Double Tonguing on Clarinet

I've dabbled with double-tonguing for a number of years. (Is double dabbling acceptable?) It seems everyone but clarinetists do it. My sister is a flutist and learned double-tonguing early, as do all flutists. My woodwind colleagues in the orchestra, flute, oboe and bassoon, all double-tongue.

The accepted tradition says clarinetists just don't double tongue. Since we keep our tongue quite high for voicing, double tonguing interferes with the air stream and changes the sound, especially in the clarion and altissimo registers. Only a few clarinet soloists, considered "freaks" of nature, can double tongue effectively.

Additionally, many recordings of famous orchestral excerpts, such as Mendelssohn's Scherzo from the Midsummer Nights Dream or Beethoven Symphony # 4, last movement, suggest that it is acceptable to add slurs to troubling passages. Larry Combs, retired Principal Clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony, admitted he slurs over the sixteenth before the grace note in the Beethoven excerpt. In the Mendelssohn Scherzo recording by the Cleveland Orchestra, Marcellus adds a slur at the beginning of the two measure run starting on E.

Those are the ideas I grew up with and have found little reason to change. My single tongue is acceptably fast. I can tongue about 132 to the quarter for short bursts, maybe a bar or two, and at 126 for longer, functional tempos for most excerpts. (In college days, I wondered if I would ever tongue fast enough, being unable to do sixteenths faster than 112-116, but I had a breakthrough when I realized I tightened my tongue in attempts to tongue faster, hindering its natural speed)

I have noodled with double tonguing on the Beethoven 4th excerpt for a few years, but have never been able to use it in performance. My double tongue was too fast and uncontrolled for the "real" thing, where the tempo and dynamics make it difficult to control.

But recently I have heard more soloists in recordings who can double tongue effectively and without interfering with the sound. Kari Kriikku and Martin Frost come to mind. Bob Spring has made a name for himself with his ability to double tongue AND circular breathe in his recording of Paganini's Perpetual Motion. I asked Bob about double tonguing a few years ago, and he gave me a printed copy of his routine and method. He also gave me one important piece of advice: keep your throat relaxed.

During the '08-'09 Season of the Columbus Symphony, we played Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, for what seems like the 50th time in the past ten years. The conductor wanted a brisk tempo in the tricky first movement, with its alternating sixteenth passages in 6/8 time, and which begin after a sixteenth rest.

Since all the woodwinds played the lick together, I hated having to add slurs to keep up, and was barely able to get the notes in at that tempo without a slur or two. So I hunkered down the day before the performance and tried to double tongue the lick. It's in the low register, and so is not too dicey.

The problem was that it begins on a sixteenth upbeat, meaning you have to begin on a "Goh", or shift the whole lick over a sixteenth, making the offbeat quite accented. I tried both, with uneven results in either case. To be clear, even the double tonguing flutes, oboes and bassoons had trouble with these same issues.

During the performance I made it through, by the skin of my teeth, or my tongue. It was not a recording quality event, to say the least! But I managed to use a crude form of double tonguing in a performance for the first time! Since then, I have persisted in chipping away at the issues around double tonguing in my regular practice sessions.

Following Bob Spring's advice, I focused on the throat and air, not the tongue. I had heard that the consonants "T-K" are inappropriate for clarinet use, since they close off the air, so I use "D-G".

I wasn't particularly disciplined about the practice. I just kept at it, playing around (I emphasize the "playfulness" of the process) with lots of single note repetitions in the low register, moving to changing notes. At first I didn't use a metronome, wanting to focus on air and throat, and not tempo or rhythm. Then I added metronome to steady the technique.

I gradually moved up to the clarion register, keeping focus on a soft throat. I found that if I kept the air speed fast (or better yet, "falling" fast, which is less tense), it helped me maintain an "un-collapsed" voicing during the guttural "goh" sound.

Another colleague, Steve Secan, Principal Oboist of the Columbus Symphony, mentioned the importance of the vowel sound in addition to the consonant. I use "Doh-Goh", to help keep air flow fast and throat and soft palette loose. Also keep the consonants very light and tongue relaxed. Let it flop in the air, like a flag flapping in the wind. The flag has no muscles to tense. Let your tongue be like the flag in a brisk breeze.

After 6 months, I can double tongue fairly comfortably up to a clarion "C", though it's not perfect yet up there, and still difficult to play soft dynamics.

I emphasize the importance of keeping the air speed moving quickly, and keeping the throat, jaw and soft palette uninvolved. It is a common tendency to tighten the throat, jaw, tongue and everything else when attempting a new technique. Worry less about quality of sound and more about quality of air, and you will progress quickly.

The Saint-Saens excerpt would be a piece of cake now. I hope we perform it again soon, even though we've played it way too much already.

I strongly recommend all serious clarinet students begin their exploration of this vital technique early in their studies. I believe it is becoming standard practice for any competitive clarinetist. Don't wait to motivate until you have lost an audition because you didn't learn double tonguing!

Before publishing this article, I did a quick search for double tonguing articles on the web, and I found one by David Pino on Woodwind.org. He describes a double tonguing technique of flapping the tongue back and forth, or up and down in Pino's suggestion, using the word "tuttle" as the basis for the articulation. (It's like slapping the reed up and down with the tongue) I and my colleague Robert Woody Jones have used this style occasionally in loud tutti passages such as in parts of Strauss, Don Juan, where the woodwinds have extremely fast triplets on single notes. Pino goes on to use this style for triple tonguing as well.

I'll have to play around with this style of double tonguing. My first attempts just now created a hollow sound, since the tongue needs to stay flat to implement it. But it may come in handy with a little refining.

I also found this article by Clark Fobes called "Synthetic Speed", in which he suggests mixing double and single tonguing. Clark details the double tonguing technique and his hybrid variant in impressive detail.

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10 comments for “Double Tonguing on Clarinet

  1. January 29, 2010 at

    I'm in the early stages of learning to double tongue. I've made several false starts over the years, but I have always given up after a week or so. I agree with you that it's becoming more and more standard among virtuosic young players, so this time around I've been more tenacious and am seeing some modest results. Thanks for your tips – they resonate with what I've been experiencing. I too hate being unable to keep up with the other woodwinds in the same passages you mention, plus: Scherzo of Sibelius 1st Symphony, Bartered Bride Overture, Mendelssohn Symphonies, etc. What syllables do you use when you practice triple tonguing? Also, I've heard some players say that for double tonguing they use the reverse of what you do, for example: kitty, kitty, kitty…. Any experience with this?

    • January 30, 2010 at

      Lots of good questions. I don't triple tongue, but use do-go-do/go-do-go instead. I practice beginning on a \”go\” as well to improve the quality of that syllable. I begin scales with the sixteenth before on \”go\”.

      The hardest thing for clarinetists is the voicing on the upper register when double tonguing. You need to examine all aspects of your support, air, voicing, embouchure(!) and of course the vowels and consonants used.

  2. Tim Bailey
    October 16, 2009 at

    Thanks. It's good to hear another opinion on the role of double-tonguing and how to accomplish it. I have experimented just a little with it (based on Robert Spring's technique), and it is good to hear more information about it when I am ready to take up the task of seriously learning it.

    • October 16, 2009 at

      Tim, Bob Spring's method is good. He's the one who suggested keeping
      the throat relaxed, a primary condition of double tonguing, but also a
      great help to all parts of playing!

  3. June 4, 2009 at

    @John Ricketts: Hi John. Of course I remember you! Good for you, trying something new to keep those brain cells popping. How inspiring.

    Regarding triple tonguing, I assume you mean do-go-do do-go-do, where double would be just do-go do-go. Of course that will work, and since your tongue is programed to do it from high school, you are set. I use double even for triplets, since that’s what works for me.

    Best,
    David

  4. John Ricketts
    June 4, 2009 at

    David,

    Remember me? I am a double bass player in Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. At age 75 I have decided to take up clarinet just for fun.
    I have been playing seven weeks now. I have tried triple tongueing (I played trumpet in high school) on the clarinet and this morning was able to do it with a usable sound quality for some notes. I had heard that triple tonguing is not possible on the clarinet, but I don’t believe it. Perhaps starting “early” (seven weeks, age 75) means I can learn to do it.

  5. February 7, 2009 at

    @Fellow double tounge dabbler: Yes! That Nielsen lick is one I’m constantly working on. The challenge is the numerous skips. A light style articulation, lots of air flow and secure fingers are the key. But of course, those are the key to any articulated passage. 🙂

  6. Fellow double tounge dabbler
    February 6, 2009 at

    Hi David,

    New reader here, and really enjoying the blogs! I have always been somewhat insecure with my staccato speeds, and have dabbled with double tonguing as well (all though without much success). With time and much practice, I like to believe that I have achieved a decent speed, and can play most of the standard excerpts that require a fast tongue without trouble. All but one…. the treacherous Nielsen lick after the cadenza that (unfortunately) clearly marks the tempo at 72 (hence 144 – 4 to a quarter). Now, I am not planning on performing it anytime soon, as most of my work is orchestra and chamber music, but it remains a personal challenge. Is this something you would try double tonguing on? Just curious to see your opinion!

  7. January 12, 2009 at

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with double tonguing. I am a trombone player myself, and double tonguing is a crucial technique that many players, just like me, struggle with in their practice everyday. I have found it very difficult to relax while double tonguing, and I find myself in the same predicament you mentioned above (when you were in college).

    Thanks again for this post, it has allowed me to rethink a new approach to relaxing while double tonguing.

    • January 14, 2009 at

      Brendan- Glad my ideas helped. Keep trying different vowels for different registers. And keep that air flowing.

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