Choosing a French Horn Mouthpiece (I): The Basic Parts

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For the past decade I have stayed with one type of mouthpiece, but over the years I have gone through a number of different makes and models. The picture above shows a few that I have used.

The pursuit of the mouthpiece best suited to your needs can be one riddled with questions. There are many variables to consider. Since I have gone through a large collection in my lifetime, this post I hope will help others.

» Mouthpieces are horn and people specific

One important lesson that I have learned from mouthpiece-maker Tom Greer of Moosewood Requisites is that mouthpieces are horn-specific. A mouthpiece that might work well in a Paxman for example, may not work at all in an Alexander, or vice-versa.

For this reason, I use different mouthpiece underparts (using the same rim) for my Yamaha 667 and my Conn 8D.

» The mouthpiece that comes with the case

Most factory-made horns include a stock mouthpiece in the case. John Ericson wisely notes:

On mouthpieces … I would first suggest in general that hornists don’t use the mouthpiece that “came with the horn.” A change of mouthpiece can make an incredible difference.

A mouthpiece is something that ideally, fits to the individual’s anatomy.

Occasionally, a buyer of a new horn may get lucky — the stock mouthpiece might work very well for their particular embouchure. But in most circumstances, the stock mouthpiece that comes with a horn is not recommended.

» Well … “so and so” uses it!

When I was young I played on a mouthpiece that was the same make and model as a famous player. My immature thought was that the ability of that performer would somehow magically transfer to me by using their mouthpiece.

Unless there is a strong, shared anatomical similarity, using a specific mouthpiece for the sole reason that a famous player uses it is not recommended. It can be a naive, even counter-productive choice.

Just because Superman wears a red cape, its does not mean that if you buy a red cape you will be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

French Horn Mouthpiece Cutaway Diagram

» Variables

Mouthpieces come in many shapes and configurations. Some of the main choices to consider lie in the different parts.

  • rim
  • inside diameter
  • cup
  • throat and bore size
  • stem seating in the lead pipe
  • weight
  • plating type

» The Rim

Because it is the part of the mouthpiece that is in direct contact with the lips and because it functions as an isolator of the buzzing lip muscles, the mouthpiece rim is a good place to start.

An article by Lawson Horns at the Osmun web site points out the four basic rim face contours to consider – oval, wide cushion, reverse peak (what I would simplistically call, “flat”), and round.

What these contour elements do precisely is not an exact science, but there are some general characteristics:

  1. A round contour helps with flexibility and medium endurance.
  2. A cushion rim helps with endurance but limits flexibility. For players with orthodontic work, a very thick rim — such as the Neil Sanders rim — can help tremendously with the discomfort of playing with braces.
  3. A flat rim feels wider and may help with comfort on certain types of teeth.
  4. An oval rim is a good general purpose type. It can offer average endurance, flexibility and clarity of attack.

Generally speaking then, a flatter rim offers better flexibility; a rounder rim gives better endurance. Finding the right contour for you is a bit of a game of necessity and comfort.

The right fit may only be found through personal trial and experimentation; there really is no one-size-fits-all. I would recommend starting with something in the average range — an oval rim — and branching out from there.

For this reason I prefer a screw-rim mouthpiece as it allows for testing and experimenting with rims while using the same underpart.

Another aspect of the rim to consider is the bite or grip — the inside edge. According to Philip Farkas in The Art of French Horn Playing, a rounded bite helps with smooth slurs, while a sharper bite gives cleaner articulation.

For myself, I am not wholly convinced of this rule. The bite I believe, has more to do with comfort and sensation — pure and simple.

Players with thinner lips may find a sharp bite uncomfortable, while players with fuller lips may find that it helps to give them a grip — hence the term — on the mouthpiece.

Again, what works best is one that strikes a balance unique to the player.

Whether it be the contour or the bite, the final rim choice will depend on a facial anatomy, how the rim feels on the face and ultimately: tone quality, endurance, articulation and flexibility.

» Diameter

I have fairly full lips and once upon a time I experimented with a mouthpiece which had a relatively small inner diameter. I finally came to the conclusion that I could not get enough of my lips into the mouthpiece.

The diameter was too small for me.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I once played on a mouthpiece with a rather wide inner diameter. While it felt very comfortable on the lips, my high range suffered.

Generally speaking, I have found that a wider inner diameter is better suited for players with full lips. Mouthpieces with small inner diameters are more ideal for players with thinner lips.

Bear in mind that this is my rule-of-thumb and may not be 100% universal to everyone.

Continued in Part II — cups, throat and bore.

University of Horn Matters