The Work is Never Wasted

I heard a colleague complaining about having practiced music which was later cut from the concert. What a waste of time, she griped! Something about that attitude rubbed me the wrong way. Why complain about time spent on your instrument improving ANYTHING? Even if the specific notes in question aren’t being performed, surely the act of working them out is building neural pathways and keeping you in shape, and that music itself may come up again somewhere, sometime.

Fourteen years ago I decided it was finally time for me to learn how to double tongue on my instrument. Double tonguing is a technique used for fast articulated passages, and is very very commonly used by brass players and flutists, both of whom regularly have fanfare-y or quick technical passages to play, and neither of whom has a reed in their mouths to complicate matters. The technique is more difficult for oboists, clarinetists, and bassoonists, but is certainly not unusual for these players. Most professional oboists have at least some version of a DT that they can pull out in emergencies or in situations where the old slur-two-tongue-two trick just won’t cut it. Some use it all the time. 

I’d always had a fast single tongue, and always managed to get by, but enough of my students had been asking about double-tonguing, and I’d had to fake a super-fast tongue just often enough, that I decided to learn once and for all what this business was about. For a whole summer I worked out of the Arban trumpet book on extremely tiresome exercises – the book is good, I just was struggling with the skill – and never really managed to break through. I could sort of get through an easy passage, at nearly but not quite the speed that I could have just single tongued, and I was happy to drop the project when my busy season started back up.

Fast forward to 2009. The Nutcracker, one rehearsal and four performances. My daughter was an infant and wasn’t sleeping through the night, so neither was I. My body and brain started to fall apart.  

My usually reliable single tongue failed me entirely. I couldn’t get it moving fast enough for the battle scene which is trumpet-like material in the solo oboe. And I was thuhthuhing all over the place, embarrassing myself to no end, even in slower passages that anyone should have been able to play. I was crippled, and taken fully by surprise. I hadn’t been thinking about it, and nothing had come up recently to remind me to, so this sudden loss of competence was demoralizing and alarming. 

The problem was temporary – I’ve found my articulation again since – but there I was, and I had performances I had to give. Right there, in the Nutcracker pit, I learned how to double tongue. The work I had put in, patiently, two summers earlier and NEVER REFERRED TO SINCE kicked in and I proudly tikitiki-d my way through the passage. I’m not going to say that it was perfect, but when I was blocked on my usual tonguing pattern I was able to turn on this other technique and circumvent the issue.

Since this time, of course, double tonguing has become a standard part of my repertoire. I single tongue just fine, but sometimes I even PREFER the double.  I use it when passages are just a LITTLE too fast or a LITTLE too long for my comfort – it prevents fatigue and yields a clean and effortless result. 

This Nutcracker experience was inspiring, though.  I was thrilled that the time I thought was wasted and fruitless two years earlier became abundantly useful, and that my efforts and energy eventually paid off. The work is never wasted.

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