Mouthpiece Advice

The mouthpiece choice is always a trending topic on trumpet forums and I chime in from time to time because like most trumpeters I have tried (owned) more mouthpieces than socks. Given that the music shops in N. Ireland are rubbish; a mouthpiece selection would typically be “we might have a 7c here”, I have ordered and re-sold mouthpieces from the world over. So my advice for those of you who happen to have a decent music shop is to go and play test as many as possible and don’t worry about the number on the side, or the brand.

Granted new things are cool, and often work as a practice incentive, so on that level if you get a deal on ebay, it won’t hurt to try one, but make sure you have a good CD collection of good trumpet recordings and a collection of books and music. Lumps of silver-plated brass which sort-of resemble big golf tees (some look just like small golf tees.. 6a4a anyone?!) will do nothing for you in the long run, so as before – I advocate trying pieces, but with intent to settle on a mouthpiece (or 2).

The problem with the mouthpiece safari is the thrill of the chase, the quest to find that perfect piece which gives you a double C but that huge VSO rotary-powered sound from lead to combo; it suddenly makes you Chet Baker and Wayne Bergeron and Hans Gansch.. Chet-Hans Bergeron? Basically, this is the quest for the holy grail. My advice; quit when you find a decent rim/cup combo and get shedding.

So, onto some useful tips (before I get side-tracted onto telling you the story of me playing trumpet lying down on my back on the heli-pad of a commercial ferry at 3am).

What should you do to test a mouthpiece?

Right:

Take your time. If you are in a shop trying lots of them, I think it would be a good idea to have warmed up on your “usual” piece. Keep this handy.

Long tones, scales at mf. Gently ease into all registers, test flexibility – slurs, lip trills etc… Have someone honestly tell you how you sound. (A teacher would be good). See how it sounds from the back of the room, not just up close.

Comfort. Above all, a comfortable mouthpiece that you can play on and sound good on is a real goal.

Sound. Paramount in the quest for the “right” mouthpiece. Blind testing and ignoring the numbers on the side of the piece is a very good idea.

A/B. Keep referring to what you know. Your sound will always be your sound, your mouthpiece choice may change this slightly, but after 2 weeks or so you will end up sounding like you again. Let’s make that a comfortable choice. Granted cup depth will influence your sound somewhat, but your mental sound image is the driver; it controls the whole machine.

Record yourself – you wouldn’t believe what sounds good on a recording. It is good to know what the microphone thinks!

Ordering abroad – like me – buy mouthpieces that are around the size you play and ask the manufacturor for help – they will know better than numbers on a chart. Years back on a Bach forum I was recommeded the 3C – this was a time where I was told that small = high and I wasn’t going to listen. Fast forward some years and I am playing on Mark Curry’s 3 rims. Funny that!

Wrong:

Let’s find the mouthpiece that gives me the best upper register.

Let’s see what I can play the loudest and brightest on.

Let’s find the biggest-rimmed, smallest mouthpiece, because that’s what lead players use. Pressure = Force/Area, so more area will dissapate that arm pressure and I will have the best endurance.

Small = bad, big = good.

Big = bad, small = good.

Shallow = high notes.

Deep = no high notes.

Real mean play on bathtub sized mouthpieces with car-exhaust backbores.

Basically: choose a comfortable mouthpiece that makes your job as a player easier! There are no prizes for heroes playing lead on a 1X. Do not compromise the sound.

Ok, I have thrown a bit of stuff your way there, now for more! There are a lot of popular mis-conceptions with mouthpieces. I have been taught every contradicting theory under the sun of mouthpiece and the selection thereof; finally, after asking my own questions I have wised to what works and what doesn’t.

Some “gold” that I have heard or been taught:

Play on the biggest mouthpiece possible.

Play on the smallest mouthpiece possible.

Play on a 7c/1C/arbitrary size.

This rim feels sharp because you have a weak embouchure.

Play on this, it has the biggest backbore (referencing the throat at the time).

Mr “X” plays on this, if it is good enough for them, it is good enough for you.

There are “cheater” mouthpieces for playing high, that’s how those American boys play.

It doesn’t matter; just play.

I bet some of those are familiar. As an impressionable young student I tried mouthpieces because to play high I need a small one – according to my teacher. I was never taught how to breathe or any of the fundamental exercises necessary for playing and I literally knew no better. Thankfully I was set straight by a decent local teacher!

Here is the deal, and information you will see given by respected players: play something fairly middle of the road unless it doesn’t work for you. If the rim is sore, there are many options – I will mention this below.

Shallow pieces will emphasise high overtones and help you cut. This is a good idea for big band, and if that is your sound concept when playing piccolo these will work. If you just like a brighter sound, why not play your 3D?

Medium pieces will work well for all types of playing if you have a good sound concept and can manipulate your sound.

Deep pieces will attenuate the high overtones and emphasise the fundamental tone. These can be good for a big dark sound if you want to emulate a rotary horn, or to blend in a brass quartet or even combo gigs.

If you are a student it is my opinion that by sticking to a standard depth cup you will develop into a better player who will be able to utilise a shallow cup when appropriate. It is also true that bigger/deeper mouthpieces can cover up embouchure and general playing flaws, another good reason to stay in the middle of the road until you (or your teacher) feel that you are ready for change.

For anyone wanting to start, here are a few mouthpieces which I consider middle-of-the-road.

Bach 7c/6c/3c
Curry 7c/3c (slightly more cushioned than Bachs)
Warburton 5MC/8 4MC/8 (slightly more cushioned than Bachs)

Not middle of the road:

Jet Tone 10s
Bach 3E/1B/17C
Warburton 1XD/12
Curry 00S

For those of you who play and are considering swapping or “upgrading”. Why? Is this teacher-prompted? Is the rim hurting? Can you not play on your current piece? Do you want an easier upper register? Do you want a better sound? Tighter slotting?

Ok, firstly – the simple ones:

Teacher prompted swap – trust them. Trust what you feel, if they move you onto something that feels bad compared to your regular piece, tell them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Your 3C is fine!

Upgrading? Add half an hour/day to your practice routine. In this time do flow studies. That is a better upgrade.

Fine tuning a piece – this is for geeks and or pros who know their gear and want to optimise. In this case you will know what to do, but for the sake of a comprehensive article that hopefully avoids too much techno-linguo.

Caveat: sound concept is more important than gear. So is regular practice, as are teachers. All of these variables run many combinations, which is why our mouthpiece guru’s can help if we ask them. They build them, they know what works. For your own help:

A higher compression setup can help secure the upper register.

Tightening up slots:

Tighter backbore

Optimising the GAP between the mpc end and the leadpipe within the receiver – typically 0.150″. Contact Bob Reeves for his sleeves.

Shallower cup or even a less V shaped cup. (Think Warburton S vs the SV, MC vs MD).

Adding sizzle:

Shallower shallow V shaped cups can help.

Tighter backbores can help.

Lightweight blanks.

Sound concept. Ears!!

Adding depth to your sound:

Sometimes opening the throat can help – I opened my 3M. to a 26 throat from a 27 and I thought it helped me get closer to the sound I wanted. Go 1 bit size at a time!

Slightly larger backbore and or cup.

Heavyweight blank.

Symphonic sound:

Sound concept!! Listen!!

A medium to medium deep piece is a good start. Curry C or B is a good idea. Some will advocate huge pieces, others will advocate the 7c. I advocate whatever you feel comfortable on that achieves a good sound. Let the sound and the feel dictate the decision.

Big backbores, larger throats and deeper cups can be a factor.

Finally: Lips.

The Bach mouthpiece guide refers to lip size and cups. Thick fleshy lips preferring certain cup sizes and or rims. I have reasonably full lips and I play 95% on a Curry 3M. (Like a Bach 3D). I have played on everything from a Jet Tone 10s (15.9mm ID) to a Bach 1C (17.5mm ID I think). I have seen thin lipped players on huge pieces who kick my ass, and thick thick lipped players on a 10 1/2D who are also kicking my ass. It is very personal. Lip size isn’t the key to findng the mouthpiece – trial and feel are more important. My 12 year old bro plays the Tuba (very well) – he has fine lips and plays a Denis Wick 3L. Finer lips than me, a lot finer. I can fit my entire foot in his mouthpiece, let alone my mouthpiece!! Andy is playing double Cs (the holy grail. A note I have only hit a few times). Go figure…

The frequently used analogy is that mouthpieces are like shoes – you wouldn’t tell me what size of shoe to wear, right? Maybe in a shoe shop they can suggest some to try… but that is their job!

If you feel like getting nerdy, pop onto:

http://www.kanstul.net/MPcompare/MouthpieceComparator.html

I am sure that I have missed some information here, but in the interests of my sanity I will stop. Hopefully this will have helped someone. Please contact me if you want to chat. I can probably help recommend pieces to try if you have no teacher and are in a fix!

Mike

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About Michael Barkley

Trumpet player/tutor, luthier, jazz enthusiast, coffee addict.
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2 Responses to Mouthpiece Advice

  1. Pingback: Your Voice | Michael Barkley

  2. Pingback: Your voice and brass playing | Brass Musician | The online magazine for brass players

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