Monday, November 5, 2012

Articulation in More Detail

Like the orator who studies elocution to clearly enunciate words, we as oboists  practice to refine our ability to properly articulate notes.  We must understand both how articulations are formed as well as how to execute them efficiently. In addition, we can develop a sizeable vocabulary of articulation qualities that can be used effectively for expressive ends. Beginning with the basic process of sounding a note from silence, we will review basic articulations, then explore a variety of articulation pronunciations for musical expression.

The process of articulation involves careful collaboration and application of the tongue, the air and the reed. The air is the fuel that propels that reed into vibration and sustains sound production through the use of air support. The tongue functions as a tool that punctuates the air moving into the reed. When combined, each articulated note consists of an attack, duration and release.

Beginning a note from silence involves a basic five-step process. First, form the embouchure around the reed. The lips should surround the reed, but the reed must be inserted just far enough into the mouth to allow the tip to be free of lip flesh. Second, place the tip of the tongue on the reed. Third, start blowing air. By contacting the tip of the tongue with the reed opening before the air is set in motion, uncontrolled and unreliable articulations are avoided. To prevent a hissing sound before the note is heard, the oboist must be certain that the air is not blown through the reed before the tongue is placed on the reed. Next, remove the tongue from the reed while maintain steady air support. Finally, the tongue is placed on the reed to create the next articulation. Note that articulation is created by withdrawing the tongue from the reed, not the movement of the tongue onto the reed.

The following is a useful exercise to practice how a note is articulated from silence. Advanced players: don't skim through this without testing--you may likely find room for improvement!  The goal: to create an even sound from initial creation through the entire duration of the note. The beginnings of notes should be noiseless and take nothing from the tone. Seek a full-spectrum tone at attack with no explosive sounds at the beginning of the note. A small portion of the tongue, combined with a steady stream of air and an unconstructed throat are essential components to success in creating articulations. The notes in the exercise that are followed by rests should end gracefully with the air, not the tongue. The tongue can be placed on the reed as soon as the air has closed off the sound of the preceding note. The embouchure may need to be adjusted as the intervals become larger. For instance, more of an “eee” embouchure may be needed for the higher notes, while more of an “oooh” embouchure for the lower notes may be necessary. Never pinch or “chew” the note with the embouchure or jaw and make sure the articulation happens clearly at the metronome click.

Use of the Tongue

Enunciation of the first note immediately provides the presence and spirit of a work. Much like the varied strokes from a painter’s paintbrush, by acquiring the ability to create different lengths and qualities of articulation, an oboist can add variety and subtle shadings to a musical line. The forcefulness, amount, and region of the tongue used to contact the reed determine the quality and length of articulation. To learn the myriad of qualities possible in oboe articulation, pronunciations are a helpful starting point. I suggest first practicing the pronunciations below by saying the following sounds out loud, without the oboe.

"t" and "d" articulations:

"tEE" as in the word "teeming"
"tAAH" as in the word "Taj Mahal"
"tOO" as in the word "tool"

"dEE" as in the word "deep"
"dAAH" as in the word "daughter"
"dOO" as in the word "doom"

  "t" and "d" articulations are the most frequently used articulations for playing oboe. For notes that begin with a "t" articulation, the tongue is slightly curved and pointed and should lightly touch the reed and quickly spring away. "t" articulations are particularly useful for short and rapid notes. Try the above exercise using "t" articulations.  With "d" articulations, the tip of the reed is touched with a portion of the tongue that is slightly further from the tip than with "t" articulations. "d" articulations can be useful for smooth, legato articulations and should have a less "explosive" beginning than "t" articulations. The "d" pronunciation should be smooth,  but never dull or heavy. Now try the above exercise again, but with "d" articulations. 

In each case,  the tongue will no longer be articulating against the teeth and hard palate as when pronouncing "t" or "d", but instead on the reed, so it will feel slightly different. This is because the  tongue will be touching the reed (which is of course inserted between the lips and teeth) and is therefore placed lower than when articulating speech. In every case the tongue should move freely and lightly without tension. Only the front portion of the tongue is needed to create articulations. To make sure that the jaw is not moving,  practice in front of a mirror or place a small mirror on your stand and observe what is happening.

Two special pronunciations: "th" and "tum" 
(with thanks to Elaine Douvas for teaching me this!!)

"tH" as in the word "than"
"tum" as in the word "tumble" or "teem" like the word "team"

The "th" pronunciation is for "silent" articulations. The tongue is less pointed than with "t" articulations and allows for a more diffuse beginning to the sound. This articulation is particularly useful for smooth connections between notes in a slow tempo. Try the above exercise now with "th" articulations.

The "tum" articulations are most commonly incorporated with these rhythms:

The "m" sound is created by surrounding the reed with the lips at the end of the note.  It should be used at the end of notes to give them a sense of "travel"at its closure and prepare for the succeeding short, lifted note.  This pronunciation can be experienced in the following excerpt from the slow movement in Beethoven's Symphony no. 3. The opening rhythm is most expressive (and convincing!) with the syllables "tum-tah-taah":

Here's a recording of the Beethoven Symphony No. 3 with absolutely exquisite playing by oboist Marc Lifschey and the Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell conducting:

Listen carefully to your articulated notes. Notice if the short notes have the same quality as the longer tones. The best tone quality on the oboe is achieved by the air flow of a pure vowel. For this reason, practice to minimize the pressurized "t" or "d" at the beginning of the sound and emphasize the sustained vowel sound (created by the shape of the oral cavity and back of tongue) instead. The vowel sounds in the above pronunciations are capitalized for this important reason.

 All of the above pronunciations are a teaching tool to learn how different positions and portions of the tongue can affect articulation. Once these qualities are mastered, they can be used to cultivate variety in articulated passages. In the next post I'll explore ways to practice articulation variety for expressive ends. Until then, I wish you thoughtful, patient, and creative practicing.

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

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