Articulation…tonguing notes, it seems like a pretty simple concept, right? Well, not exactly. It has taken me quite a while and a ton of practice to figure out how to articulate my lines correctly when I’m soloing. If you think about it, articulation is not really focused on in jazz education when compared to the time spent on teaching concepts like chord progressions and scales, but it is just as important is terms of learning the style of jazz.
When we start to learn jazz early on, educators usually teach jazz articulation by showing us a major scale in eighth notes with the second note tied to the third note, the fourth note to the fifth, and so on, with the instruction that swinging is tonging the upbeats and slurring to the downbeats:
In reality, playing this example without listening to a great recording is like trying to pronounce Ich kann nicht schwingen without hearing it pronounced first by someone fluent in German. With just a visual representation of sound, we are pretty much fending for ourselves.
Just as we should listen to recordings and other experienced players to learn the stylistic and harmonic subtleties of the music, we should be listening to the great improvisers to learn articulation.
The stylistic component inherent in your articulation is a very important part of your overall sound and time feel when you improvise. In other words, if your articulation is not locked in, it doesn’t matter what you are playing harmonically it will just sound off. Like playing long lines or navigating harmonically complex chord changes, mastering articulation takes a lot of work and should be a part of every practice session.
Articulation doesn’t have to all sound the same though. Listening to some of your favorite players, it becomes apparent that there are many different styles of articulation that sound equally good. Take a look at the video clips below of Clifford Brown and Clark Terry for instance. Clifford is very articulate, tonguing nearly every note while Clark Terry uses his own style of articulation called “doodle tonguing.”
Both sound really great and really swing even though they arise from different conceptions. Just like developing your own sound, everyone has their own personal approach to articulation based on what players have influenced them and the conception they have in their mind.
As I’ve worked on my own articulation, I have found that there are really three key areas that are vital to a flowing, swinging line; and surprisingly none of them involve the actual tongue. When I am practicing or soloing and my articulation is not working, it is always one of these three factors that I am forgetting that is causing the problem:
1. Air Flow
A consistent air flow is probably the most important factor in articulation, especially when playing a wind instrument. For horn players, air equals sound and if that flow is stopped we are out of luck. Make sure your articulated lines have the same air flow as a slurred line with an uninterrupted air stream continuing until the end of the line. A good rule to remember when practicing articulation is to slur the line first and then articulate it, keeping the air stream the same for both.
The next important area is having your fingers move in time with your articulation. Sometimes in keys that are less familiar to us, our fingers do not move evenly in time, so when we add an articulation the tongue and fingers don’t line up. Even a slight hesitation in the fingers can cause a problem with your tongue/finger coordination. I’ve found in my own practice that an articulation problem that I initially thought was related to the tongue was really due to lazy finger technique. The solution, get those fingers in shape and make sure they are swinging as well. One exercise that works is really pushing down the valves or keys so the motion will be ingrained in your muscle memory.
Articulation is directly tied to the style and feel of the lines we play and everything we improvise must connect with the time being played by the rhythm section. The articulation of our improvised lines is very important for the fact that it creates the time and swinging feel of our solos. To achieve this we must feel the time internally and execute it externally with our fingers and tongue. The best way to practice time I’ve found is to practice slowly with a metronome and then gradually speed up until you can articulate with ease at burnin’ tempos.
As far as the tongue is concerned, it is best to keep it as light as possible and let the air and fingers do the work. Really, when these three factors above are lined up, adding the tongue seems like a second thought. A common mistake that I first had was using too much tongue or articulating too heavily which caused the air stream to stop. Above all, make sure the air flow is constant and just use the tongue for accent in the line.
The first step to practicing articulation is to actually remember to articulate. Oftentimes when we practice scales and technique we end up slurring everything out of habit, when really we can be saving time by getting theory and articulation practice out of the same exercise. Next, make sure you are practicing with a metronome as you work on articulation in order to make sure you are playing in time and swinging.
Time and style are directly tied into articulation so it is important to include both of these when you are practicing your scales so that they become habit. You have enough to think about when you are improvising, so having your articulation automatic will be a big help.
A great way to ingrain articulation into your playing, besides practicing scales and lines with a metronome, is to use bebop heads as your own personal articulation etudes. Tunes like Donna Lee or Bouncing with Bud are especially useful in working out your articulation on longer lines. First listen to the heads on great recordings and then copy the way the melodies are articulated.
At first, just try to imitate what you hear and don’t think about how you are doing it, then later after you have it, analyze what the tongue and air are actually doing. In this way, you will not only get the articulation and inflections down, but you will also be learning tunes. It may even be helpful to write in the articulation marks on a lead sheet so you will remember them. and then practice them till they are second nature as you would a classical etude.
- Record yourself soloing and practicing. As you listen back, ask yourself: “Is my articulation flowing and consistent throughout the line? Am I really swinging and playing with good time? Do I really sound like I think I do when I am playing? Remember, the recording doesn’t lie!
- Check out John McNeil’s book The Art of Jazz Trumpet. Even if you are not a trumpet player, there are some really useful articulation exercises in this book that go beyond the idea of just using ascending and descending scales.