Monday, November 12, 2012

Small Muscle Athletics: Increasing single tongue articulation speed

As an oboist, have you ever considered yourself to be a small muscle athlete? I heard this term used during an Alexander Technique workshop years ago and it seemed kind of shocking at first.  I wanted to stubbornly protest,  "but I'm an artist-musician." Well, yeah,  that's true too. But the incredible precision and coordination needed for excellent technique means we have to pay careful attention to the physical elements of our work just like an athlete. So in reality we're BOTH small muscle athletes and artists all mixed into one.

One example of this is how we use our tongue. Our tongue is one of the most important muscles in the body with the primary purpose to both swallow food and articulate speech. But for us oboists, the tongue plays the role of a champion athletic muscle for our articulation technique. For optimal technique it's our responsibility to both know our maximum articulation speed and maintain or increase that speed through dedicated practice. In essence, tonguing rapidly is an athletic endeavor for the small muscle athlete musician. So to improve fluency and speed it's useful to think like an athlete and train like one too.

Step one: determine how fast you can single tone

How fast can you single tongue? It's important to know your current limits so that you have a baseline measurement for improvement.   If you don't know,  here's a simple test.

Set metronome at quarter=60, then play the following exercise:

Move metronome up one notch and continue until you can no longer articulate evenly and clearly with the metronome clicks.  That's your max articulation speed. Now write that number down and write down the date. I realize that most teachers/performers measure the maximum speed by how fast one can articulate 16th notes,  but I like to take things a step further and measure the quintuplet grouping. Why?  Because I feel it's a better indicator of how fast you can actually play 16th notes comfortably in a performance situation. The average maximum single tongue speed varies greatly between players, but most fall within the range of M.M= 112-130. If you're satisfied with your maximum articulation speed,   then practice this exercise a few times a week to maintain your technique.  Otherwise,  if you don't practice challenging articulation exercises regularly,  your speed will diminish over time as the muscles atrophy.

But what if you want to increase your articulation speed?
Then read on...

Step two: Exercises to improve your articulation speed

Want to increase your articulation speed? Try to approach the challenge like an athlete attempting to improve performance. For example, a runner who wants to increase speed will use interval training or track workouts to practice in short, repeated bursts of concentrated effort followed by recovery segments. The interval training must push current boundaries and be repeated over days and weeks for optimal improvement. A similar exercise can be used to to increase articulation speed for the oboe. No running track needed, but a metronome is essential. :)

This "interval training exercise" can increase your oboe articulation speed, only takes 5 min per day,  and can produce steady improvement over time with persistence. First,  play the above exercise (in any key/ series of pitches that you want) at half your previously identified maximum speed (PIMS). Then repeat the exercise at your (PIMS). Next play it again but at 75% of your maximum speed,  then back up to your PIMS. Then at one metronome mark higher than your PIMS,  then at 90% of your PIMS,  then again at one notch on the metronome higher than your (PIMS), then at the (PIMS), then again at one notch higher than the PIMS, then one last time at half of your NEWLY Identified Maximum Speed.

For example,  if M.M=120 is your PIMS for the above exercise,   practice an interval training exercise such as this:

1. First time through at quarter= 60
2. Second time at quarter=120
3. Third time at quarter=90
4. Fourth time at quarter=120
5. Fifth time at quarter=126
6. Sixth time at quarter= 108
7. Seventh time at quarter=126
8. Eighth time at quarter=120
9. Ninth time at quarter= 126
Final time at quarter=63

Practice this for an entire week,  then next week your new PIMS will be quarter=126

Again,  think like an athlete in training: use only the effort necessary for the given task and pay careful attention to what you are experiencing physically. As you practice this exercise, think about putting only the very tip of the reed in your mouth, use light motions of the tip of the tongue, and play in short practice intervals with short recovery breaks too (otherwise your tongue will get tired quickly!). Make sure that neither your jaw muscles nor the back of your tongue are tense. Maintain proper flexibility and openness in your embouchure to allow lower pitches to speak with clarity.  Constant mental subdivision is also (of course) essential for accuracy.

You can practice this exercise for a number of weeks to slowly yet solidly increase your articulation speed. Make sure to keep track of your maximum speeds attained and write it down so you don't forget where you left off at your last practice session. Add variety and challenge yourself  by practicing these rhythms on scales or triads, etc instead of single pitches each measure. I've had students use this structure over the course of a semester and really be astonished at how much they've improved! However, after a point,  you will find that you just aren't able to increase your articulation speed.
And that brings us to two more articulation techniques:  double tonguing and ricochet tonging (which is a really useful and easy to learn technique I learned from a lesson with oboist Rebecca Henderson many moons ago). Stay tuned for the next post that will explore these two special articulation techniques.

Until then, wishing you mindful, challenging articulation speed practicing!

Oboe and out,

The Oboist


  1. That's so cool! I wish I'd learned this way back when. I like that you could make slight improvements and by writing them down, actually see that you're improving.


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  3. Thanks so much for making this exist. A slow tongue has been a plague to me for two years.