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Mouthpiece Meditations, Part 2

Larry Roth  - xaxnar@aol.com

Doug Elliot and Dennis Wick
Mouthpieces

 
Related Info
  This series began by establishing that a good mouthpiece is one which: A) is comfortable, and B) works for what the player is trying to do. While this seems obvious enough, meeting these deceptively simple criteria is not easy.

Ideally a mouthpiece should be matched to the player, the instrument, and the circumstances in which it will be used, each of which can vary greatly. Finding a balance between these three factors has inspired the creation of a confusing variety of mouthpieces of different sizes, styles, weights, etc., and a number of theories to go with them. This months installment will attempt to make some sense of the myriad ways mouthpiece makers have attempted to produce "something that's comfortable and works."

Mouthpieces fall into two broad categories, ranging from stock mouthpieces turned out by manufacturers based on traditional designs, to those from specialists pursuing their own particular vision. (Some also make a distinction on the basis of 'commercial vs. legitimate'.) The vast majority of designs are circular in cross section, but the other dimensions can vary, sometimes radically. Mouthpieces may be solid one-piece units, or they may be assembled from screw-together components. Further, there are a variety of materials used to make them. (Fink, 28)

However, despite the variables, all mouthpieces are used in the same manner. When the lips meet the mouthpiece:

  1. There is pressure from the mouthpiece as it is pushed against the lips.
  2. There is pressure in the other direction as air is forced between the players lips.
  3. There is tension in the lips as the muscles are tightened.
  4. There is back pressure from the mouthpiece and the trombone in the form of resistance to the flow of air.
  5. There is: positioning of the lips on the mouthpiece, jaw movements, tongue movements, tilting, changes in posture, breathing, etc

Air moving over the lips causes them to vibrate within the constraints imposed by the mouthpiece and the players efforts. In turn those vibrations are imposed on the air stream, creating sound waves. The sound waves (and air) travel through the mouthpiece into the horn, which acts as a resonating device. (Vaughn, 1997)

While all of this is going on, the trombonist is (or should be) listening to the sound and sorting through the physical sensations resulting from these actions. The brain is processing this information both consciously and subconsciously in order to produce the desired results. (The trombonist may also be trying to read music, listen to those around him or her, following the conductor, etc..)

What do the different elements of a mouthpiece have to do with all of this? The effects fall into two overlapping areas: effects on the sound produced, and effects on the effort/comfort levels needed to produce that sound.

First, we need to define some terms. Here is a glossary and diagram of some of the more prevalent terms used to describe the elements of a mouthpiece. The list is not exhaustive, and definitions are based in part on the usage and context in which the terms were found and my own understanding of the concepts involved. Consider this list a point of departure, and make adjustments accordingly.

Rim Shots

"Which parts of a mouthpiece are important?" Gordon Cherry, Principal Trombonist of the Vacouver Symphony, has the following ideas. "Most important is the feel of the rim. If the feel of the rim is not correct, then the player loses all confidence and cannot make accurate entrances or phrases."

The rim is critical to how a mouthpiece feels and plays - its where the player makes contact with the instrument, and any mismatch could affect the entire combination of player, mouthpiece, and trombone. All elements of the rim, the inner diameter, thickness, contour, and bite must work together to produce the optimum match to the individual peculiarities of the players embouchure and ability.

The inner diameter is the most important factor in this group. Generally, a smaller diameter makes it easier to play in the higher registers, while a larger diameter is needed for the low end of the range. Large and small are relative terms, however; the size of a players lips (thick or thin), the players mouth size and jaw structure, and the amount of control the player has over the lip muscles must be taken into account as well.

Someone with thick lips may require a larger mouthpiece to give their embouchure enough room to hit pedal notes, while the thin-lipped player might need a smaller mouthpiece to be able to reach the top end of their range comfortably. Symptoms of a rim's inner diameter that is the wrong size also include: lack of endurance, consistently poor pitch (sharp or flat), and tone that may be either too thin and scratchy, or dark and fuzzy.

Rim thickness and shape can also be thought of with regard to comfort. Both a thick rim and a flat rim will spread pressure more broadly over the lip than a narrow rim or a rounded rim, helping endurance; but they may also reduce lip flexibility, adversely affecting response.

Conversely, a narrow rim may improve flexibility at the cost of reduced endurance. A rim with a pronounced crown will give the player a more definite sense of where the mouthpiece, is on the lips. For some players, a pronouned crown provides a measure of security in setting the mouthpiece. The downside is that it cuts into the lips more deeply than a flat/broad rim, possibly decreasing endurance.

The relative amount of rim bite (sharp vs. gently rounded curve) also may affect endurance and response. A sharper bite may give the trombonist more control over what is happening with the lips, but may hurt endurance if the edge is too sharp. Further, the player whose embouchure habitually works against the outer edge of the rim should also take into consideration how sharp or round it is.

It should be noted that as well as considering player lip size (thick vs. thin) in balancing these elements, another factor that needs to be considered is the amount of pressure the player habitually uses. Some people use quite a bit more than others, which can affect endurance.

Trombonists doubling on euphonium, or who use different trombones on a regular basis, may have to consider whether or not they can use one mouthpiece for all, or if they should use the mouthpiece which seems appropriate for the horn. Messages posted to the trombone listserve suggest that at least some players find they are more comfortable using a mouthpiece that fits the horn they're playing; others have problems if they try to use different mouthpieces. Reginald Fink, citing Vincent Bach as a source, warns that switching between mouthpieces with overlapping rim dimensions can cause embouchure problems. (Fink, 28 )

This warning is based on a theory that over time a groove is worn into the lips by the erosion of fat particles from within the muscles of the lip by the pressure of the mouthpiece rim. According to Fink, playing more than 45 minutes at a time with a mouthpiece of slightly different rim size than the players usual choice disrupts the groove, affecting placement and control. To the extent that this theory is true, it suggests that: A) changing any of the elements of the rim, especially the inner diameter, should be approached with caution, and B) finding the optimum set of rim elements is a matter that should be given some weight when selecting a mouthpiece.

The Cup Runneth Over; Deep Throat Meets The Bore

Just as the rim produces differing effects with differing elements, so does the part the cup of the mouthpiece plays. A deep cup yields a bigger, darker sound while a shallow cup brightens it and eases achieving higher notes. "V" shaped cups funnel air through the mouthpiece rather quickly; lowering resistance and aiding in projection; but have less total volume, while "C" cups tend to impede the flow of air somewhat (increasing resistance), but add warmth to the tone.

John and Phyllis Stork assert in their book "Understanding the Mouthpiece" that some players have lips that protrude farther into the mouthpiece than others. If the cup is too shallow, there's not enough room for the lips, the overall sound is smaller, and the tone may become brittle. Those for whom the cup is too deep, however, the result is a volume of air which is larger than the player can move efficiently; intonation and sound brilliance suffer. (Its not clear how much of this is a problem for trombone players with their large mouthpieces versus, for instance, trumpet players with their smaller mouthpieces.)

Using this theory, a player who needs a deep cup, but finds it holds more air than he can handle, can compensate by moving towards a "V" cup shape, which still provides depth while reducing the total volume. Players who want a shallow cup for their higher registers, but need more room, can move towards a larger "C" cup.

Determining how far into the mouthpiece ones lips protrude or how ones overall embouchure fits can be difficult to ascertain. Tubist Ellis Wean of the Vancouver Symphony has what may be the answer. Wean has developed the Tru-Vu mouthpiece which are machined from transparent cast acrylic plastic (with an opaque Delrin shank). According to Wean, the mouthpiece allows a clear view of the lips, letting the player see what he or she is doing with the embouchure while playing.

Wean has developed Tru-Vu models for trumpet, horn, trombone, bass trombone, and tuba. He also has a videotape which details how the mouthpiece can be used. Additionally, he claims it produces a sound comparable to regular mouthpieces while being lighter; players with braces on their teeth supposedly have found it more comfortable.

The throat, bore and backbore should complement the qualities of the cup. For example, the depth of the throat can interact with the effects produced by the depth of the cup. A deeper throat can partially compensate for a shallow cup and vice versa.

According to the Storks, the throat, bore, and backbore have their greatest effects on the resistance of the mouthpiece. While a certain amount of resistance is necessary for a player to produce a tone, too much results in "stuffiness", with a small brittle sound. The player cant put enough air through the mouthpiece. Conversely, too little resistance leads to a fuzzy tone, poor response, and the player gasping for breath.

Either condition can affect the amount of effort needed to play consistently on pitch. Changing the throat, bore, and backbore can each separately affect how much air can pass through the mouthpiece, and how much effort is required to move the air at the desired velocity.

Since different instruments by themselves may exhibit different amounts of resistance, it follows that a mouthpiece which provides a good balance of resistance with one horn may have too much or too little with another model. Where a player has found a combination of rim and cup that work well with one trombone, it may still be necessary to adjust the throat, bore, or backbore to get the right amount of resistance for another horn.

Finally, individuals differ in the amount of air they can effectively handle. Two players might be comfortable with the same rim and cup parameters, but find widely differing levels of resistance tolerable, even on the same model trombone.

Matters of Substance

Conceivably, a mouthpiece can be manufactured from anything capable of being shaped precisely and holding that shape through the stresses of playing. (Has anyone ever run across a ceramic mouthpiece? Glass?) In practice, most are made of silver-plated brass. Other substances may be substituted for reasons of aesthetics, comfort, or function. Some players prefer gold-plating because of its appearance, others because of the way it feels. Allergies may be another reason for alternative materials. The Tru-Vu mouthpieces mentioned above are made of plastic so they can be seen through, but plastic can be used for other reasons, such as comfort or cold-weather playing. (Bach offers screw-on plastic rims for this purpose.)

Whatever substance is chosen to make a mouthpiece, a factor that has come to be given varying amounts of importance is the question of its mass. How heavy should it be, and where should the mass be distributed?

The designs of David Monette, in particular, place a great deal of importance on mass. Information on the Monette website states that Monette mouthpieces are consistent in pitch, timbre, and response over a full range of dynamics, from high to low pitches, and supposedly produce a richer and more resonant sound. They are also markedly heavier than conventional mouthpieces. Monette has developed an elaborate set of directions on how best to use his designs, calling for matching them to a particular model horn and adjusting body posture and style of playing.

The idea that heavier mouthpieces somehow improve tone, pitch center, etc. is not unique to Monette. The Vincent Bach Company (Selmer) offers a line of Megatone mouthpieces which are machined from oversize blanks to make them roughly twice the weight of a standard Bach mouthpiece. Giardinelli Music Company offers a "Tone Intensifier." It is a metal ring which slips over the shank of the mouthpiece and snugs in tight under the cup by friction. It supposedly aids in projection and improves the sound of the instrument. In an interview, Phyllis Stork discusses the effect of heavier mouthpieces. She notes that they can darken the sound, add intensity, and stabilize tone quality. They can also decrease projection and response.

She further notes that mouthpiece mass preferences among players vary in chronological cycles. In the 40s, players, including Tommy Dorsey, were using sterling silver mouthpieces for more weight. In the 60s, players were having their mouthpieces "skeletonized", removing metal from the exterior to improve projection and response.

Doug Elliott offers a contrary view, suggesting that the advantage of sterling silver is that it needs no plating (which could wear off). Citing a Rudy Mark mouthpiece catalog from 1937, he observed that it didn't seem to claim any special qualities for mouthpieces which weighed more.

Table, Please!

This table is intended to summarize much of the above as a quick reference. If you are considering using a different mouthpiece, you can use the table to sort out benefits versus problems, and key in on which particular elements you might wish to experiment with first. Note that different elements can have overlapping effects, and be sure to read the disclaimer below and the more extensive explanations above.

Disclaimer!

A mouthpiece should not be confused with a magic wand. Changing mouthpieces will not obviate the need for sufficient practice, substitute for well-developed technique, or magically correct embouchure problems, no more (to revisit the first installment's analogy) than putting on a particular brand of running shoes will make you a world-class track star. The most the change will do is make some of the things you are trying to do easier. Keep the following points in mind:

  1. The same conditions will produce different results for different individuals and different instruments - you have to try them to see what happens for you. One size does not fit all, and terms like large small, shallow, deep, thick, thin, etc., are all relative.
  2. The effects listed above may prove more or less achievable for different people, the theories which explain them may or may not be correct to the same extent. Take them with a grain of salt and be prepared to consider alternatives--your mileage may vary. Many of th theories and explanations above are based on empirical data; there's a significant difference between knowing what something does and knowing why it does it.
  3. I suspect much of this lore is based on the experiences and beliefs of trumpet players. How well it translates to trombone playing may be debatable.
  4. Many theories are espoused by mouthpiece makers with their own agenda. Caveat emptor!

The mouthpiece is the thing. . . . .or is it?

It is interesting to note that the effects on the sound allegedly produced by various mouthpiece elements can also allegedly be obtained by selecting differing elements in a trombone. A page on the Selmer Web site discusses how different trombone bell shapes, sizes, weights, materials, etc. all have a particular effect on the sound that comes out of the horn. As a mental exercise, substituting "mouthpiece" for "bell" in that discussion helps place all of the above in perspective.

If you are interested in one mans search for a better mouthpiece, check out the Web pages of Doug Yeo, bass trombonist for the Boston Symphony. He spent several years working with Yamaha to develop and refine a better mouthpiece for his bass trombone. Whether or not you give credence to all of the things mouthpiece design is supposed to be able to do, the process Yeo went through makes fascinating reading if you've ever wished you could get your own mouthpiece "just right."

Much is claimed, but little is guaranteed. Nevertheless, looking at these ideas in an organized fashion is the best way to find which ones might work for you. The next installment in this series will give you some practical suggestions on how you can get started, assuming you feel a change is in order.


About the Author...
Larry Roth began playing the trombone in the fifth grade, and has yet to succeeded in getting away from it. A technician for a State Health Department, Roth is a 'Weekend Warrior" with the Delmar Community Orchestra, the H-M-S Marching Band, the Starliters Big Band, and the Greg Nazarian Big Band. Contact: xaxnar@aol.com.