Articulation

1. Introduction
2. Legato articulation and slurs
3. Separated articulations
4. “With the wind” versus “on the wind” articulation
5. Articulating low notes
6. Articulation speed
7. Clarity and projection of articulation
8. Double-tonguing
9. The meanings of articulation markings
10. The forte-piano – air weight vs. articulation
11. Additional articulation resources


1. Introduction

The term articulation refers to how the tongue and air work together to both start and end notes. Most notes that are not slurred on the oboe are articulated, meaning they are started by the tongue lightly touching and coming away from the reed. Most players use the tip, or close to the tip, of the tongue to gently touch the opening of the reed while saying the syllable “dah”, “du”, “tah”, or “tu”.

For the easiest and quickest articulation, use just the front part of a free and relaxed tongue in an up and down motion. The tongue is a large composite muscle that extends into the throat, and works best when the throat and jaw are free. It is naturally very flexible to meet the requirements of speech, and therefore it can create a wide variety of articulations. Because the tongue is close to the throat, spine, and air passageway, keeping a free neck, and balanced head is also important to allow the tongue to move freely. Having an open, round embouchure from the very beginning of the note is important for clarity in articulation.

If there is the sound of air before the note speaks, more air support is needed for the reed to vibrate. If the note explodes loudly or cracks up the octave, there may be too much air support, the embouchure might be too tight, or the reed may be too closed or too hard.

To begin a note, rest the reed on the lower lip while breathing in through the mouth or nose as silently as possible. Close the mouth around the reed, place the tongue on the reed, create air pressure at the front of the mouth and release the tongue to start the note. The exact place the tongue touches the reed may vary depending on what sounds the best and is the most effortless.

The tongue can be used to end the note as well, but generally when the note is followed by silence, it is more stylistic and elegant to end the note by stopping the air rapidly and closing the embouchure as needed. Notes can also be started with just the air, but this is generally used only as a special effect.

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2. Legato articulation and slurs

The oboe can play in the legato style particularly well compared to other instruments, but beginners will need to spend time learning this important skill. Good air support is needed to keep both slurred and articulated notes smooth and even. For slurred passages, air support is particularly important from the very end of one note to the beginning of the next. Blow “between” the notes, almost making a crescendo at the end of the first note all the way to the second, then make any embouchure changes for the new note quickly. This can seem counter-intuitive, particularly between notes in a large interval up or down. Naturally, many young players will drop their air in preparation for the next note, but this causes pitch changes, less successful legato, and sometimes the lower notes to not come out at all.

If the notes are articulated but legato, air support is just as important to keep the notes connected and the articulation smooth. Imagine the articulation at the end of one note is the start of the next. Also practice articulated passages slurred to more easily feel how the air support creates the musical direction, and strive to maintain the shape of the line when adding the articulations.

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3. Separated articulations

The oboe can easily play many different lengths of notes. In order to not sound too abrupt, however, requires coordinating the air support, embouchure, and fingers. Reed responsiveness and stability are also important factors. How the note is ended, either by the tongue or the wind (see the next section) adds further variation.

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4. “With the wind” vs. “on the wind” articulations

When notes need to end gracefully, they should usually be ended “with the wind,” accomplished by a very quick diminuendo with the air and closing of the embouchure around the reed. It may also be necessary to roll in or out a very small amount to maintain the pitch. When a more definite articulation is required or the articulated notes happen rapidly, the articulation that is likely easiest to use is called “on the wind.” This kind of articulation also sounds louder than “with the wind” articulations.

To articulate “on the wind” means to end a note with the tongue, with no diminuendo in the tone before the end. The start of the next note happens with the release of the tongue, with no break in the air support throughout. The air support is therefore the same as if the phrase was slurred, with the tongue stopping the sound.

There is also an entire continuum between “on” and “with” the wind, where notes can be ended with varying amounts of diminuendo occurring before the tongue stops them.

“On the wind” articulation is often linked to John Mack and Marcel Tabuteau, both seminal teachers in the American style of oboe performance. From the IDRS discussion board in 2006:

“…. I wanted to clarify the use of the tongue at the end of notes a-la-John Mack. In one of his many wonderful Q and A periods at an early IDRS conference, I remember a great analogy used by John to describe his term, “tongueing [Sic] on the wind”, that he learned from Marcel Tabuteau. John said, “We all know what a child’s phonograph box looks like”…. John Mack then described a use for the child’s phonograph: imagine, he said, that you have placed small name cards on clothes pins fixed to the edge of the turntable all around this item. Each card represents a new note. John then explained that he could keep the tonal support moving at all times (like the turned on child’s phonograph) and when he had a note to play, his tongue would gently start that note with “ta”, and when the next note appeared (soon) he would put his tongue back on the card (reed) to both end the first note and form the start of the second note.”

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5. Articulating low notes

A hard reed can make articulating low notes (E4 and below) with consistency and delicacy particularly difficult. A stiff or unstable reed can make rapid low articulations nearly impossible. For successful low rapid articulation, the reed must be stable enough to hold together without much embouchure control.

For soft low articulation, just the tip of the tongue should be used to articulate, and the embouchure likely needs to round and rolled out (but not so much that the pitch is flat) while closing around the reed. Sometimes imagining “sitting on top” of the low notes can help them be more in tune, softer and more elegant while articulating.

Figuring out how to play consistent soft and gently articulated low notes can take awhile for second oboe players to figure out. Excerpts from pieces like the 2nd movement of Antonin Dvorak’s 7th Symphony, can be very challenging to articulate softly and in tune. Sometimes it can be appropriate to ask other members of the wind section to play a bit louder (and flatter) to help facilitate these passages.

Dvorak

Double tonguing (see below) in the low register is also possible, but has more difficult response than in other registers. Oboe excerpts such as “HoeDown” from Rodeo by Aaron Copland can be very challenging at first until the right reed and embouchure placement is found.

Copeland

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6. Articulation speed

While some oboists seem to naturally articulate quickly very easily, it is also possible to increase a slower natural articulation speed, usually by relaxing the tongue and letting just the tip do the motion, rather than “working harder”. Gradually increase the metronome tempo, and the length of time articulating while practicing. It is important to not try to “force” the tongue to go faster, rather to let it go faster, even if it is out of control at first. Take breaks when the tongue becomes tired. To perform most standard orchestral excerpts, it is necessary to be able to articulate sixteenth notes at quarter note = 152. For those who cannot single tongue that rapidly consistently for several beats, it will be important to learn how to double tongue (see below).

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7. Clarity and projection of articulation

Part of projecting in an orchestral, band, or chamber wind section comes from the clarity and volume of the articulation. Clear articulation and tone comes from having the air “at the reed,” an open, round embouchure that allows for full tone right at the beginning of the note, and a clear, supported articulation or “ta.” This clarity allows the very beginning of the sound to be heard, helping to create and project the unique wind section colour, and to delineate the rhythm clearly.

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8. Double-tonguing

Double-tonguing is used when a passage to be performed is too fast to be single-tongued. Some oboists are able to single-tongue very fast and, therefore, never use double-tonguing, while others start double-tonguing at relatively slow speeds. Generally, single-tonguing is possible for almost everyone up to about quarter note = 116-120, tonguing four notes to the beat. Start practicing double-tonguing at this speed or slower so there is an overlap between single tongue and double-tongue speeds. It can be more difficult to double-tongue evenly and gracefully at slower tempos.

Double-tonguing on the oboe is accomplished by “saying” while playing the words “tuck” followed by “cut” using the consonances “ck” of “tuck” and the “t” of “cut” as the articulation (or some oboist use the syllables “dug” and “gud”). At fast speeds, it becomes “ta ka ta ka…” It is generally harder to stop the air on the “ck” of tuck than with the “t” of “cut,” and so takes more practice.

Begin practice with the weaker “cut” syllable, starting the note without the tongue (an air attack), until it can happen easily and match the volume of the “tuck” syllable. Next, alternate with “tuck-cut” staccato notes with as much silence as possible between attacks, until these syllables have nearly equal emphasis and are controllable. Finally, practice short, fast bursts of double-tonguing, (2 sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note), until facility increases for longer stretches. Try double-tonguing first on an E5 and other first octave notes.

Allow this articulation to feel as easy as possible. A lack of clarity in the articulation is better than using too much effort to make every articulation really clear. Ultimately, double-tonguing should be easily produced, and sound as close to single tonguing as possible.

Double tonguing allows for much faster articulation than single tonguing. Many modern compositions feature fast and extended articulated passages most suited to double tonguing. It can also, however, facilitate the performance of excerpts from the standard literature such as Rossini’s La Scala di Seta and Mendelssohn’s 3rd Symphony, pictured here:

Mendelssohn.jpg

While usually starting an articulated passage on the syllable “ta”, it may be useful to start on the “ka” syllable. The 2nd movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s 3rd Symphony, often performed faster than q = 126, works starting with either a “ta” or a “ka” depending on the players preference.

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9. The meanings of articulation markings

On the oboe, there are endless subtle variations in articulation and the meanings of articulation markings change by era, context, and even by composer, but there are some generalities.

Articulations in the Baroque, Classical and Romantic era tend to be more elegant, less abrupt, with more air than tongue emphasis at the start of the note, more weight rather than clarity and force in the actual articulation. More modern music requires articulation that tends to be more clear and exacting. Generally the elegant classical style articulation is the hardest for modern players to perform well. Listening to good performers on all instruments is a good way to model different articulation styles.

Click here for Andrew Hugill’s guide to articulations.

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10. The forte-piano: air weight vs. articulation

The classical and romantic era “fp” articulation (or sfz, or other variations), as opposed to the modern “fp”, requires more air weight or “press” on the beginning of the note, and less articulation volume. The initial articulation in this case is actually quite gentle, followed quickly by a short swell with the air. In modern pieces, as for example in most movie scores, the fp or “sting” asks for a strong articulation at the beginning and a sudden dramatic diminuendo.

Click here for a helpful discussion on the subject.

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11. Additional articulation resources

Dr. Stephen Caplan on Articulation

Christa Garvey on how to Double Tongue

Aaron Hill on articulation

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