Selecting a Mouthpiece
A quality handmade mouthpiece can be the most important part of your equipment so your selection process should not be taken lightly. We believe that the topics listed below will assist you in your search for the perfect mouthpiece.
When evaluating mouthpieces, there are two general issues at hand: Feel and Sound.
In evaluating the feel of a mouthpiece, consider the effects of air resistance, embouchure resistance and response.
Air resistance is fairly simple. Does the mouthpiece blow freely? Is it too free, or is it too resistant? Do you need to play softer or harder reeds to make the mouthpiece blow-thru to your satisfaction? The proper resistance level is represented by an easy, free and responsive playing experience that is supported or backed-up by the ideal amount of working-resistance.
Embouchure resistance is often overlooked but very important. The amount of embouchure pressure required to play a mouthpiece effectively is the result of your tonal concept dictating a certain feel. Musicians often select reed strength in an attempt to achieve a desired tone quality. This leads to a certain amount of embouchure pressure required to center the sound correctly. When trying mouthpieces, please take special interest in how your preferred style of reeds and embouchure pressure react. Some prefer more embouchure pressure and others less, but the key is to select a mouthpiece that allows for the most secure and comfortable playing environment. Do you have to bite to make the sound you require? Is the playing experience more stable or less stable? When everything is comfortable, you will have more endurance and you will realize your tonal concept with greater ease and fluidity, free of unnecessary bite.
Response is essentially a byproduct of the two types of resistance. Each player has unique and individual resistance requirements, but when the resistance levels are in balance with the needs of the player, response becomes clear, easy, and efficient. The goal is to achieve the widest range of styles of articulation. It should be easy to tongue with the shortest crisp staccato or the smoothest long legato. A mouthpiece that responds correctly will give you confidence. It will feel stable and reliable, and will respond with comfort, clarity and ease.
Sound can now be evaluated independent of feel. Trust your initial reaction. Listen for intonation, tonal shape, size, color, flexibility, focus, clarity and character.
Intonation is of fundamental importance. Mouthpieces can have profound influence over your tuning experience and should be evaluated carefully. Please note however that instruments often have intonational tendencies, which should not be confused with the tuning characteristics of your mouthpiece.
Shape can be described in countless ways. Robert Marcellus often talked of the pear-shaped-sound. Others describe sound as round, fat or thin. Your goal should be to select the mouthpiece that most easily helps you achieve the tonal shape that suits your concept.
Size is not as simple as it sounds; is the sound large or small? Can you play loud or soft with ease? Although the size of the sound and the volume of the sound are different entities, they do interact with one another. Consider sound to be more than inanimate. It should be liquid, always moving, breathing or alive. A big sound is often the desired end result, but sound should be flexible too. Can you achieve many different sizes of sound while maintaining the same unifying tonal center?
Color is a difficult tonal entity to describe. From a musical perspective, sound is more than noise. Sound is art. A musician varies the sound’s color to create music much like a painter uses color to create art. Your mouthpiece should have the inherent tonal flexibility to help you easily access many different colors of expression, sound and artistry.
Flexibility can refer to both intonation and sonority. Indeed the mouthpiece you are testing needs to tune well, but it should also allow for the perfect blend of stability and flexibility. You should be able to adapt to all kinds of acoustics and tuning environments while maintaining a secure and reliable feel. The sonority of the mouthpiece should allow you to fit in any given musical environment. If playing chamber music one week and a symphony the next, your mouthpiece’s tonal sonority should be one that is adaptable to all kinds of music.
Focus is a very important part of tone. Some people like sounds that are softer and less pointed while others like sounds with lots of resonance and a brilliant center. Try to evaluate the natural voice of the mouthpiece. Does it focus the way you want it to? Is it too dark and dull or is it too bright and edgy?
Clarity of tone is very important in achieving a proper and well-schooled voice. A clear sound is full of overtones from the highest highs to the lowest lows. The sound should be easy, flowing “liquid-gold” with a clearly stated voice that is rich with overtones.
Character of sound is the sum of all of the above tonal entities. Does the tone inspire you? Does the character of your sound help bring you to a higher musical level?
Separate feel from sound. A mouthpiece should create a playing environment that is easy and effortless to achieve your musical goals. The easier it is for you to achieve your personal and unique tonal concept, the easier it will be for you to make music.