Will a Different Mouthpiece make much of a Difference?

This article was written and posted in the original HTML Horn Notes Blog at the end of one of my summers teaching at the Brevard Music Center. Dated 7/30/2005, it is one of those topics that comes up very often in horn teaching.

Recently I have found myself talking with several students about mouthpieces. Mouthpiece choice is very important and it can make a huge difference.

First, a preface. I have always been mechanical and interested in equipment. I started college as a music business major interested in instrument repair as a career. Fast forward to my Doctoral studies. I was able to create a special minor at IU in brass instrument design and construction. A project for that degree was carefully measuring well over 50 mouthpieces. I also have played, really played, on just about everything from a C-1 to the smallest mouthpieces you can find on a variety of horns. I have thought about mouthpieces quite a bit, and I would switch to another cup in five minutes if I felt it was really better than what I was playing.

Tonight I want to focus on two separate issues. One is the design of the mouthpiece in general. The second is quality control.

A non horn player would look at a bunch of horn mouthpieces and could easily think to themselves that they all look about the same. This is far from the truth from the horn players perspective. Mouthpiece designs vary widely and differences of only a thousandth of an inch are very important.

In general you want a medium width rim that is not too rounded and a mouthpiece somewhere in the great middle of the spectrum of horn mouthpieces in overall dimensions. If you are far from this, a change can be helpful.

Three concrete examples from my recent teaching might be helpful at this point.

1. A student was playing and had been playing for some time on a Holton VDC mouthpiece. Which is actually not a bad mouthpiece, I use it occasionally on natural horn. But that is to say it is really a pretty extreme design in relation to modern practices. Very thin rim, very deep cup, almost no backbore–it is a mouthpiece straight out of the 19th century. As such, it is a good choice on natural horn as it smooths out the sound and attacks which can sound harsh on a modern mouthpiece, but on a modern horn it is prone to a dull, woofy sound. I had the student try a Osmun CH-14 cup that I had handy with their Vienesse rim. It was a revolution, sound came much more in focus and every thing was suddenly a lot easier.

2. Another student was playing and had been playing for some time a Yamaha 30C4 mouthpiece. Which is also not a bad mouthpiece, I use one regularly on descant horn. Which is to say also that it is a rather extreme design in the other direction compared to the Holton VDC above. While the VDC is prone to woofy attacks and a dull tone, the 30C4 is prone to a harsh tone and edgy attacks, at least at full dynamics on the double horn (but it does feel good and produce an easy high range). We have been trying several mouthpieces, currently a Osmun copy of the mouthpiece I was last using on double horn, with the goals of rounding out the sound and attacks in general. It is not the total answer but it is helping and is a part of the package of developing a better tone.

3. A final student came to me complaining of endurance and range issues. The mouthpiece this student uses is a popular model but with a very thin, “cookie cutter” rim and at #8 bore it might be just a bit too big. Some of you reading out there are thinking “what, #8 too big???” but having been there, done that and bought the T-shirt in terms of big mouthpieces I would dare to say you may be working too hard, and while a thin rim is good for accuracy, too thin can cut and reduce endurance significantly. And this makers mouthpieces have varied widely from batch to batch; I am not convinced the one in use now is from a good batch.

Continuing the same thought, the big problem is thousandths of an inch really do matter in mouthpieces and there are makers out there with real quality control issues. Try a couple of mouthpieces of the same model–they should feel the same, but quite often they don’t. Many dimensions are potentially out and out significantly. Compare the rims–if they feel different, how many other dimensions are also different? Quality control really matters in mouthpieces. Even if you feel you have a great mouthpiece, try others of the same or similar models and if you keep your eyes open you will surprise yourself that the horn can actually be easier to play and have a better sound.

I usually suggest medium mouthpieces in a size range from 10-14 to students; my suggestions may be found here.

So what is my current mouthpiece? Since switching to the triple these past few months I have been using an Osmun version of a B-16 with a slightly enlarged copy of my rim. It has been working great on the new horn.

Eventually I settled on a copy of my Conn 5BN as the best option on that triple but I was interested to note this summer at Interlochen that Gustavo Camacho is in fact at present using one of those Osmun B-16 cups that I was trying that summer. I may need to buy one again….

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