As a young clarinetist my musical training did not include - as with many high school players -  a clarinet teacher; he was my "band director," and in particular, a trumpet player. He - without having the expertise as a clarinetist - was unable to instruct me as to the position my tongue should remain for tonguing or slurring. The tonguing habit that grew from this lack of knowledge would plague me for years to come. I anchored the tip of my tongue behind my bottom teeth and pushed the flat middle part against the reed. Good disguise and rather bizarre! I had a reasonably good legato-tonguing, but not very fast and the intonation flat in the upper register. The Mendelssohn Scherzo from "Midsummer Night's Dream,"  the Sibelius Symphony No. 1, or the Bizet Symphony in C Major were really out of the question. It was in graduate school at the Juilliard School of Music, that the great French clarinetist Daniel Bonade once and for all, set me straight.

Mendelssohn - Scherzo from "Midsummer Night's Dream"

Sibelius - Symphony No. 1 - Scherzo

Bizet - Symphony in C Major - Movement IV

Tonguing - in the interpretation of many players and non-players - is synonymous for "staccato" (short notes played very detached) rather than stroking each note with the tongue, the length of which depends solely by the tempo and style of  the music being played. Young and inexperienced students - as well as some more advanced - conceptually think of tonguing as being only short no matter what the style or speed and of course, those who think of nothing other than displaying to the clarinet world a machine-gun like staccato at a whirlwind speed, and come away with a smug attitude as though to say "...take that you slow-tonguer."  The important concept is not whether one is able to tongue at any speed, but what the length of the notes should be in relation to the music.

The Mozart Clarinet Concerto K. 622 - third movement - is a perfect example of facile tongue action.  The openning phrase - shown below - requires a very fast, light tongue stroke, completely devoid of a labored or strident character.   

Click on music to play


There are three successive steps to be taken to establish good tonguing techniques. They are: Inhale - Blowing -  Release (tongue).

A.  Breath

 A full breath is taken into the lungs using the proper diaphragmatic support.

B. Tongue on the Reed

Place the tip of the tongue on the tip of the reed lightly.

C. Blowing

Exert air pressure with diaphragmatic support forcing the air to come up and out through the instrument. Up to this point, there should be no sound from the instrument because the tip of the tongue is still on the tip of the reed, thereby preventing the reed from vibrating.

D.  Release

The tongue is released from the reed quickly and lightly for the tone to begin at the precise moment required. ONLY THE TIP OF THE TONGUE MOVES. Keep the tip firm and pointed and the rest of the tongue and throat as relaxed as possible. Practice this motion until the beginning tone is clear and clean. ALWAYS WITHDRAW THE TONGUE QUICKLY AND LIGHTLY. After the tone has been started properly, sustain it for several seconds and then return the tongue to the reed quickly and lightly. Repeat the starting and stopping of the tone two or three times during one breath. Use the metronome as a time keeper for the speed of the tongue and for counting the beats of rest.

An important point to remember is that the pressure of the embouchure must remain the same - before, during, and after the beginning of the tone. HOLD STILL! DON'T MOVE! Only the fingers and the tip of the tongue move.

1. "TA-EE" POSITION: Many times players start a tone which sounds something like "ta-ee" with the pitch going higher on the "ee."

a. This is caused by the embouchure being too loose at the beginning of the tone, and tightening a fraction of a second later.

b. The tongue starts in the "ta" position and changes to the "ee" position.

2. "TEE-AH" POSITION: This is the tight to loose embouchure

a. The embouchure is tight at the start of the tone and immediately "loosened".

b.  The tongue moves from the "tee" to the "ah" position.

Other variations may occur such as too-ee; tah-ee; dee-ah; du-ah etc. All of these result from movement in the embouchure or tongue, or both.

3. TO SYLLABLE OR NOT TO SYLLABLE: For consistent, accurate and smooth articulation, the tongue must move to the reed in the same path each time. Short or long strokes are not the issue, but rather how they are finalized. The tongue stroke must have a certain character, that character is the use of a SYLLABLE. The question is what syllable to use. The "D" syllable has a somewhat softer starting tone than the "T" syllable even though it may appear that more precision might be on the side of "T." This writer strongly endorses the letter N or "NU" for all tongue strokes. It keeps the tongue high, it is very smooth - especially for the legato tongue necessary  in the trio of the Beethoven Symphony No. 8 - and can be employed for a short light staccato by including the letter T at the end, giving the syllable "NU-T."

Beethoven - Symphony No. 8 - Movement III

We hear very often the word ATTACK applied to any stroke of the tongue to begin the tone. Webster says: "to fall upon with force; to assault." And that is exactly how many players react to that word. Remember, the breath is the important factor in starting the tone. The tongue only releases the tone; the amount of breath determines whether it be piano, forte, accented, sforzando, etc.

4. STOPPING THE TONE. Everyone is not in total agreement that the correct way to stop a tone is by stopping the breath. Those who insist that all tones must be stopped with the breath, must face some of the following situations:

Situation 1. After inhaling and "locking-up" the breath diaphragmatically, some players release the air support for each note tongued. This sounds like "tawtawtaw," a very unmusical, and extremely long tongue stroke. This style can be noticed by observing the portion of the neck - just below the 'Adam's apple' - which will pulse for each tongued note.

Situation 2. All notes played in the above fashion are LONG and are pushed along with strong pulses from the diaphragm. There is no opportunity to apply any variance of length because the tongue is not being used to stop the notes.

Situation 3. If one is  accustomed to using only Situation 1 for articulation, when a short articulation is necessary, the tongue stroke is many times too short and very unmusical. 

Situation 4. When stopping the tone with the breath and then restarting the tongue stroke, the constant supply of air so necessary for good articulation and musical flow is interrupted.

5. A BETTER METHOD. The tongue moves quickly and lightly to the reed, stopping the vibration of the reed, which stops the tone. The tongue is then in position to release the next tone. When first attempted, the result may produce a bit of a harsh sound, but with slow constant practice, the tones stopped with the tongue can sound just as musical as tones stopped with the breath, and will enable the player to articulate rapid passages with good taste and precision. We probably agree that many players overdo the "tut" sound when making rapid tonguing, and that those notes are usually too short. Articulation (tongued) passages that are too short create an undesirable tension in the tongue movement, thereby preventing the tongue from moving in a free manner with rapidity. In "Ein Heldenleben" of Richard Strauss, in a passage in three-four meter,  he asks that the tongued notes be played "sehr scharf und spitzig" (very short and pointed).

Richard Strauss - "Ein Heldenleben"

 This passage is at about a quarter note to seventy-two, which can be executed quite easily with the effect desired. But, if the same passage were to be played in one, the dotted half note at the same speed, it would be impossible to play the passage without thinking of tongue movement - not short staccato.


 Learning to tongue quickly is the goal of every clarinetist. In order to do so, we must teach the tip of the tongue to move rapidly and with as little motion as possible. DON'T THINK SHORT, THINK TONGUE MOVEMENT. In all fast tongued passages, rapid tongue movement is the key not the intention to always play short.  One cannot maintain extraordinarily fast tongued passages with a very short tongue stroke and not become extremely tense in the embouchure. This ultimately will cause the action of the tongue to slow-down and to become fatigued to the point where the entire chin will quiver out of control.



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