Staccato Tonguing and Why You Need To Practice It

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This little gem I learned from Curtis James, trumpet player from Kalamazoo.

After driving my butt off to go play Mexican pop music (yeah that’s right) I arrive at the gig location.

Curtis James is there warming up and sounding really good on some tonguing stuff. I ask Curtis James about this because my tonguing has always been my Achilles Heel – my greatest weakness and dirtiest little secret – Curtis James shows me the light.

If you tongue any given note as hard and as short as possible some interesting things start to go to work. First of all if you’re anything like I was you will have a hell of a time centering the note at all. This develops control.

Secondly, you’ll really feel the work load in your chops as they need to work overtime to keep the embouchure stable during the explosions inside your mouth. This develops strength.

Thirdly, your tongue will get very tired. If it doesn’t then you need to try to play shorter notes. Why? Because the staccato articulation trains not only the initial attack but also the movement of the tongue cut-off. This is a lot of movement per note and trains the tongue supremely well.

I practiced a very simple pattern very slowly on single notes. Something like this…

Practice Notes:

  1. Tempo needs to be slow enough to focus on centering each note at the point of attack. Strive to get shorter and shorter centered notes. Don’t worry about tempo increases either. I admit I did not take the metronome to these. However, I did work at a comfortable tempo every day and focused more on shorter, more accurate notes than speed.
  2. Only do a little bit of this at a time. It really does wear out your tongue and chops. If you need to hit it hard be smart about it. This got my articulation going VERY quickly. I never had success with traditional teachings (blow air, tongue just interrupts airstream, Tah, Dah, etc) and after only 3 or 4 days I noticed dramatic improvement. Therefore I decided to practice this on every single note in my playing range damn near every single day. It took about an hour per day – NOT because the drill takes that long but rather because I stopped at the slightest notion of fatigue and RESTED – coming back only after I more or less felt fresh.
  3. I found it useful to imagine the tongue doing ALL of the work to create the note. No air, no chops, nothin’ Something like a ballpoint hammer hitting a bell. DING! When you get it right there is a very distinct “click” that you will feel and understand inside your body. In the same way that a very clean and efficient lip slur has a “click” these too have a “click” (It was when Curtis told me this that I knew I should follow his advice 🙂 ) This is best found by working with fresh muscles and focusing on form. NOTE: When I say tongue “as hard as possible” what I mean is thinking about it like the crack of the whip. There is a lot of energy being used explosively in a very small target area. Work to become more precise and back off volume as you develop control.
  4. Rest, rest, and uhhhh, rest.

Work on this for a few weeks/months/years and once it’s happening apply it to linear movement. How does this relate to Jazz Lead Trumpet?

  1. Improved muscular control (this in itself leads to just about everything good in trumpet playing)
  2. The ability to hit every note with sureness, center, and clarity
  3. (Back to the ballpoint hammer) The ability to strike upper register notes even when your chops are tired OR to prevent fatigue in the first place. When you can peg notes like this you are in it to win it. This is an idea Jay Saunders used to relate in our trumpet lessons and when you can understand it through practice you’ve got a pretty nice trick in your bag.
  4. (And in my opinion one of the cooler results) Improving the back stroke of your articulation will add new life to the improvisatory nature of your lead playing and you will be STYLIN” (I’ll later post audio clips of what I mean so stay tuned!)

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