Tongue Slaps and Other Percussive Sounds

Tongue Slap / Tongue Ram

Whenever I have a gig with my horn colleague Samuel Stoll, we inevitably get into a heated discussion about the difference between tongue slap and tongue ram. In my opinion, this is one technique with two different names. Sam begs to differ… But before I get into Sam’s special technique, lets talk about your classic tongue slap.

This effect is produced by quickly thrusting the tongue into the mouthpiece while blowing, thus blocking the air from entering the trumpet. The result is a short, percussive, pizzicato-like sound. As with other pitched air sounds, only the lowest notes of the trumpets range are possible. Also similar to air sounds, the tongue slap sounds around a major 7th lower (or semi-tone higher) than fingered.

Tongue slaps on C trumpet (with a C as reference pitch).

Slaps on the piccolo trumpet also produce a pitch around a major 7th lower than fingered.

Tongue slaps on piccolo in Bb (with a Bb as reference pitch).

As with other special sounds, be sure your note heads for tongue slap are clearly defined in a legend or directly in the score itself.

Lip Smack

…now back to my discussion with Sam Stoll. He considers the above technique to be a “tongue ram”, since the player is ramming their tongue into the mouthpiece. His version of a slap is what I will call here a lip smack. I have tried many times over the years to reproduce this on the trumpet with no success. Indeed I’m not even sure I can really describe the technique in question. In fact, the only person I have ever heard do this is Sam. So, dear composers: please don’t write this for the trumpet! But I do think it’s worth posting this short video of the amazing Samuel Stoll and his unique “lip smack”:

Palm Slap

Slapping the mouthpiece with the palm of the hand produces a percussive sound similar to that of the tongue slap. Unlike tongue slaps, the resulting pitch is strangely almost exactly and octave lower than fingered. Many players do not like this technique as it can cause the mouthpiece to get stuck in the lead pipe, or even cause irreparable damage to the mouthpiece or lead pipe. But, with a bit of practice and preparation it can be done fairly safely. Achieving rhythmic accuracy is trickier than with the tongue slap. In general I would suggest avoiding this technique and using the tongue slap instead.

Palm slaps on C trumpet (with a C as reference pitch)

Valve Sounds

A pitchless percussive effect is possible by simply depressing the valves without playing. This can be done slowly or quickly. The effect is fairly quiet and may be difficult to hear depending on the context.

A much louder percussive effect can be created by slightly loosening the valve from the valve casing. I actually really like this effect, though no one ever uses it! Keep in mind a player will need a few seconds to prepare for this effect as well as a few seconds to tighten the valves for normal playing.

Striking the Instrument

I always cringe just a little bit when I see this in a trumpet part. Yes, the trumpet is made of metal, but it is also surprisingly fragile. Even small strikes on the instrument can cause dents and scratches. As a player I would prefer not to risk it! But if you must insist on having the player hit their instrument, here are some tips:

The safest object with which to strike the instrument is the player’s own finger or fingernail. This gives the player full control over the force of the strike and is unlikely to cause any damage. The most resonant part of any trumpet is likely to be the bell.

In Olga Rayeva’s solo for trumpet, “Seven Messages Heard in a Dream”, she has the player rapidly strike/scratch the bell with fingernails creating a soft shimmering effect:

In general, the object with which you strike the instrument should be lightweight and only made of wood, plastic, rubber or something similar. Here are a few ordinary objects that can be used gently:

  • A wooden or plastic pencil
  • A large eraser
  • Paperclip (plastic or plastic-coated)
  • Wooden or plastic clothes pin

Gold Star

The Gold Star for percussive effects this week goes to Marton Illés for his new piece for 8 trumpets titled Rez Ter. He combines valve sounds and different (safe!) percussive sounds made by striking the instrument in different places.
I recorded this piece in December 2020 with the Monochrome Project. The recording has not yet been released, but below is an excerpt with lots of lovely percussive effects!

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