It's never safe to assume that students are articulating correctly. Students get by through their beginner year with ways of faking it, and of course we as teachers can only spend so much time on one given thing. It's understandable. Articulation has to be retaught and reinforced every year, throughout the year. Sometimes I forget this, and yet I'm always surprised by how much things clean up after addressing articulation. It's as if the band was slurring it's speech, and suddenly they remember how to enunciate. I'm sure there are a lot of ways to teach it, or word it, but here are a few of the things I've used with some success.
Teach the Articulation Syllables
Or reteach, as the case may be. Kids forget! Regardless of the setting (homogeneous, full band), it's a quick process. Simply explain that when they start a note, they should start it both with the air and the tongue (not the air alone, as some kids do), but that different instruments have to use the tongue a little differently for everyone to get the same effect. There are of course debates in some cases as to which instruments should use which syllables, but here is what I have them say:
Flutes - Tu, Clarinets - Tee, Saxophones - Ta, All Brass - Toh (Like saying "Toll" but stopping the tongue right before the L's. I regret that I can't remember which author that came from, but it was from the "It Works for Me" section of the Southwestern Musician). This is only for the initial lesson. Special circumstances may require variations. For example, trombone slurs or brass legato require a "D" version of the syllable. When brass instruments are having trouble playing in in the mid to high range I might recommend using a "Tah" or "Tee" syllable respectively. But for the first lesson, we stick with those syllables.
Say the Syllable, Then Play It
Have the group say the syllable a few times. If you want to be thorough, do it on a variety of rhythms, such as whole notes, half notes, quarters and eighths. For beginners, using faster rhythms and a variety of the rhythms they know is a good way to add variety and sequence to the concept. Immediately have the group play it the way they said it. Do it at least a few times, or until it sounds significantly better.
Now, when a passage of music sounds murky and undefined, you have a trick. Ask them what their articulation syllables are, then have them "say/sing" the passage using their articulation syllable. Although it will sound strange and unblended to have them saying different syllables, when they play it, it will have much more clarity!
Earlier I wrote about Six Wind Pattern Applications in Rehearsal, with articulation and phasing being two of them. This is a great tactic for multiple purposes. Sometimes the articulation problem is an air support problem, where the tongue only makes the unsupported sound worse. Sometimes it's a phasing issue. You could deal with the phasing by counting, sizzling or bopping, but for another angle try wind patterns and tell the students to listen to the tonguing to see if it lines up perfectly. Rep it until it lines up! Now you can also listen for air speed - is it fast enough? Is it steady throughout or does it have a bump on the front and taper down?
Incorporate It in the Warm Up
Have a couple of exercises. In one, have them play on a unison pitch different rhythms of increasing speed. This is also a great way to work on alignment and the BME of notes. In a second exercise, have them practice the distinction between staccato, tenuto and accents. This will not only help you to unify how the band interprets these, but it will also give you something to connect to in the literature. With any luck, your students will eventually make those connections themselves!
The Straw and Paper
Good for visual learners, but it will require some prep work. You'll need some small straws (coffee sticks are too small for this one). Cut the straws down a bit, maybe to 4 inches or so. You'll also need some notepad paper, one for each student. Make sure they all have one of each, and demonstrate first.
There are two goals here - hold the paper as far in front of your face as you can, and keep the paper up for as long as you can. Try it a few times and see if you can hold it up longer each time.
Next, articulate quarter notes at a slow tempo while keeping the paper up. If you're doing it right, the paper will only lower slightly, but will not fall back to it's starting position. This challenges them to use a faster, sharper tongue and helps alleviate the hammer tongue that is sometimes required for some students to learn to tongue the notes during beginner band. The other good thing is that you've now given them a couple of practice tools they can keep in their case and use later.
Well, these are just a few tactics. There are countless out there, but hopefully this is a good place to start! I'd like to do a post at some point with things that band directors say to help students tongue correctly, like "magic words" if you know what I mean. If you have any other activities you use to teach articulation, or if you know of some magic phrases that seem to help students understand how to do it properly, please share them in the comments!
Thank you for reading, and until next time, take care and good luck!