Double-Tonguing on the Saxophone: Tips from a Neophyte

Let me just say it: learning how to double-tongue on the saxophone is hard.

For as many years as I’ve been playing the sax, a span of time somewhat longer than the age of many igneous rocks, you’d think that by this point I’d have mastered double-tonguing, or at the very least, that the technique would come to me fairly swiftly now that I’ve set my mind on cultivating it. But such is not the case.

Learning how to circular breathe was a snap compared to double-tonguing. Within a week from the time I set out to become a circular breathing practitioner, while I wouldn’t say that I had brought circular breathing to an apogee of artistic perfection, I had at least developed it to a point of rudimentary usefulness.

I can’t make that same claim when it comes to double-tonguing. A week after I first decided to learn it, the only thing I had developed was an extreme degree of frustration, to the point where I concluded to set double-tonguing aside and focus on goals that were humanly attainable, such as “Giant Steps” at 320 mm and one-handed pushups.

But evidently there’s a stubborn streak in me, because I’ve been at it again. And having now spent a few months tinkering with double-tonguing–not with laser-like focus, but spending maybe ten minutes on it during most of my practice sessions–I can say that, by golly, I’m finally getting a handle on the technique. I’m at a point where I can actually double-tongue scales and patterns faster than I can tongue them normally–at least, for a limited amount of time, up until my tongue and throat muscles fatigue.

Tonight I practiced some diminished whole tone and augmented scale sixteenth-note licks, double-tongued, at a speed of around 120 mm. That’s nowhere near as fast as some of the masters are capable of playing, but it’s not bad for a piker, and it’s a heck of an improvement from when I started. Plus, it’s not just my speed that’s picking up; I’m also connecting the notes with increasing evenness.

Give me another six months or so and I may have developed the technique to the point of usability. Right now, I’m simply pleased to be making progress, slow though it may be.

Unlike the flute and brass instruments such as the trumpet and trombone, the saxophone involves a mouthpiece that is physically inserted into the oral cavity. This arrangement complicates the process of learning double-tonguing for sax players. For those of you who, like me, are dealing with the frustrations inherent in learning this technique–the lopsided, inconsistent attacks, the support issues that make your upper-register notes sound like cartoon laughter, and so on–here are a few thoughts from a fellow pilgrim that you may find helpful:

* It’s essential to develop your glottis–that is, the back of your throat. Thus, while the formula for double-tonguing is “da-ga, da-ga,” (which emphasizes the tongue touching the reed on the syllable “da”) I’ve found it helpful to reverse that order. Try double-tonguing using “ga-da, ga-da,” beginning with the glottal articulation instead of the tip of the tongue.

* More, try articulating using only your glottis–i.e. “ga-ga, ga-ga.” No, it’s not easy! But you’ll reap dividends by and by if you stick with it. You’re developing the response in the back of your throat.

” Once you’ve incorporated these first two approaches into your double-tonguing practice for a while, you should find yourself beginning to develop more control using the standard “da-ga, da-ga” double-tongue. It won’t take long before you start seeing an improvement.

* Forget about speed at first, and forget about playing scales and such. Just pick a single tone somewhere in the middle register of your horn, and concentrate on connecting the articulations evenly.

* Reconcile yourself to the fact that success at double-tonguing will not come overnight. This is a tough technique that requires a long-haul attitude.

The way I look at it, working on double-tonguing a little bit every practice session, consistently, will get me a whole lot farther than not working on it. A year from today, assuming that I stick with it, I’ll be much better at double-tonguing than I would be if I gave up. So for me, the adventure continues. Stay tuned. In another six months or so, I hope to have more to report.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!

Speak Your Mind