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10 Steps to Slap Tonguing on the Bass Clarinet

While in graduate school, I determined the repertoire for my fall recital in the Spring. Unfortunately, in the middle of the summer, I received an email from a colleague informing me that because of an injury he would no longer be able to perform a bass clarinet duet with me as originally planned. I searched for new repertoire and settled on a piece by Michael Lowenstern. However, I was a bit reluctant to commit to performing it as the piece required slap tonguing.

Needless to say, it was two months out and I hadn’t even tried to slap tongue. Naturally, I watched lots of YouTube videos and read a few blog posts. The reports were bleak -- nearly everyone reported that it took them months (or years!) to learn. Not only that, several reported that in the process of learning they either bruised or cut their tongue… or broke a lot of reeds!

Thankfully, it only took me a month, I never broke a reed, or hurt my tongue. Whew! I say this to let you know that it IS possible. Be persistent and follow these tips.

But first, it is important to know what exactly slap tonguing is.

Slap tonguing is a percussive effect created on single reed instruments. It is created by the reed popping against the mouthpiece when it is released after forming a suction with the tongue.

It is much easier to achieve on the bass clarinet, rather than the soprano clarinet. This tutorial is primarily directed towards those learning on the bass clarinet, though some principles may transfer to the soprano clarinet.

So… how do you do it?

This is a bit trickier, but I’ll try to break it down into a step by step process that helped me as I learned.

  1. Practice creating suction with the tongue on a large reed away from the clarinet

  2. Slowly use less tongue to create the suction with the reed

  3. Put the clarinet reed on the mouthpiece and create the same suction without forming an embouchure (don’t blow any air yet!)

  4. Form an embouchure and then create the same suction (still don’t blow any air yet; and note the order of these steps -- form the embouchure before creating the suction)

  5. The next step was by far the most challenging for me: start to add air, be bold and courageous and don’t be afraid of whatever might come out of the clarinet!

  6. Voicing is also key here, on the bass clarinet, I tended to drop the back of my tongue significantly while I was slap tonguing. So as you learn the technique, pay attention to the rest of your tongue too. See how it compares to your normal tonguing position.

  7. As you try to incorporate the slap tongue into music, I suggest at times it may be necessary to tongue non-slapped sections with a much lower part of your tongue (rather than tip to tip). Some authors suggested anchor tonguing as a strategy to get your tongue accustomed to having more surface area touch the reed. For me, however, this was much more of a hindrance. Rather, I found that this led me to not actually have enough surface of the tongue on the reed (as some of it was hiding behind my teeth)

  8. Think about it as articulation, rather than a special technique

  9. Once you start to get the hang of it, practice is various stages:

    1. Starting a single note with a slap tongue

    2. “Stopped” slap tongues

    3. In the middle of a phrase

    4. In succession

  10. And as with any other technique, thinking about it musically. Once I integrated into music, sometimes I had trouble coordinating the slap tonguing and regular tip-to-tip articulation. But thinking about the musical context is really helpful for increasing this accuracy -- put it in your ear.

Regardless of how long this technique takes you to learn, I suggest spending only a few minutes a day on the technique. While the tongue is the fastest healing organ in the body, you don’t want to push it!

Also integral to me learning the technique so quickly was playing for other people, who know how to slap tongue, and getting feedback. One colleague kindly pointed out, that as I was attempted to slap tongue, I was actually sticking my tongue completely outside of my mouth! This feedback was indispensable. Do what you can and find help from those in your community.

Contact me and schedule a slap tonguing lesson! I'm happy to provide feedback and extra pointers.

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