Yes! double tonguing is possible on the clarinet, and yes! you can learn to use it with similar fluency with which you use your single tongue. I first mentioned double tonguing on this blog in this post on articulation, which was mostly aimed at composers, but today’s post is a how-to aimed specifically at clarinetists.
There is already plenty of information online if you want to read up on how double tonguing works and how to get started. I particularly like Clark Fobes’ article, because not only does he compile a number of great resources (including a lot of how Robert Spring teaches double tonguing, from whom I learned how to do this) he also makes a lot of comments in terms of how to disguise double tonguing so that you can use it in tricky orchestral excerpts, like the Mendelssohn Scherzo or Smetena’s Bartered Bride, without anyone noticing.
Anyway, I would start with that article if you don’t have any double tonguing experience, because he does explain the basics very well, which I won’t really do here as my goal is to talk about some ‘next-step’ issues that have plagued me and to provide some exercises for your practise.
First of all, a few things to keep in mind when you start learning to double tongue and after you’ve read the Fobes article:
* It might take a long time to learn. It was months before I had a useable double tongue, and a little longer before I felt comfortable using it in concert. Clark Fobes suggests at the beginning not working on the technique for more than 15 minutes a day, and I agree.
* The ‘k’ in the ‘t k t k’ feels odd. Nothing hits the reed during the ‘k’ attack of course, and the change in pressure when the back of the tongue moves to the back of the mouth takes some getting used to. The point is basically that if you think it feels weird and you’re wondering if this is normal, it is. A nice way to get used to this is to just practise double tonguing without the resistance of the clarinet – just use your mouthpiece and reed. Fobes also suggests starting on throat tones and with a softer-than-usual reed. This sounds like a pretty good alternative. It would also make it easier to implement my next point sooner.
* The most important thing when making the transition between learning how to produce the t k t k t k and having a useable double tongue, is to go as quickly as possible to practising double tonguing on moving passages, even if these only consist of alternating semi- or whole-tones. Aligning my double tongue with the action of my fingers took me quite a long time, and I think it’s important to start introducing this into your practise as soon as possible.
* Fobes suggests using ‘too koo’ to have the nicest clarinet tone while double tonguing, and I agree this works. It also aligns perfectly with the embouchure position I learned (which is formed by making a kind of ‘hoo’ sound with the mouth – like the sound and owl makes, or a North-American-English speaking owl anyway). Spring uses ‘tee kee’ to be able to use the high register. This is of course one of the problems with double tonguing is that we’re limited by how high we can use it. And unfortunately the ‘tee kee’ does have a negative impact on the sound quality. I would suggest trying out different things and seeing what works best for you, and what your priorities are in learning to double tongue.
* Just because you can double tongue, doesn’t mean you can automatically triple, which is useful for… er, music in groups of threes. Obviously. Anyway, going t k t t k t t k t t k t is a bit of a tongue twister, and worth practising.
And now for some tips on how to practise your double tongue:
After you’ve learned the basics, these tips will help you to improve its scope. One of the main goals for me has been to have double tonguing functional as just another articulation. The first time I double tongued a passage while sight-reading something, without even thinking about it, I did a kind of victory dance. This was what I wanted. This section also basically contains my warmup for double tongue, which I don’t do every day, but I should because it only really takes 15 minutes. So do what I say, not what I do, and practise this every day.
* Once you can double tongue moving passages, be sure to practise double tongue on single notes for extended periods of time. Analyse how the double tongue sounds: are the pitches equidistant from each other? Do the tongued notes sound even? Is there a big difference between the t and k sounds? Make sure to do this in different registers. I usually start my double tonguing practise with something like this, over two and a half octaves (C6 is my usual limit for double tonguing):
* The important thing with this exercise is to really listen while you’re doing it, in order to try to make sure things are as even as possible. The point is not to have the metronome on quaver/eighth-note = 180 (as nice as that would be of course), but to make sure than when you double tongue fast moving passages, that any mismatch between tongue and fingers is not because of a lack of evenness in your double tongue.
* Sometimes I’ll do some scales if things aren’t feeling so good – the tongue is a muscle like any other and has good days and bad ones, so be patient and kind with yourself – but usually I’ll move on to studies. My favourite book for tonguing studies has, since I was about 20, been Reginald Kell’s Staccato Studies. And there are three that I use regularly for double tonguing practise. I’ll share them here but you should really just buy this book.
If you’re struggling with these, this is what you should do:
* Practise 2-4 bars at a time, don’t tire yourself out. Stop after 15 minutes, or do something else for awhile.
* Practise moving phrases at loud dynamics, making sure you’re really breathing through. Sometimes it’s a tendency to hold our breath a little when we play in general, and when we’re trying to double tongue specifically. I find if I’m breathing through the line, it makes double tonguing that much easier.
* Make sure you can actually play the lines legato at high speeds before double tonguing them.
* If things are uneven, go back to the first exercise for a bit and make sure your double tongue hasn’t become irregular
And now the studies:
* If you’re just getting started with double tonguing, #6 is the best one to go with, because it doesn’t have too many moving pitches and you can just focus on a rapid-fire double tongue. Obviously this one is also good for single-tonguing.
I don’t practise this one so much anymore (possibly because I completely overdosed on it during my undergraduate degree, when our entire class was practising it furiously and it was basically the only thing you heard coming out of practise rooms with clarinetists in them for weeks), I usually go straight for my favourite, #1. I think this one is nice because it’s not a constant stream of 16ths (so you don’t get tired too quickly), it doesn’t go too high, and it’s very difficult to keep the rhythm going without slowing down, which is just a good thing to practise anyway:
And when it comes to triple-tonguing, I usually reach for select bits of #4. Select bits because it does go a little too high later in the study, when all I really want to practise here is my t k t t k t, which I find infuriatingly tricky sometimes. I’m not totally satisfied with this exercise, but it works:
I usually stop here. If I’m feeling like punishing myself, I’ll have a go at the Mendelssohn Scherzo, or that tricky bit of Beethoven 4 to see where things stand, but otherwise I’ll move on to repertoire. Repertoire in which I try to introduce my double tongue as much as possible, even if sometimes I don’t need to. It’s going to feel foreign for a long time, but what you want is to be able to use it with similar fluency to your single tongue (and think how long that took to learn!).
My advice to you is this: practise double tonguing for 15-20 minutes a day, and then forget about it. Don’t punish yourself if it takes a long time to learn. Just get a good night’s sleep and then try again the next day. And enjoy the little successes. Do your victory dance when you do it for the first time without thinking.
And if you have questions, please do leave a comment below! I want to know if this was useful, if there are things you’re still confused about or if there are other issues that I might have left out so that this post is as useful to clarinetists as possible.