Trombone lesson: Tongueing – Tuh or Tut?

Trombone lesson: Tongueing – Tuh or Tut?

How to improve your trombone playing with 5 minutes of theory (and a lot more practice…)
The only way to get to the next level of brass playing
Get that music-school-trombone-sound out of my life!!!
The truth about one of the worst and most common bad habits among brass players

Are you convinced that you continue reading this? Good, then let us get down to business! This post is about attack and tonguing for trombone players and ALL other brass players. This post is about how to discover one of the most common bad habits among brass players – and more important – how to get rid of it.

The correct way of starting a tone is by using a tu-attack. The tone should be started with the airflow controlled by the diaphragm and abdominal muscles, using the tongue only to support the attack. (Actually, lot of players tend to build up air pressure in the mouth “behind the tongue” before playing a note. They then release the air by moving the tongue down, resulting in a minor air explosion and uncontrolled attack. This is another common issue, and I will address it in another post.)

So far so good, but playing a note is not just about at starting it. It is just as much about ending it. Lot of players end the note with the tongue instead of just stop blowing. This results in a very abrupt cut of, similar to stopping a cymbal with the hand instead of letting it ring.

So the first step is to figure out if you do stop the note with your tongue. Try playing a note, and be aware about what happens in your mouth when you stop it. It is very simple – there should not happen anything in your mouth when the note ends. The tongue should be relaxed, laying in the bottom of your mouth, ready to play the next note.

Try to play a series of short notes with breaks in between while watching yourself in a mirror. Does it look like you are chewing a piece of meat while playing? This is a strong indicator that something is wrong with your embouchure, and it could very well be that you cut of notes.

So what happens when you cut off the note with the tongue? Besides sounding bad, you will build up pressure in the mouth and throat making it harder to play the next note with a smooth, relaxed attack. Furthermore you don not let the diaphragm relax between notes, building up tensions in your body. You do not want any of that!

If you are one of the many players with this bad habit, it is about time to get rid of it! It is usually not something you do over night, but with a few exercises and awareness, you can do it. Of course, you can not lock your self into a soundproofed cage for three weeks, focusing on nothing but not stopping the notes with your tongue. Just carry on gigging and making music, but try to set off some time everyday for a period where you focus on this issue. Then it will gradually be integrated in your playing.

Here are some basic exercises to help you end notes properly.
Stand up without the instrument and just blow air without using the tongue at all like this:
1. Hu hu hu hu (tho “u” is silent and just illustrates air)
Make sure that you stop the air flow by relaxing the diaphragm and not by locking up the throat.
2. Hu tu hu tu hu tu huuuu (inhale and repeat)
3. Tu tu tu tu tuuuu (inhale and repeat)

Now get your trombone (or whatever brass instrument you play) and try step 1-3 on a single note. Pick a midrange note, like F or the Bb above on first position. When it is starting to feel comfortable, you can start to apply it on a scale or other patterns. Just keep the tempo slow – no more than 60 bpm!

One thing to be aware of when you no longer end the note with the tongue, is that you don not lock up the throat instead. This is just as bad as ending the note with the tongue! Starting and ending notes should be controlled by the air flow and breathing, nothing else!

So what about the rule-confirming exception?
Well, I actually cut off lots of notes with the tongue while playing! Since it is very abrupt, it is a good special effect. I primarily use it when playing big band and I am supposed to end a long note in time. If the whole section cuts of together on a given beat, you get a rhythmical effect out of ending notes as well.

Also, ending a sfz cresc.-note by cutting of with the tongue underlines the effect of the crescendo. So yes – cutting notes with the tongue is a very useful technique, but make sure that you control WHEN to use it!

Good luck, and please let me know if and how this was helpful to you!


  1. Zoe 13 years ago

    I was never aware of stopping notes with my tongue until I got a private teacher! Such a bad habit…

    Your tip about taking a little time every day to build up on a certain skill is very helpful xD that could apply to anything one needs work on (like my improv skills!)

  2. king2b 13 years ago

    Yeah, it´s a nasty habbit. And you´re right, small portions of new knowledge everyday is far better than 5 hours once.

  3. carole J. Paul 13 years ago

    Everytime I get a email from you people I have trouble and am asked to sdign up like a new member

  4. John Tarr 13 years ago

    Hello Anders,

    Thanks for all your posts and I agree with most of what you say in this one. However, I wonder what you mean when you say, “Make sure that you stop the air flow by relaxing the diaphragm and not by locking up the throat.” To be sure, stopping the air in your throat is never a good idea. But to clarify from my understanding, if you relax your diaphragm, you will exhale. I may be misunderstanding your words but I think it’s important to note that the diaphragm contracts upon inhalation and relaxes with the exhalation. When you stop the airflow before the exhalation is complete, you interrupt the relaxation of the diaphragm. If one were to truly relax the diaphragm, he/she would need to use the tongue or throat to stop the airflow.

    Of course, we can’t really feel our diaphragms because there are no sensory nerves, just autonomic nerves connected to the brain. But if you stop a note by stopping the air, you are either relaxing the muscles that contract to force the air out (only necessary in extreme situations) and/or stopping the relaxation of the diaphragm.

    Hoping this makes sense and all the best, John Tarr

  5. Ernie Kovatch 13 years ago

    Interesting observation. I have been having trouble tonguing in the middle register and tried what you said. I did have a relaxed sound when I concentrated on the diaphragm and how it functioned while tonguing.

    Part of my problem is getting enough playing, either practce or performing time on any given day. Also, I am older now, 57 and have had several cases of pneumonia and upper respiratory ailments. Do you have any comments in that area? I would like to know what you think.

    Thank you
    Ernie Kovatch

  6. king2b 13 years ago

    Hi Ernie!

    Thanks for the comment. I won’t even try to comment on your health issues and their effect on your trombone playing – that´s way beyond my expertise! But as a rule of thumb – if it feels ok it probably is.
    If you have a hard time finding enough time to play I would use part of the available time on making sure the airflow is good, and use the rest of the time on actually playing music and have a good time. I have some breathing exercises that helped me a lot – take a look at these and see if there´s something for you!

    All the best,

  7. king2b 13 years ago

    Hi John

    I might not have been very clear on that area since I am not by any means an expert in anatomy. You are right about the diaphragm actually relaxing when exhaling. I will promptly admit that I don´t know exactly which muscles that are involved when you stop the airflow, but the main point is not to lock up the throat. I often use this exercise to work on this issue, it can be really helpful.

    Thanks for your comment!


  8. king2b 13 years ago

    @Carole: I am not sure what your issue is, can you be more specific?


  9. Oliver 13 years ago

    Hi John (and Anders)

    While it is correct that we exhale when the diaphragm is relaxed, this is only the case in relaxed breathing – ie. doing no work. When playing a note although we are breathing out we are indeed using tension on the diaphragm, and so Anders is correct when he says to end a note we relax this muscle. Relax and relax – its all relative to the preceding state.

    Just signed up btw – newly returned to the bone after a 30 yr hiatus and loving it so much more than before.


  10. Oliver 13 years ago

    But now I come to think of it – the control of the force of the outbreath is done with the muscles of the abdomen rather than the diaphragm, so presumably it must be relaxed to breath out. Duh. 🙂

    Cheers again.

  11. Anders 13 years ago

    Oliver, I think you are right about which muscles are activated. I will try to gain some more knowledge about the subject at some point, but the most important when you play is to find the relaxed feel and be able to hold on to it. The muscles don´t know their own names, they will just obey the signals from the brain… 🙂

  12. Michael 13 years ago

    What about TOH? Thinking of that while playing has opened up the sound of many of my students over the years. It helps avoid a “clenched” jaw sound, opens the throat and makes a more mature trombone sound IMO.

  13. king2b 13 years ago

    Michael, I agree that ton is a good idea, especially in the low range. I tend to change vowels as I go higher up in range. It would also depend on the size of your trombone, on a large bore I would probably stay on the toh-sound a bit further up than on my small bore.

    Thanks for the input!

  14. Jochen 12 years ago

    Hi, Anders,
    first of all: This is the best trombone website ever! Period.

    Quote:”One thing to be aware of when you no longer end the note with the tongue, is that you don not lock up the throat instead. ”
    Locking up the throat IMHO is kind of a worst case scenario, but, I guess, a wide spread phenomenon with amateur players. It often occurs if the player tries to fake a fat air stream while the general support is weak. Opening the throat gives these players – well, at least in the first run – the feeling of blowing into a vacuum cleaner.
    Had this when starting doubling on trumpet before using a very large bore mpc. OTOH, trombone playing on small dual bore tenor now requires a small mpc. Nevertheless, fat sound. Tonguing effortlessly. Range wide, on both horns. Bass trb. and sousaphone offer open-throat-playing automatically, due to the enormous dimensions of the mpcs.
    I’m not a prof player (although trained by profs decades ago), anyway, it works in my case.
    Mange tak for providing the trb – community with this wonderful webpage.
    This said, I appreciate your recordings very much. Nice to meet the Gary Valente / Carla Bley background of your education within your compositions!

    Regards, John

  15. king2b 12 years ago

    Hi John!

    Wow, those are some very kind words, I might have to quote you on that 🙂 Thanks!

    There are many stages of looking up the throat, both among amateurs AND pros, and getting rid of (or minimizing) those issues is really important, and it is equivalent to years of study in the practice room!

    You say that you now play well on a small mouthpiece, and I would say that is a great indicator that you are doing things right. Smaller horns/mouthpieces tend to be less forgiving than large ones. But playing large horns can be a really effective way to get the airflow happening.


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