Players of brass instruments spend a lot of time thinking about their tongue, and how it factors in tone production, tonal range and articulation. Many books have been written on the subject but the truth is that since we can’t SEE inside our mouth while we’re playing and it’s very difficult to feel where the tongue actually IS while playing, a lot of what has been said on the subject is just theoretical.
In what is proving to be a fascinating study with significant implications, Dr. Peter Iltis (Professor of Kinesiology at Gordon College) and Eli Epstein (former 2nd horn of the Cleveland Orchestra, now teaching at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and New England Conservatory of Music) are announcing research involving the filming of elite horn players by way of MRI technology. This allows us to see inside the oral cavity of a group of superb players and begin to draw conclusions about the placement of their tongue while playing. Iltis and Epstein have created a Youtube channel to present some of their findings. These findings are applicable to all brass players, not just horn players. For convenience, here are two of the videos. They are each about 20 minutes long but if you are a brass player, they will definitely get your attention and get you thinking about tonguing in a completely new way:
Their second video continues the discussion:
But wait, there’s more! My friend, Dr. John Ericson, horn professor at Arizona State University, has three video podcasts in which he has further conversations with Dr. Peter Iltis about the MRI horn insights. You can see them here:
John Ericson and Peter Iltis, discussion 1
John Ericson and Peter Iltis, discussion 2
John Ericson and Peter Iltis, discussion 3
If you’ve stuck with this so far, then you will want to read this article by Peter Iltis, Jens Frahm, Dirk Voit, Arun Joseph, Erwin Schoonderwalds and Eckart Altenmüller (click the title below to read or download the article – it’s free):
Divergent oral cavity motor strategies between healthy elite and dystonic horn players
This article discusses the comparison between group of elite horn players and a group of players who are experiencing a form of “focal dystonia,” and how tongue placement is an important aspect of healthy brass playing. The article is technical but readable and understandable. And a real revelation.
I think we are just now at the beginning of a new era of understanding about this very important aspect of brass playing. I tip my hat to John Ericson for letting me know about this. I don’t know about you, but after looking at all of this, I think I need to go and practice.