Updated: Dec 10, 2021
You've heard it before. A whirl of notes, scales and arpeggios outlining the coolest sounding melodic showcase and suddenly, "ta,ta,ta,ta,ta,ta,ta,ta,ta,ta,ta..."; like a machine gun, the clarinetist articulates a string of notes at speeds only computers should be playing with. The mysterious double tongue has shown its mystical face.
Really, now. Why is it so magical when a clarinetist double tongues? Flutes, Oboes, Bassoons and all of the brass have been doing it for their recorded history, haven't they? But for clarinets, even though they were born near 1700, it appears to have taken the birth of a metal relative in the 1840s to convince clarinetists to up their game.
What is double tonguing anyway? The normal tonguing action to articulate notes, or rather to start and stop or separate them, is to lightly touch the reed with the tongue to make it stop vibrating. Most commonly, this sound is articulated with the tongue making a motion similar to saying "Tee" or "Too". Or is it "Dee" or "Doo"? In any case, it is basically tip to tip, tongue to reed, that the motion takes. Each time a clarinetist does this, she stops one note and starts another. That, my friends, is single tonguing.
Most clarinetists progress, over years, through different phases of articulation speed. Beginners starting from 80 to 90 beats per minutes or metronome mark (bpm or mm) articulating eighth notes and quickly moving to sixteenth notes by their second year. By their third year, or senior year of middle school (yes, they act like seniors), they hit sixteenths at 100 bpm and by the time they are seniors in high school, most are expected to articulate at 120 bpm for sixteenth notes. (How else are they going to play all those marches?). Moving on, if they do, clarinetists in college are pressed to find the extent of their articulation capabilities and find that, for most people (certainly not all!), sixteenths at 144 bpm over any extended pattern is the limit. (It certainly is my limit for any articulated patterns.)
But, of course, composers write music faster than 144 bpm that requires articulation. The rest of the orchestra can go faster, why would they slow down for a single instrument?! They don't. Clarinetists simply find ways to "fake it". One popular way is to "tongue two, slur two" or even "slur three, tongue one". Sad. Look at this passage from Beethoven's 4th Symphony in the final movement:
"Ah, measure 297 and our friendly articulated 16th note patterns. No problem. The range is great, the patterns are familiar and I can tongue at a super fast 144 bpm! I've practiced for years to get this fast. Bring it on. Wait! What? I think the editor made a mistake. Does that say, 'Half note equals 80'?!" You think to yourself, "If half note equals 80, the quarter must be 160! How can I articulate that?" The customary fear sets in and you start exploring fake articulations like slur-two, tongue-two. "Will the conductor notice?" "I need to learn to double tongue!", says the player who has been playing for over a decade (sometimes two!).
Somewhere around 120 to 144 bpm, double tonguing takes over and often soars upwards of 200+ bpm for sixteenth notes. Since the tongue usually maxes out at around 144 bpm with a single motion, finding a secondary motion to articulate and alternate with seems a logical next step. I would only need to alternate between these two articulation motions at 80 bpm to appease old Beethoven.
So, clarinetists, being the supremely intelligent musicians we are, decide, "Well. Brass players and flute players double-tongue. Let me ask them how to do it." The friendly trumpet player tells you, "Simple. Just go 'tah, kah, tah, kah'." Simple! Not so simple, apparently.
The clarinet is somewhat unique in its construction so that this "tah, kah" motion is a bit of a stretch, and we mean that literally. Clarinetists found that "tah, kah", where the back of the tongue closes off the air to make the "k" sound, distorts the "voicing" of the clarinet player. So what is voicing?
"Voicing" is how we position the tongue inside our mouth to prepare the air stream for the perfect tone, as we clarinetists are inclined to produce. Slight positional adjustments of the back of the tongue help produce beautiful entrances on notes in the upper clarion to altissimo ranges, from about G on the top of the staff up.
If we even tickle this delicate setting of the tongue, we can unleash a sound quite unpleasant. So, it must have been at least a slight disappointment as our clarinetist attempted to "kah" his way through the Beethoven above. But we clarinetists are a resilient bunch and experimented with various iterations of the "backwards" syllable and came to realize that even a subtle "guh" intead of "Kah" can still get the job done and do less to unsettle the delicate voicing setup. Ahah! Double tonguing on the clarinet is born.
That's all great for the process of history, but what about the timeline? When did this revelation take place? Have clarinetists double and triple tongued since 1700 when the clarinet was born? We have no proof other than deduction. Other instruments were double tonguing when the clarinet was born and those players were the first clarinetists, therefore, they likely also double tongued on the clarinet. But we have no proof or evidence of that outside of assuming.
Often times, when looking for evidence in history, we look for 1st person sources. That means I want to read where the guy who actually did something wrote about it. The best place for us to find 1st person sources for double tonguing would be method books written by the professionals of the day. When we explore these resources clarinet players created back in the day, we find no reference to double tonguing. In fact, referencing articulation techniques at all is sparse. We do, on the other hand, have some references to double-tonguing in the methods of other instruments of the day. How about the History of Double Tonguing on Trumpet for example.
It really isn't until the 20th century when the saxophone comes to the fore in Jazz that we start to get content focused on single reed double tonguing. Jimmy Dorsey's Saxophone Method: A School of Modern Rhythmic Saxophone Playing mentions double tonguing (pg 28) and we assume he used it on clarinet as he was known to double. Kenneth Douse's Method dedicated solely to double and triple tonguing on saxophone and clarinet was published about 1948. Mr. Douse mentions Al Gallodoro whom Jimmy Dorsey proclaimed was the "the best sax player who ever lived." (Birmingham Weekly, October 2, 2008).
So, clearly, these Sax and Clarinet doublers were double and triple tonguing at the beginning of the 20 century, but why no evidence prior? Reason suggests that they were double tonguing in the 19th and 18th centuries but we have zero evidence of it. Not for clarinet players, at least.
I have a personal confession to make: I cannot double tongue and do not have the patience to learn at 52-years-old. I can articulate short passages in the 140s and extended passages in the upper 130s to 140s. I would like to personally believe that players such as Stadler (Mozart), Hermstedt (Weber and Spohr), Baermann (Weber) and Muhlfeld (Brahms) did not double tongue because then I don't feel so weak (if the "greats" didn't do it, then I don't need to). But alas, we live in a different time and there are method books teaching double tonguing today and it has become more pervasive or, we should say, prevalent.
While we mere mortals are looking for fake articulations to play Beethoven (and I assume they did as well when Beethoven wrote it), the clarinet greats of today are blazing new trails to encourage composers to write even faster articulated passages for us. Sigh.
If you have evidence that clarinetists of the 18th and 19th century double tongued, please contact me here with it and I will update this article. It would be greatly appreciated.