The Jazz Saxophonist Learning to Slap Tongue and Flutter Tongue

Tracy Heavner • Jazz FocusOctober 2022 • October 13, 2022

Slap tonguing is an extended technique used by saxophonists that produces a unique popping sound when articulating notes in a pizzicato style. This effect, sometimes called for in contemporary saxophone literature, is notated either by an “x” note head or by placing a “+” sign above or below the note along with the words “slap tongue.” Commercial and jazz performers also use this technique to show mastery of their instrument and to create more interesting solos.

Flutter tonguing is an extended technique used by saxophonists to change the timbre of a note. Unlike other types of articulation, flutter tonguing is not actually used to articulate notes in the traditional sense, but is used to modify the tone giving it a raspy, growling timbre. This technique – used in classical, commercial, and jazz styles – is a very effective way of creating musical expression and interest. The standard notation for flutter tonguing is to write the note with three beams through the stem with f. t. or its equivalent in a foreign language written above to avoid confusion.

Learning to Slap Tongue
Before trying to slap tongue on the saxophone, the performer should first practice this technique by simulating the tongue movement against the roof of the mouth. To do this, the tongue should be pressed flat against the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. 

Next, the tongue should be quickly and forcefully pulled downward, producing a popping sound. No air is blown from the lungs while completing this movement as the popping sound is made from the release of suction created between the tongue and the roof of the mouth. Continue practicing this exercise striving to make the popping sound as loud as possible.

To produce a slap tongue on the saxophone, the performer first fingers the note to be tongued and then places the tongue flat against the reed, covering the surface about one half inch in from the tip. A lower register note is suggested since slap tonguing is easier to produce on these notes. Next, the middle of the tongue is pulled away from the reed while keeping the tongue’s sides and tip in place. This creates and area of suction between the reed and tongue that, when released by forcefully pulling the tongue downward, creates a popping or slapping sound. When slap tonguing, no air actually enters the mouthpiece. However, depending upon how much resonance is desired, a slight puff of air may be added to the tongue movement.

Learning to Flutter Tongue
There are two methods of flutter tonguing available to the performer. In the first method, flutter tonguing is produced by fluttering the tip of the tongue against the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth using a rolled “R” movement. For some saxophonists, this method of flutter tonguing is not possible because they cannot roll the tongue in an “R” fashion. A second method of flutter tonguing is to vibrate the back of the tongue against the roof of the mouth in a movement similar to gargling. This technique produces a weaker flutter tongue but allows those performers who cannot roll their “R”s a way to produce the effect.

To develop the ability to flutter tongue, a performer should first try to produce a rolled “R” sound by fluttering the tip of the tongue against the roof of the mouth without using the instrument. If this cannot be done after some practice, the second method of vibrating the back of the tongue against the roof of the mouth similar to gargling should be tried. After being successful at one of these methods, an attempt to flutter tongue should be attempted using just the saxophone mouthpiece and neck. If using the first method, start the tone and then begin rolling the tongue in an “R” movement against the roof of the mouth while blowing a narrow stream of fast moving air into the mouthpiece. The back of the tongue will feel very high in the oral cavity as if saying the word “her.” Make sure not to touch the reed with the tongue, as this will stop the tone. 

If using method two, start the tone and then begin vibrating the back of the tongue against the roof of the mouth while blowing a strong, narrow stream of air into the mouthpiece again not allowing the tongue to touch the reed. After being successful at one of these methods, the saxophone can be assembled and the performer can begin practicing flutter tonguing with the instrument. Notes in the mid and low range should be practiced first since the tones are easier to flutter tongue than notes in the upper register. Once the performer feels comfortable with these notes, flutter tonguing can be expanded into the upper register making sure to lighten the tongue movement as the notes ascend.

Developing the ability to slap and flutter tongue should be on every saxophonist’s to-do list. These techniques are sometimes called for in performances and it is unfortunate for those players who have not yet developed these abilities. In addition, these techniques can add much interest, variety, and authenticity to a saxophonist’s solo when performed correctly and in the appropriate style of music. It is well worth the additional practice time needed to develop these skills since saxophonists will gain two additional techniques that can greatly enhance their performances.

Dissecting Freddie Hubbard Lines
By Miles Donahue
The first line to dissect is the one Freddie Hubbard plays over the 9th and 10th bar of the standard jazz minor blues chord progression. The 9th and 10th bar of the major and minor blues is where the cadence in that key is created. A cadence is a series of chords that leads to a resting point. 

In a major blues the most common cadence is the infamous two, five, one cadence. In a minor blues, the chord progression is H6 dominant seventh followed by the V7 dominant resolving to the one chord (the key the song is written in). Freddie Hubbard chooses to disregard the H6 chord and only make the sound of the V7 chord, which resolves to the tonic. Because the V7 chord resolves to a minor chord he makes the sound of the altered dominant chord. For the first beat he plays the arpeggio of the chord 1,3,5, with a flat 2 scale note between 1 and 3. For beat two he completes the arpeggio 1,3,5,7, and plays #9 and H9. For beat 3 he plays down from 8, 7, H6, skip to 3 ( guide tone of the chord). Next, beat 4 starts on sharp nine and is using the altered scale followed by the be-bop scale to emphasize the 7(the other guide tone) which is the starting note for beat 5. Beat 5 descends from the 7th down to the 3rd which is the starting note for beat 6. The 6th beat is another arpeggio of the chord inverted (3, 5, 7, 8) Beat 7 is back to the #9 and chromatically to the H9. For beat 8 he anticipates the one chord. Beat nine completes the anticipation of the one chord.

For the IV minor chord he uses approach notes from below and above the 3rd to imply the sound of the chord. On beat 6 of this two measure phrase he implies the V7 chord resolving to the one chord.

Both of these lines are from the song “Stolen Moments” from the album The Blues and the Abstract Truth by Oliver Nelson and they are in the trumpet key. Put the song in “the Amazing Slow Downer,” loop these lines, and play over and over again.

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