I Think I Need A New Mouthpiece

March 11, 2016

Faculty Author:

As a professional brass player, you should get whatever mouthpiece your teacher/friend/idol uses and then just focus on getting better at the instrument.  The mouthpiece doesn't really matter, only your hard work. If you switch, you will go back two steps and ultimately fail.  Batman will backhand you and tell you to go do more long-tones. Forget about switching, the mouthpiece won't make you a better player.  There is no silver bullet, no magic metal. The pro’s don’t switch mouthpieces and neither should you. The mouthpiece never missed a note by itself.  


Or should you?  

In this article, I will show you how having multiple mouthpieces can be good for you, and tell you how you can benefit from traveling down this path.  


In 2016, the commonly accepted rule for mouthpieces is that you should not be a switcher.  However, the ugly truth behind this is that many of us take this attitude to the point of ignorance.  Then, when we are faced with taking on the role of a specialist, the gig breaks us and/or we have no real way of adapting and thriving outside of our comfort zone.  This situation is becoming the norm in today's varied musical landscape.  You simply cannot hide from it any longer!


What do I mean when I say specialist?  Well, that would be playing music for your instrument in a setting or style that utilizes an extreme of range, endurance, volume, or ability for contrast.  For brass players, the orchestral player is just as much of a specialist as the commercial player.  The classical soloist is also a kind of specialist in the same way that the jazz soloist is a specialist. See the table below to see this in a more visual way.




It should come as no surprise that the most commonly used mouthpieces for these four areas are distinctly different in order to facilitate the specific demands each will face.  That is not to say that there are exceptions to this rule.  There are and always will be exceptions to any rule, but you can bet your lunch that those who only play one mouthpiece arrived at their equipment of choice through trial and error rather than through ignorance and insulation.  


You can also bet your lunch that they generally have found their niche and almost exclusively play inside of their comfort zone.


I’m willing to bet that you are reading this article because you are, on some level, curious about the potential benefit of being comfortable with using multiple mouthpieces.  I’m here to tell you that you CAN and SHOULD take advantage of the right tool for the job.  Doing so stands to only improve your utility and confidence across the board.


Having multiple tools in your arsenal will not only allow you to take on any gig, but will allow you to excel at whatever role you find yourself playing once you get there.  Generally we don’t call “commercial” players when we have a quintet gig, and we typically don’t call the “legit” guys for a jazz session or big band gig.  


This is because of the stereotypes that have been established and that we generally meet because of the current culture of brass education.  When we deal with the scenario of the players being mismatched to the gig, the resulting product is generally inoffensive and unexciting unless the gig is their home base (by virtue of professionalism kicking in).


However, there are more and more brass players running around who can, quite literally, knock it out of the park in ANY setting.  It should come as no surprise that they generally make use of various equipment changes in order to achieve the critical musical mass required for the gig at hand.  The result is an exciting performance at every turn.


But how should you go about selecting the right tools for the job?


On this topic, I recommend that you examine whatever mouthpiece you use for the majority of your work, and identify its primary characteristics.


These include:

  • Width (inner diameter)

  • contour (shape and thickness of the rim)

  • depth/shape (volume and shape of the cup)

  • resistance (a combination of aspects including cup/throat/backbore/length/mass)


Some of these you can identify visually, others you may need to look up.  I would then assess how this mouthpiece feels on your face, and then go about looking for shallower and narrower mouthpieces that have a similar feel. (or if you are a commercial player, try to look for something deeper and wider that has a similar feel).  


The danger here is that you end up with something that you can really squeal on, but that is so alien to your face that you have no control and your normal mouthpiece feels like a bucket when you come back to it (or that you end up with a mouthpiece that messes you up when you need to get your chops back out of the cup on the shallower one).


You ultimately want something that feels familiar, and makes doing the things you need it to do easier.  This mouthpiece does not necessarily need to have any of the same characteristics as your primary mouthpiece, but they are a good place to start.  Also, you need to be able to go back to your main mouthpiece without any transition issues.  

If this is not possible at first, then keep reading because I’ll give some tips on how to deal with this cross-training issue.


My primary mouthpiece is the one that I use for everything except lead playing and very specific instances of orchestral playing (ie: low section or rotary trumpet).  I can play my entire range on this mouthpiece and I spend 95% of my practice room time with it.  So naturally I ended up looking for something that has many of the same characteristics but ultimately ended up on something that is different in with throat and backbore changes.  If you still can’t figure it out, then see a custom maker to see what they suggest. Nearly any combination of aspects is possible on a mouthpiece.  


For a commercial mouthpiece, I recommend that you try to go narrower than your primary mouthpiece. This helps to separate the playing habits you must activate and deactivate when playing commercial music, as well as make your job easier.  


I generally play one or two sizes narrower than my main mouthpiece.  Although I do have an extremely shallow and narrow mouthpiece I use for special occasions.


Now, on to the topic of how to coexist with your other mouthpieces!


One of the biggest benefits to having multiple mouthpieces is that you can cross-train.  This is exactly the same as in athletics.  You train for your sport by playing other sports and doing other types of movement.  But in the end, you are focused primarily on the first sport.  


To do this, I would select a few exercises per day from your routine and simply do them on your other mouthpieces.  This also works for training the habits for your other instruments.  I generally do this if I know I will be needing to switch gears mid-gig, or if i have new piece of equipment or instrument I need to acclimate to.  The types of exercises I rely on for this are almost exclusively limited to bending/slurring related exercises as well as set-up articulation practice.  Just enough to jump into the new mode of tone production and back again. 


These are also to remind the body how the air and breathing must change to accommodate the different equipment in the best possible way, so as to not force one way of playing into many types of equipment.  See the exercises labeled as “Bend Study” in my dissertation.  Also, check out Shuebruk’s set-up drills or the Merri Franquin attack practice.


One common pitfall is trying to use the exact same habits when using different equipment.  All kinds of brass players tend to fall into the trap of “MY SOUND” and end up searching for it no matter where they are.  


They end up playing by “feel” and the result is a player who is hard to play with in any situation.  Don’t be that person!  The solution to this is to always strive to make the most appropriate sound for the setting, any style, in any section, and on any part.  


I’ll break the news that the large majority of your playing is almost never going to be focused on the “MY SOUND” kind of playing.  In fact, unless you are playing with yourself or being a soloist, your job is to be part of a section that is part of an ensemble.  


Having the right gear and knowing how and when to use it allows you to play any position on the team.  Always be part of the solution!  Do your job!  Everyone will like you!  Especially when your job is to nail the opening of Malaguena or to play the Finale of Pulcinella.  Doing the job justice is the other half of your job as a musician.  


Refuse to be unremarkable and don’t be afraid to shine!



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