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Clarinetist earns note for novel research approach

May 01, 2008

Imagine that you’re a clarinet player, faced with a long string of flagged black notes in your music. There is no curved mark under or over them, so this means that they must be “tongued” – the tongue must touch the reed for each note – to demarcate them one from another.

For clarinetists, the more notes to tongue, particularly at a fast tempo, the more difficult it is to make the music sound as the composer intended.

And with more and more such passages being written in modern music, it is a growing problem for clarinetists, says clarinet doctoral student Joshua Gardner, illustrating his point with a copy of recently composed music for solo clarinet.

Gardner is studying an advanced but controversial technique for faster tonguing, called “multiple articulation,” in which clarinetists place the tongue in different positions in the mouth as they articulate each note, as his doctoral research project.

When people say the syllable “doo,” they can feel that their tongues are in a position to touch the reed, and thus interrupt the sound, or “tongue” the note, Gardner says. But say the syllable “goo,” and the tongue replicates the motion of the tongue touching the hard palate.

“When we put these two articulations together (one on the reed, one off the reed), we are multiple articulating,” he says.

But is this most effective way to teach clarinet students to articulate faster? And what is the tongue really doing when the “doo” and “goo” sounds are being made?

Gardner realized that, to do his research, he would have to find a way to observe the tongue in action while a clarinetist is playing – and tonguing.

The possibilities included X-ray, which Gardner says is “not the most healthy manner of research”; a laryngoscope (a fiber-optic scope that goes into the nose or the side of the mouth); and ultrasound.

His search led him to the Dental School at the University of Maryland, and its device called the Head and Transducer Support System, or HATS.

“This is a device made to immobilize the head,” he says. “You sit in a chair and a clamp goes around your head. A robotic arm holds a transducer under the chin and sends images from under the mouth. They use it for speech research.”

Gardner visited the Dental School’s Vocal Tract Visualization Lab, with his clarinet in hand and one big question to ask of director Maureen Stone: “Is this going to work with a clarinet?”

It did work, and Gardner now has ultrasound images that show the contour of the tongue, back to front.

“We’re going to image the syllables and compare them,” he says. “We hope to learn how the tongue motion that we use to teach compares to the tongue motion used in performing.”

Gardner hopes to learn “if we are teaching students correctly, and if we could potentially make it more accurate,” he says. “Or find different syllables, or find something else.”

Stone says that although the lab looks at some unusual things, such as Zaghareet (the sound Middle Eastern women make with their tongues at happy and sad occasions) and clicks from African click languages, Gardner was the first to ask about clarinet music.

“When Josh approached me to study tongue motions during clarinet playing, I thought it was a great idea, though I didn’t realize that there was a whole lot of tongue motion during clarinet playing,” Stone says. “I should have known, because I’ve seen harmonica-players’, flute-players’, and singers’ tongues. I was also impressed with his resourcefulness. He found us online, came to check out whether the equipment would be suitable to his study, and got his research funded.”

So far, Gardner has only made an ultrasound of himself playing the clarinet, but he hopes to find other clarinetists to participate.

“There are not many people who do multiple articulation,” he says. “I will try to use professionals who are proficient with it.”

Gardner acknowldeges that, to some musicians, the technique is controversial.

“Some people say it ruins your articulation, but having this tool makes it easier to play and make a musical statement,” he says. “You don’t want to be hindered by technique – then it loses something.”

Gardner hopes to see multiple articulation become a standard tool in the clarinetist’s repertoire.

“The sole purpose for my research is to help make this technique more accessible – to help find it a spot in standard clarinet performance practice,” he says.