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The mouthpiece experience
Choosing a mouthpiece might seem an easy task, but choosing the right mouthpiece which suits you is a different story. In fact, proper mouthpiece selection is by far one of the most critical picks that a musician can make before starting to play an instrument. Look at the mouthpiece as a bridge between your lips and your instrument – practically, without a mouthpiece you cannot play your instrument. One can (or nearly) play with any mouthpiece but the full potential of any musician is reached with the right mouthpiece only. Your mouthpiece can be the weakest link, however, it can be your strongest too if you select it correctly.
Which is the right mouthpiece for me?
There are a number of factors which can indicate whether or not the mouthpiece is the most appropriate one, however, the main three are comfortability, effort and tone.
First and foremost, a mouthpiece should feel comfortable as soon as you place it against your lips. This is something that only you can experience and nobody can do it for you. Comfortability should come quite naturally, when in doubt, try and compare two or more different mouthpieces to experience the difference. With comfortability comes confidence in your performance, which is a top-priority for most musicians.
Another indication for choosing the right mouthpiece is the effort you input into your mouthpiece in order to get the desired output (sound, projection and intonation). A proper mouthpiece should help the musician in his performance and not impeding his abilities. Playing with ease and with minimum effort is something that should come naturally. Unnecessary effort reflects an incorrect choice of mouthpiece due to losses being generated inside the mouthpiece instead of transferring all the energy where it should be – into you instrument!
Finally, the musical tone which the musician is after should determine whether or not the mouthpiece is the right one. This is normally the most difficult choice for any musician when compared to comfortability and effort in playing. The character of the tone depends on the likings of the individual. It is important to keep in mind that different mouthpieces are capable of producing individual tones with the same instrument. This means that the choice of a mouthpiece influences the character of the sound that you are after.
One has to keep in mind that the choice of a mouthpiece is totally personal and individual. A mouthpiece which applies for someone else does not necessarily mean that it will apply for you as well – in fact in most cases, it won’t. This is because physically everyone is different, in this case, in terms of jaw, teeth and lips. Another reason is that the blow of each individual is different and therefore the effort which one applies can vary as well. Always keep in mind that it takes time for your lips to get used to a new mouthpiece. Following the above three principles will give you a good start in choosing the proper mouthpiece that you’ve been after.
Analyzing the anatomy of a mouthpiece
In order to understand better what determines the comfortability, effort and tone that a mouthpiece produces, one has to analyse the anatomy of the mouthpiece in detail. The structure of a mouthpiece is made up of different parts. Each part serves a specific function. The main parts of a mouthpiece are the rim, the cup, the shoulder, the throat and the backbore.
1. The rim
The rim is one of the most important parts of a mouthpiece. The rim of a mouthpiece gives the brass player an idea of the comfortability which the mouthpiece offers. Many brass players tend to accept or reject a mouthpiece based on comfortability only, meaning that a mouthpiece should be comfortable for the individual no matter how good the mouthpiece is. It is not easy to find a mouthpiece which suits you perfectly for various reasons; one of them being that the rim is complex and is divided into different segments.
1.1. The rim contour
The rim contour is the outer part of the rim. The extremes of the rim contour range from a flat rim to a round rim. The rounder the rim is, the more comfortable and flexible the mouthpiece is. However, roundness tends to decrease the endurance and control of the musician during performance.
1.2. The rim width
The wider the rim is, the less tiring the mouthpiece is during performance. However, techniques such as flexibilities and intervals, which require a higher level of lip movement, will tend to suffer. On the other hand, a narrow rim is much better when it comes to flexibilities and intervals since there is less lip contact with the mouthpiece, meaning that the lips are freer to vibrate and move. Articulation is better defined with a narrow rim. However endurance will tend to suffer since such a rim will dig into the lips and as a result, blood circulation is reduced.
1.3. The rim bite
The rim bite bridges the gap between the rim contour and the cup. This radius is very important as it has the ability to hold the mouthpiece against the lips. Having a fairly sharp inner bite makes the brass musician feel more secure; it strengthens the attack and increases the control. However, having a very sharp inner bite will cause pain and reduces the endurance cause of reduced blood circulation. You will start feeling that the mouthpiece is a bit small for your embouchure. Control and comfortability will be lost as time goes by. On the other hand, having a rounded or soft inner bite will make you feel more comfortable during performance. However, both the attack and control will suffer as a result of less grip. Besides comfortability, the rim bite has an influence on the sound; a more rounded rim bite will produce a darker sound compared to a sharp rim bite which produces a brighter sound.
1.4. Rim inside diameter
The choice of the inside diameter is a personal one. As a rule of thumb, you should always choose the biggest diameter that you can handle and that you are comfortable with. If you choose a mouthpiece with a smaller diameter than the largest one you can handle, it will help you in the higher register, increases endurance however lip vibration will suffer because there is not enough rooming for the lips to vibrate freely, resulting in a weaker tone. On the other hand, having an mouthpiece with an inner diameter larger than the largest one you can handle, will result in lack of endurance since there will be less grip and it will be more difficult to play. This will also result in poor tone quality. Therefore the rim inside diameter should match exactly the player; this will result in improved endurance, enhanced lip vibration, more balance between high and low registers, improved attack, intonation as well as articulation.
2. The cup
The cup resembles the shape of a bowl. Usually a cup ranges from shallow to deep. The cup is characterized by a number of contours which characterizes the air flow inside the mouthpiece. This directly influences the timbre of the tone.
The shallower the cup, the brighter and thinner the sound is. A shallow cup will assist the player in the higher register. The response will increase too because the volume of the cup is much less compared to a deep cup. However, such cups are not very suitable for the lower register.
On the other hand, the deeper the cup is, the darker is the tone, the response is reduced however the lower register is more colourful. A medium cup will be an all-rounder cup and is fit for both upper and lower registers with minimal effect on the tone.
3. The shoulder
The shoulder bridges the cup and the throat. The shoulder is highly determined by the design of the cup itself. The shoulder determines the efficiency of the flow of air from the cup into the throat. If the shoulder is more pronounced, this will result in a brighter sound. On the other hand, if the shoulder is less sharp, the resulting sound will be darker.
4. The throat
The throat is the small circular opening in the middle of the mouthpiece. In fact, the throat is always the smallest cross-sectional area in a mouthpiece. Based on the Venturi principle, the design of the throat is in such a way that the velocity of the air as it reaches the throat increases and goes into the instrument at a higher velocity. The size of the throat also determines the resistance. The resistance is a very important factor in mouthpiece design and must be controlled. If the resistance is not sufficient (a bigger throat), than you will not find enough support during performance especially in the higher register and when playing pianissimo. However, the volume is much bigger with a bigger throat mouthpiece and the lower register is even more colorful. Playing for long hours with such a mouthpiece can be more tiring especially when you have long and slow passages. The sound produced is less centered and less controlled. The quality of the notes suffers as slotting of notes is reduced.
On the other hand, playing with a small throat mouthpiece, the resistance will increase. Apart from playing with ease pianissimo passages and higher register notes, you have the added benefit that you can play for longer. However, having excessive resistance results in a weaker tone; you would like to give more from your instrument but you cannot. This will result in fatigue.
This brings us to another point; a brass player can never play with only one mouthpiece. There is no single mouthpiece that fits each and every music genre, being classical, jazz, solo work and so on. Therefore the brass player must always choose the right mouthpiece for the particular performance based on the above facts.
5. The backbore
The backbore channels the air flow from the throat to the instrument. The backbore can be regarded as a sound regulator – it determines the characteristics of sound, resistance and intonation. A narrow backbore is capable of producing a brighter and more controlled tone with an increased resistance. A wider backbore will result in a full and darker sound together with less resistance. Backbore designs have an effect on the intonation of the whole system. When designing the backbore, the whole mouthpiece should be taken into consideration in order to control resistance, intonation, pitch and efficiency.