my guess is that you tighten up too much and get too muscular as you ascend instead of staying flexible and letting the air do the work. Simply put, open the hole and let more air go through it.

Lastly, you stated... "I'm disciplined enough to not force anything out by not using any tension or mouthpiece pressure." "Tension" and "mouthpiece pressure" aren't the end of the world. You just have to make sure that they are appropriately used. A slight bit of tension in the corners can be a good thing. Tension in the lips or in the release of the air... not such a good thing. Mouthpiece pressure is necessary. Excessive mouthpiece pressure is detrimental. Hold out your hand, palm facing up, and place the mouthpiece on your hand with the shank pointing to the ceiling, as though your palm is your lips. Feel the amount of pressure the mouthpiece places on your hand? That's about how much pressure you want to feel when the mouthpiece is on your face. That's natural. There has to be a certain amount of pressure to create a seal. Just don't overdo it.

Good luck!


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