Producing a well-defined initial attack presents a challenge for many brass players to the point that it can become a serious physical and mental impediment. It requires precise and confident coordination of the embouchure, tongue, and air stream.
First, consider that a breath attack underlies every tongue attack. A responsive breath attack is indicative of a well-set embouchure. When you add the tongue, don’t change anything about the way you deliver the air, just use the tongue to help focus the delivery.
One common problem is cuffing or splitting the first note, producing a “kack” or “clam.” This situation can be due to not hearing the pitch accurately or to faulty physical action but is generally caused by attacking the note off center. After a faulty attack, try to assess whether you overshot or undershot, and then consciously correct on the next attempt.
Accuracy can potentially be improved by reducing the number of “moving parts.” A tongue attack involves a forward-and-back movement as when saying the syllables “t” or the softer “d.” It is the pulling back of the tongue that releases the air; the forward motion is essentially a setup action. An initial attack can be executed with a rapid forward-and-back motion similar to pronouncing the syllables verbally; however, an alternate possibility is to set the tongue in place in advance, reducing the action of the tongue to a single stage. My technique for this is as follows:
With vibrating points touching inside the rim of the mouthpiece and tongue at the bottom of my mouth, I take most of my breath through the mouth corners. Near the end of the inhalation, the lips close to form the embouchure while the tip of the tongue moves up above the top teeth. Simultaneously, the air intake switches to the nose. At the completion of the inhalation, the embouchure is formed for the pitch, and the tongue is in striking position; it only needs to snap back to release the air.
This technique may seem overly complicated at first, but with practice it becomes second nature. Practice it away from the horn, concentrating on the inhalation first, and then adding a whispered “T” exhalation through the vibrating points of the lips, replicating the feel of an attack on the horn.