It took me an embarrassingly long time to learn to slap tongue. We’re talking about years here. Years of being plagued by the doubt that I’d never be able to do it, and hearing people say things like, “you’ll never have a career in new music if you can’t slap tongue” (which is these days probably true) and “some people can slap and some people can’t; maybe you just can’t” (which is absurd and never listen to someone who says something like this to you).
The only thing I could think to do was to comb the internet for advice and to ask every single person I met how they learned and how they think about it. Over time I picked up some great tips, and I think I’m pretty good at teaching others how to do it now. So I’m going to share the things that worked for me, as well as a few tips that I’m not entirely sure worked for me, but might help you. There’s quite a lot of text in this post, but I wanted to get as much of this down as possible, for any other desperate clarinetists who are soaking up all the internet has to offer on the subject, as I once did.
This post assumes that you know what slap tongue is, what it sounds like and what you can do with it. If you don’t, I’d recommend starting with this post on clarinet articulation. It was written with composers in mind, but it might give you a better idea of how many kinds of slap are available, what quiet slaps sound like, what slap tone multiphonics sound like, etc.
The slap tongue sounds emanates from a vacuum created between the reed and the mouthpiece. We create and release this vacuum by pressing the tongue to the read, creating a suction, moving the reed back from the mouthpiece facing and then releasing our tongue. This snapping back to the mouthpiece creates that fantastic slap sound.
This is a percussive effect, not an airborne one. Which is to say that if you’re wondering what to do with your air column while you learn this, you don’t do anything. It is the reed snapping that creates the effect and this is not dependent on your lungs or air in any way. (Of course, you can add slap before normal tones, in the middle of normal tones, and so forth, and in fact one should practise so that this comes naturally, but there’s sometimes some confusion about the role of air in producing a slap, and I just want to be clear… air does nothing to produce a slap tongue.)
My first piece of advice is this: practise slap tongue with a plastic reed. I broke an incredible number of reeds while I was learning how to slap, and it was so frustrating that after every few attempts the reed would start to crack down the middle. This is because when you first start learning, you’re going to do too much with the tongue. You’re going to press too hard, and make more of a fast and hard release than you need to. As soon as I started using a Légère reed for slap tongue, I realised that I could already slap tongue! For me, it became very easy after making the switch, so I would suggest starting that way. You’ll still break the plastic reed, it’ll just take you a few months instead of a few minutes. By the way, I find the Légère’s to be a little harder than your normal Vandoren reed. On the bass clarinet, where I’d normally play a 3 1/2 Vandoren blue box, I use a Légère 2 3/4. So if you’re buying, just keep that in mind.
Furthermore, start with the biggest reed you have access to. Even if you don’t have the clarinet to go with it. You can start practising slap tongue using a bass clarinet or contrabass clarinet reed, without mouthpiece. To practise this, hold the reed in front of you. Stick out your tongue, press it to the facing of the reed and then snap your tongue back, trying to feel suction with the reed. If you have a hard time, you can also try this with a small spoon. A dessert spoon or teaspoon should do the trick. The roundedness of the underside of the spoon will help you to create the vacuum. In the video that follows, I start by trying to demonstrate the suction with the reed well outside my mouth so that you can kind of see what the tongue is doing. It’s much easier to get a louder ‘click’ when I balance the reed on the lower lip, as you should be able to see/hear. Then I put the reed on the bass clarinet mouthpiece, do a few open clicks and then close my mouth until I have a normal embouchure. The last sounds in the video are of slaps followed by normal pitches. It’s not terrible impressive, but then, the rest of the bass clarinet isn’t attached…
Try not to lose patience and simply attack the reed with your tongue as much as possible. Think about the action of your tongue carefully before you try, and be gentle. Those tiny little clicks you’re making? That’s already a slap tongue. You don’t believe me because you’re not getting a roaring mega-slap attack that scares your colleagues and makes you feel like a total badass? That will come. If you’ve got the clicks, you’re well on your way. Besides, soft slap tongue is a beautiful effect, I think, and not used often enough.
Don’t hurt yourself needlessly. The reed, especially if you’re using plastic will always win. Your tongue will get tired and you will get frustrated and angry. Even now, if I play a piece with a lot of slaps in it, the reed will cut my tongue eventually and there will be blood. This is normal, the tongue heals fast, so it’s no big deal, but there’s no sense in hurting yourself while you’re learning. Take it 5-10 minutes a day, and then try not to think about it, or to worry obsessively like I did. You’ll get it.
When you get the clicking sound and want to start practising with the mouthpiece, do your very best to maintain a normal playing embouchure. Your slap will only be useful if you can do this, if you have to change positions every time you want a slap you won’t be able to slap the beginning of a long tone, to slap a multiphonic, etc.
It’s a little tricky to describe how one goes from making the little clicks to making loud ferocious slap tongues. I know that the plastic made an enormous difference for me. Experimenting with putting my tongue in different positions also helped, finding the sweet spot (while still maintaining a normal playing embouchure!!!) seems to be the main goal.
On that note, I think it’s really important to consider slap tongue as just another articulation. This was probably one of the best pieces of advice I had on the subject from Ernesto Molinari. He suggested, for example, playing major scales on which each tone is a different kind of articulation, in a pattern such as, for example fluttertongue, slap tongue, and the the ‘k’ syllable of a double tongue. So flutter, slap, k, flutter, slap, k, flutter, slap, k. All the way up and down a scale. You want to be able to play slaptongues anywhere. At the beginning of phrases, but also in the middle of them, this is why it’s so important to be able to maintain a normal playing embouchure (I think I’ve written that three times already!).
The only excuse for changing your embouchure at all to do a slap is if you want to do an open slap tongue. If you’re trying to learn to do these, it’s not the easiest thing to explain, but basically what you do is open your mouth very quickly at the same time (or just slightly after) as slapping. I made a very short video to show how I do it, up close.
Of course, with the open slaps, it’s also really great to be able to do these without changing things too much, so that you can do very quick ones within phrases. I had to learn this for a piece that Aaron Einbond wrote for me (great piece!), and while I didn’t think it would be possible at first it just takes a little practise. Here’s a little sample from his piece with a few open slaps:
Any questions? Please feel free to get in touch, or better yet, leave your question in the comments box. I’d love to know what you’re having trouble with so that I can improve this post!
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Hello heather! Congratulations in learning to master this technique.
I’m working on a composition with clarinet, which will use a little bit of slap tongue in some sessions. Is there a way to control the pitch of slap tongue, i. e., can I ask for a slap tongue articulation in any pitch of the clarinet range or are there some limitations? Conversely, can a slap tongue sound just as noise, with no pitch whatsoever? Is is possible/desirable to differentiate between the two in a composition?
In my specific case I’m not so worried about the pitch sounding precisely in tune but a clear difference in the melodic profile between two or more successive slap tongues. From your examples it seems that the slap tongue sounds a little bit detached from the following note, as if you are actually attacking twice, but I didn’t hear a “slap tongue melody”, so I don’t know.
Thanks in advance!
I’d suggest checking out the post I did on clarinet articulation, that’s more geared towards composers and should answer your questions!
Making some progress. I can get suction and even a pop, but it requires a huge amount of tongue to reed contact. I cannot keep my tongue behind my teeth and still get suction.
Can you describe, as best you can, the position of the tongue, including shape, where you get the suction, what the sides are doing, where your teeth are, and anything else that might help explain how to get a significant degree of suction while maintaining the normal embouchure?
Sorry for the very long delay – the tongue is quite flat, and very relaxed to make this work – if you’re practising just with the reed I’d suggest starting with the whole tongue and seeing if you can gradually get suction with less and less. Everything else (teeth especially) stay in their normal position – the technique as I’m sure you’re aware isn’t useful unless you can use a normal position. Really hard for me to advise you without seeing you do it I’m afraid!