“I want to play higher.”
“I want to play louder.”
“My teacher told me to get a jazz mouthpiece. Can I try the Bobby Shew one?”
“I’m in high school now. I played the 3C in junior high, and now everyone in band plays the 1.5C.”
“Can I get the one that Allen Vizzutti plays?”
Why do we look for new mouthpieces? Over the past 10 years of selling mouthpieces and equipment to brass players of all ages, I seemingly always get one of the above answers to the question “Why?”. Reflecting on the many discussions I’ve had, I’ve come to realize that there is a moral code to trying mouthpieces. Good morals bring future success, and bad morals bring future injury. The above statements are valid requests of a mouthpiece but what is the moral code that guides those requests.
Let’s begin with the bad moral conduct. The player wants to play higher, faster, and louder. They look for the mouthpieces that have advertised high fast and loud by their colleagues, brass deities, or ads in their respective journals. They try their highest notes on their fastest and loudest passages. Something sounds great at the store, they bring it home and a week later they’ve reached the moral to their story: their lip is injured and they can’t play anything. In short, the player wants to play higher, faster, louder and thus higher, faster, louder has guided their search and become their code. I use the grand “they” in this scenario, but I think we all can relate in some degree to this situation as we all have at some point searched for the tool that would magically make something work when practice and study seem to have failed us. A magic tool will rarely appear for us and work for the rest of our lives. There is a science and method to arriving at the magical tool that is lost if your search is guided poorly.
If not magic, what then should guide your search? The moral code of sound. The moral code of sound suggests that good moral conduct is guided by good sound. As beginners, we had to learn how to make a sound. Once we were able to do that consistently, we began to learn how to make a good sound. In order to create good sound, we have a sound concept. This sound concept that we latch onto gets so engrained in us it becomes our musical heart and soul. Your sound will tell you immediately if your equipment is not the right fit, if something is healthy for you or unhealthy.
Whether you are looking for a specific tool (like a lead trumpet mouthpiece) or for an improved all-purpose mouthpiece, always begin your search with the question “What is the best sound I have ever heard – the one I want to sound like all the time?” With each of the following steps, be aware of whether your desired sound production is happening naturally or through manipulation.
- Have a selection of mouthpiece options ready. I would compare no more than 3 at a time.
- Using a familiar scale, start in the middle register of the mouthpiece and then explore the range, both high and low, loud and soft.
- Using the scales test the articulation in all registers both loud and soft, legato, staccato, etc.
- Use lip slurs to focus on the tuning of the mouthpiece
No matter how comfortable it is or how high or low you can play on it at the store, if the sound is not what you expect in all registers, you will uncontrollably manipulate your air and embouchure to create the sound you want. A week of doing this will injure your lip and keep you from playing. Note there is no “might injure” and “might stop you” in this discussion. It will. Physical manipulation over a period of time will injure you. If you are sitting in the audience and can’t see the soloist at a concert, you bend your head to the side so you can. You’ve solved the problem of not seeing the performer, but 30 minutes later you’ve created the problem of a stiff neck. Let your mouthpiece choice be guided by what your sound is telling you, and it will be hard to take home an unhealthy option.