The Tongue Controls Everything!

The aspect of the Tongue Controlled Embouchure that people find to be the strangest, but is most fundamental, is the idea of playing with the tongue in between the teeth. Over time the way that the tongue is used is the aspect of Jerome Callet’s teaching that has changed the most. In the early days he only recognised the use of the tongue for articulation. In the 1986 edition of Trumpet Yoga he explained the following:

I use the tongue through the teeth in all registers. With the unrolled lips, touch the top lip with the tip of the tongue. The simplest explanation is to tongue by “spitting a particle from the tip of the lip”. When you use this tonguing through the teeth you will use more air than when tonguing behind the teeth. The tone will be richer and fuller, especially in the upper register. if you tongue behind the teeth the throat will be too tense and will restrict the free flow of air. Both intonation and projection will improve if you learn to tongue through the teeth.

This explanation is very similar to that which you can find in many trumpet methods. There is a list of such methods that you can see on this page. In fact, seeing how common this instruction was in the past really brings it into question why teachers in the 20th Century have made a u-turn on such an important, game-changing aspect of playing.

What Difference Does It Make?

This question is best answered by referring to this two sources. Firstly J. B. Arban’s explanation of how a tone is produced on a brass instrument. He clearly describes how it is necessary to allow air pressure to build up in the mouth behind the tongue between each articulated note. This concept is known as onset pressure. In the second source; More Air, Less Air, What Is Air? by Kruger, McLean and Kruger, which you should read here; onset pressure is defined as the minimum amount of intra oral pressure required before a tone is commenced. There are very few modern brass playing methods that directly demonstrate any attempt to understand or apply this concept. Superchops, TCE, and Jeff Smiley’s The Balanced Embouchure are the only modern methods that demonstrate knowledge of the proven fact that tone, pitch and dynamics are controlled by manipulating the air pressure inside the mouth by resisting (fighting) the flow of air. All of these methods advocate articulating with the tongue on the lips.

There are other positive side effects to playing with your tongue between your teeth.

  1. Open Jaw. You cannot touch your lips with your tongue if your jaw is closed. This ensures the ability for air to get to the lips by not allowing the player to close their jaw as they ascend in pitch.
  2. Bringing the tongue forward prevents it from blocking the throat. Many players believe that they struggle to play with an “open throat”. Little to they realise that it is their retracting tongue that causes the problem they feel.
  3. Clean, precise and consistent attacks at all dynamics. Completely eliminating note production problems. There is literally no risk of sound not coming out of the instrument if you tongue on the lips.

Striking Or Anchored?

The difference between how tonguing is described above and how it is done with TCE is that players who use TCE actually anchor the tip of their tongue to the bottom lip.

This is a natural evolution from the approach of striking the lip with the tongue. In order to play with a consistent pitch centre the tongue needs to move as little as possible after each attack. As you play faster the tongue will barely move at all. Also as you play higher the effect is the same.

Using the tongue in this way means that it actually becomes a part of the player’s embouchure. TCE was once described as a tri-labial embouchure as the forward tongue acts as a scaffold for the bottom lip. As well as this, a tiny aperture is formed between the cutting edge of the top teeth and the top of the tongue. The resulting resistance is far greater than the lips can provide by themselves as the tongue is much stronger. Taking effort away from the muscles of the face means that the lips will be more relaxed, resulting in a better tone and much improved endurance.

Does The Tongue Control Pitch?

Yes… and no… Tone, pitch and dynamics are all the result of controlling air compression. Air compression is controlled in two places. The first place is the air being expelled by the respiratory system. This is done correctly by drawing the abdominal muscles inwards. The second place is at the embouchure, where the air escapes through the lips. This is a balance between tongue, lips and air that is not easily described. Many have tried before by discussing air flowing through the mouth, over the tongue, but this description is inaccurate. As air is compressed inside the body it is not flowing from one place to another, it is simply being squeezed. It only takes a high-school-level understanding of physics to know that a gas in a container is at equal pressure in all parts of the container. This in itself disproves the way that many people describe brass playing. The only place that there is air flow is as it passes through the lips and the tongue does not directly influence this at all.

The way to learn how to manipulate pitch with the embouchure is by practising harmonic exercises and scales whilst being conscious of making the correct movements. As you ascend in pitch the lips grip against the tongue and the tongue pushes towards the bottom lip. This isometric contraction creates greater resistance to the air stream causing the pitch to change.

Common Issues

At first many players struggle to maintain the forward position of the tongue as they play. It is very difficult to hold the tongue between the teeth if the lips insist on stretching in the wrong direction. Smiling or “saying eee” as you play will result in the tongue pulling back in the mouth and blocking the throat; and the closing of the jaw, making it harder for air to reach the lips (try it). Reading the page Lips Moving Correctly will give some more insight into how the lips need to move correctly.

The tongue position is also tied to overblowing. Although is it possible to maintain the forward tongue and use too much air, it is more common for the tongue to let go if you are blowing too much. This is the reason that a lot of emphasis is put on learning to play staccato in the early days of learning the TCE. Bahb Civiletti’s exercises using the 5 Essential Articulations are the key to learning to build strength in the tongue and keep it in the correct place.

Over analysis of tongue and lip position will tend to cause more problems than it will solve. The answer is to practise with the correct sound in mind. Once a player has learnt to hear the difference in sound made by playing with the tongue between the teeth they usually become dissatisfied with anything else. Over time the ear and the tongue guide each other.