Thomas

Woodwinds

After 30 years of being involved in the refacing, design, and building of saxophone and clarinet mouthpieces, I am constantly amazed and amused by numerous myths, legends, and partial truths that abound in the mouthpiece industry. Whenever a player, regardless of his or her ability, finds something that works for him or her, that person suddenly become an expert who loves to give the entire music world advice on the World Wide Web.  When the mouthpiece doesn't work for them they proclaim it to be useless junk to be avoided like a contagious disease.  These are the same people that call me up and ask something like, "Can you make me a mouthpiece that feels exactly like my Selmer C*, plays with a Dave Sanborn sound, is perfectly in tune when I split an altissimo high A, which I am very good at, and oh yeah, I have to use a #4 Vandoren Blue Box reed on it because that is the kind my teacher used when I studied with him three years ago".  You get the point.   I believe the reality of choosing a mouthpiece (or instrument, reed, ligature etc.) is a very personal decision.  Let's face it - no two players are the same physically.  Every player has different needs due to varying oral cavity shapes and sizes, their ability to support the sound correctly, and whether or not they have a properly developed embouchure.  When searching for the perfect mouthpiece players must realize that "The Holy Grail" does not exist.  There is no single size and type of mouthpiece that will work for every player in every situation.  Many great players select a primary mouthpiece that meets all of their needs in the environment they play in most, but will sometimes change setups to better function in other playing situations.


The process of choosing a mouthpiece will vary from player to player based on their level of expertise.  A beginner will need a teacher or professional assistance to get a setup that will allow them to move on to the next level of performance.  A seasoned player will already have a pretty good working knowledge of what will work.  Here are a few thoughts that I hope will help with this process.  First and foremost, have an open mind.  The mouthpiece or equipment you are trying will be different than your current setup.  Let's face it - if you were really 100% satisfied with your current setup, you wouldn't be trying out anything new, so give your new mouthpiece a chance.  Start with a mouthpiece that has medium facing and use a medium (#3) reed.  If you are looking for a jazz mouthpiece it is better to try it out with jazz cut reeds (Vandoren Java, V-16, or ZZ, or Rico Jazz Select, etc.).  If you are trying out classical mouthpieces, use Vandoren Traditional (blue box) reeds (or similar).   Match the tip opening of the mouthpiece to a reed strength that works with your instrument and physical characteristics.  The reed strength that works best will vary from mouthpiece to mouthpiece and player to player.  Don't be stubborn about reed strengths!  You may discover that you have a great mouthpiece by moving your reed strength up or down a half size.  Playing a super hard reed is not a virtue and doesn’t prove anything.  The people you play with want to hear a great sound and intonation.  They don't care how hard your reed is.  A common error is that too many people use their favorite reed, the one that plays on their current mouthpiece, to evaluate their new setup.  If you do this, you are really only testing your reed against the new mouthpiece.  You are likely to choose a mouthpiece almost exactly like the one you have already, with the same issues that sent you on the quest for a new mouthpiece in the first place.  Please spend a few bucks on reeds so you can make an intelligent choice.


As I stated above, I would start with a medium to medium open facing when testing mouthpieces.  Many players, especially younger players, have the idea that "bigger is better and louder".  This is not true and is often the reason many players have intonation problems.  The best mouthpiece is the one that is balanced for you, the reed, and the instrument.  When you obtain this balance you will be able to obtain your optimal dynamic range, tonal color, and pitch control. Most professional players play on a medium to medium-open mouthpiece with medium to medium hard reeds.  There are of course exceptions that can be extreme in either direction, but this is a good starting point.   A trusted set of ears can be very helpful to the mouthpiece selection process.  If that isn't possible, record yourself to you get an impression of what you sound like to a listener, not just how it feels and sounds to you.  After you make a selection, stick with it for a reasonable amount of time and play it in a variety of settings.  This will allow you to hear and make subtle adjustments that will let the new equipment truly come to life.  Stick with what works.... don't confuse matters by constantly trying out more and more stuff.  Too often good players and students hear a top player or their idol and think that if they obtain that setup they will play and sound just like that.  I’m sorry -  it just doesn't work that way.  Once you resolve the mouthpiece issue, spend some time finding and working on reeds and remember - nothing beats good old-fashioned practice!  Good luck!

Choosing a Mouthpiece

by John Thomas