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The topic of Episode 94 of The Mellocast is the Mouthpiece Wheel of Doom. It is a term jazz hornist Mark Taylor uses relating to the testing of horn mouthpieces, and for sure since the recording of the show I have entered yet again a phase of mouthpiece testing.
Even before the show I was looking. I had been using a couple different 80 series Laskey mouthpieces for some time but I wanted to try something just a bit bigger, so I was trying all summer to adjust to the 825 series, which has an inner diameter of over 18 mm. The bottom line I realized was that while it felt nice on my lips for me it was just a bit too much mouthpiece, so I had recently gone back to the 80 series. But then, after recording the show I thought to myself, hey, why not try a smaller diameter again? What would be the harm?
One general piece of advice I would have is own a lot of mouthpieces. It may seem like bad advice actually, and it can get a bit expensive, sure, but it is an investment that will pay off. I am sure I have over 100 mouthpieces, most purchased used. In ways I guess I am a mouthpiece collector.
I have a couple specific mouthpieces in the collection that I will never sell and can’t replace. One is a Schilke FARKAS MODEL mouthpiece (pre-Holton) that I won my job in Nashville playing on (more on that in another post) and the other is the mouthpiece I played on both of my solo CDs, a Conn 5BN from roughly the 1970s.
A Conn 5BN?!? I know that sounds a bit hard to believe and rather random in fact, but some of these are quite good. I have three of them actually, one being not nearly as good and two of them quite close with one having an edge over the other. It is on the right in the photo, with the original Conn gold plating. I am told that these were actually produced by outside jobbers, not by Conn itself. This is why these (and other classic brands) vary so much, it always really depends on who actually made the mouthpiece and where, especially these older mouthpieces that were not machine made on computer lathes. Even the most generic mouthpiece must have a few that slipped out that were actually quite good, totally up to specs and made by a very fine machinist. Just for the cheaper brands many more were shipped out that “looked like a mouthpiece” and that was good enough for the price point they sold at.
I purchased my first 5BN in a batch of mouthpieces from a retiring horn player about 15 years ago, and first tested it seriously when I was testing mouthpieces after the purchase of my Paxman 25A over ten years ago. Through some quirk of the black art of mouthpiece making the 5BN just feels great on this Paxman double, and trying it again I will probably stick with it again. But on my upcoming recital I plan to play one half on my triple and one half on the double, and the Conn 5BN only feels good on the double. The triple is made to take a slightly different receiver. What to do?
One investment I made about eight years ago was to have Osmun make a copy of my best 5BN, the sliver mouthpiece in the photo. I had this made mostly as I knew I was playing on a mouthpiece that I could not replace (danger!), but no student could buy a copy of it either which was a problem in my teaching. I had never really liked that copy in the double and used it very little, I headed into different directions and over to the Laskey products. But getting it out again now the Osmun 5BN copy actually feels pretty solid in the triple. The shank is just a bit larger on the Osmun version which is a part of it for sure (on the Conn 5BN I like in the double the shank is slightly undersized compared to standards). I did not even own the triple when that copy was made for me. Yet another reason to hang onto any mouthpiece that seems like it might ever be promising to use, it may pay off when you are on the mouthpiece wheel of doom yet again.
In short practicing is suddenly a lot more fun on this new combination of horn and mouthpiece. I know I will probably switch again eventually but for sure I feel like I have come home again and some things are just easier, I feel more accurate and generally comfortable.
But I can also see why I quit using it. Most of the playing I was doing at the time was in loud groups and the Laskey 80 puts out more sound, and also on the triple the Laskey helped out the low range production and as mentioned the Conn 5BN did not fit the horn. While I can tell on the 5BN mouthpieces I have to be a bit more careful with low note placement, overall comfort is better for the type of general playing I do now.
This gets at part of why Mark calls this the Wheel of Doom. It is a wheel as you may end up right where you started after all the experimentation. But if nothing else the journey is worth taking, you will figure out better what different equipment lets you do and does not let you do.
If you want to try a Conn 5BN good luck! They have been out of production for many years and even if you find one you may only find a dog as they were made in batches, and thousandths of an inch really matter in mouthpieces. Osmun may still be able to sell you a copy of mine and I may invest in yet another of these. Also, a final note would be that I know there are pros out there that use prime examples of the old Conn 3BN as well. These old Conn mouthpieces are not as far out in left field as you might think; these two models are ones to try if you can luck into a good one.
UPDATE: And, if you have read this far and are curious, I try to always keep this article updated with what I am actually playing now: