Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Work is Never Wasted

Recently I heard a colleague complaining about having practiced music which was later cut from the concert. What a waste of time! Something about that attitude rubbed me the wrong way. Why complain about time spent on your instrument improving ANYTHING? Even if the specific notes in question aren't being performed, surely the act of working them out is building neural pathways and keeping you in shape, and that music itself may come up again somewhere, sometime.

Two summers ago I decided it was finally time for me to learn how to double tongue on my instrument. Double tonguing is a technique used for fast articulated passages, and is very very commonly used by brass players and flutists, both of whom regularly have fanfare-y or quick technical passages to play, and neither of whom has a reed in their mouths to complicate matters. The technique is more difficult for oboists, clarinetists, and bassoonists, but is certainly not unusual for these players. Most professional oboists have at least some version of a DT that they can pull out in emergencies or in situations where the old slur-two-tongue-two trick just won't cut it. Some use it all the time. I've always had a fast single tongue, and have always managed to get by, but enough of my students have asked about double-tonguing, and I've had to fake a super-fast tongue just often enough, that I decided to learn once and for all what this business was about. For a whole summer I worked out of the Arban trumpet book on extremely tiresome exercises - the book is good, I just was struggling with the skill - and never really managed to break through. I could sort of get through an easy passage, at nearly but not quite the speed that I could have just single tongued, and I was happy to drop the project when my busy season started back up.

Fast forward to this past month. The Nutcracker, one rehearsal and four performances. My usually reliable single tongue failed me entirely. I couldn't get it moving fast enough for the battle scene which is trumpet-like material in the solo oboe. And I was thuhthuhing all over the place, embarrassing myself to no end, even in slower passages that any hack should have been able to play. I was crippled. I hadn't been working formally on it, and nothing had come up recently to remind me to, and like any muscle the tongue can get out of shape. My reeds were a factor, too - I hadn't been paying much attention to that facet of the craft of reedmaking and the resistance had gotten slightly displaced, which changed the way my articulation felt to me.

The problem was temporary - I've found my articulation again since - but I had performances I had to give. Right there, in the Nutcracker pit, I learned how to double tongue. The work I had put in, patiently, two summers earlier and NEVER REFERRED TO SINCE kicked in and I proudly tukutuku-d my way through the passage. I'm not going to say that it was perfect, but when for whatever reason I was blocked on my usual tonguing pattern I was able to turn on this other technique and circumvent the issue.

I was and am reinspired. Obviously both single and double tonguing are going to move to a central place in my daily practice sessions, particularly with the Mendelssohn Scotch Symphony appearing in my schedule next week - that's a bi-i-ig tonguing piece for oboe and you had better believe that that was on my mind as I was failing in the first Nutcracker rehearsal, and obviously practicing itself is going to play a larger role in my daily life as much as I can make that happen. Mostly, though, I am thrilled that time I thought was wasted and fruitless two years ago has become abundantly useful, and that my efforts and energy at that time have paid off. The work is never wasted.


  1. I have YET to figure out how to double tongue. I, too, have a very fast single tongue, but if we ever do Scala di Seta I'm going to have to take a leave. Ack! So fill me in on this technique I can't get. Please! :-)

  2. I have no technique - just hours of tu-ku-tu-ku that never seemed to pay off. The far more interesting question for me is What on Earth happened to my single tongue? It's still touch and go, and I start Mendelssohn tomorrow.