Mouthpiece Meditations Part 4
The previous articles in this series covered the specific physical elements of the mouthpiece and how a change in each element might affect its playing characteristics. Given the sheer volume of different mouthpieces on the market, and their various claims to add "body" or "warmth" to your "sound," having an empirical knowledge of how mouthpiece "x" is different from mouthpiece "y" is important when you decide that a change in mouthpieces is in order.
This article will examine the advantages and drawbacks of changing mouthpieces. It's a topic worthy of exploration because the art of trombone playing encompasses a widely varying musical territory. The musical requirements of playing in a symphony orchestra are quite different from those of a swing band, or studio/free lance work, or first chair versus third, solo versus ensemble, and so on. No single mouthpiece or instrument can be expected to be appropriate for every situation, no matter the skill of the player. The trombonist who wants to do more than play in just one small corner of the musical world should be prepared to consider adjustments in the tools he or she brings to the job. Many trombonists choose to use different instruments for different circumstances. This article, however, will focus on the mouthpiece side of the equation. Changing mouthpieces, whether for one job or for an extended period, is a difficult process; one which is made more difficult for two reasons.
The first reason is lack of knowledge. Consider a common scenario: a student who decides that changing to a different mouthpiece and/or trombone will improve their playing when what they might really need is to work harder with what they have. The instructor's response in this case is usually to discourage switching. Obviously, the instructor's action is probably correct. The consequence is that the student does not receive guidance in understanding when it is appropriate to change equipment, or how to do so effectively.
The second reason is that there is a varying number of equipment (instrument and mouthpiece) choices for any given musical situation, some of which may work for one person but not for another. There is also the question of how much of a trombonist's sound is a result of the player, how much is a result of the equipment, and how much effort should be spent worrying about it.
Laying a Foundation
The trombonist who is considering a change in mouthpieces to meet a particular musical need should have something on which to base that decision. Bass trombonist Thomas G. Everett (1), Director of Bands at Harvard and an I.T.A. Founder offers the following advice.
...it's also important for the player to have a concept of sound (a sound goal) in their mind before switching mouthpieces. I believe a good player with a concept of their sound will play well and close to that sound with any reasonable mouthpiece. (Everett, 1997)
An example of this principle can be found in a 1956 recording of French horn virtuoso Dennis Brain performing the third movement of a Leopold Mozart concerto for alpenhorn and strings with a mouthpiece inserted in a length of rubber garden hose! (Angel Records #35500). Despite the limitations of his equipment, Brain clearly produces a sound in which attention to pitch, articulation, dynamics, tonal quality, etc. are all apparent. He's not merely playing the hosepipe, he's playing it well.
Once a trombonist has a solid grasp of the fundamentals and a clear idea of how to put them to work, looking at different equipment can be done with purpose.
A Question of Balance, a Matter of Limits, Calculating the Cost
A good mouthpiece is one that is comfortable and works--for what the player is trying to do. That qualifying phrase at the end needs amplification at this point. As noted above, it would be unreasonable to expect a single mouthpiece design to work in every situation. The broader the range of playing that a trombonist attempts, the greater the likelihood of getting into an area where it stops being comfortable and/or working. Exactly where this limit lies is variable. It's a function of the design of the mouthpiece, the technique and natural ability of the player, how much effort he or she wants to exert and his/her judgment of when the results become unacceptable.
A trombonist can attempt to develop technique in order to extend what he/she can do with a particular mouthpiece. One could also change to a mouthpiece that has characteristics which favors the desired change, or one can simply "back off" from situations where one feels unable to play acceptably. Each of these strategies has advantages and drawbacks.
Working on technique is always a good idea, it benefits every aspect of playing. However, relying on technique to overcome inappropriate equipment only works up to a point. There is only so much technique can do; sometimes the only answer is to switch. This is why changing mouthpieces on the basis of comfort and functionality for the task at hand makes sense. The drawback is the additional time and effort which is required to develop proficiency with each mouthpiece used. It's unavoidable if good results are to follow.
Another concern is deciding exactly how much switching should be done to accommodate different playing demands. Over-reliance on changing mouthpieces can lead to a loss of flexibility and diffuse concentration. Minimizing equipment changes allows the player to focus on consistently getting the maximum performance from the setup they use. That last point also relates to the third strategy--backing off. The old saw, 'Jack of all trades, master of none,' applies here. Some players, whether by personality or intent, prosper when they specialize. Others thrive on variety. Physique may play a role too, given that some people have embouchures that don't tolerate as much variance as others.
It should be noted that the above discussion can also be applied to the choice of trombone for a given musical end. Any time a player swaps horns the mouthpiece used must be examined. The mouthpiece mediates between the efforts of the player and the characteristics of the trombone. Some players can use the same mouthpiece comfortably on different trombones. Some can't.
A final consideration is money! The more equipment one needs for the kinds of playing one does, the more one will need to spend. He or she will also need proportionately more time for practicing--and time is also money. The trombonist who can handle a variety of playing may get more work, but the specialist may achieve a higher level of performance.
Doubling is the practice of playing more than one kind of instrument. It also exacerbates all of the problems detailed above in finding a balance, setting limits, and reckoning costs.
For the tenor trombonist, some doubles are relatively easy: baritone or euphonium, the bass trumpet, or valve trombone. Bass trombone and tuba are other doubling choices that occur, as does alto trombone. The latter can be more difficult, as they call for mouthpiece dimensions which can differ appreciably from those commonly used with tenor trombones.
In the "FAQ" section of his website, Doug Yeo offers some cogent points about doubling. Here is an excerpt specifically relating to mouthpieces.
There are many opinions about what kind of mouthpiece to use when doubling. Many people advocate using totally different rim sizes and shapes, and develop two distinctly different embouchures--one for each instrument. This has never worked for me. I recommend using a mouthpiece on your doubling instrument that has exactly (or as near to exactly) the same rim as your primary instrument. (http://www.yeodoug.com/resources/faq/faq_text/doubling.html)
The bottom line is this: the trombonist who is comfortable with varied equipment in their trombone playing can probably take up doubling as well--but there is no free lunch. It takes additional practice time to play a second or third instrument well. It can affect playing on the primary instrument. It will cost more and may not result in additional work. On the other hand, doubling can be educational and a lot of fun. It's up to the individual to decide if it is right for him.
Rolling with the Changes
Changing mouthpieces (for the right reasons) can be a good thing--IF you go about it the right way. Here are some points to consider:
- Start from a solid foundation. Know what you do well, and work from there. Establish your limits, balance where you want to concentrate your efforts, and determine how much you want to invest in them.
- Understand what you are trying to do. You need a good concept of the result you are trying to obtain if you are to be successful. Are you looking for a brighter sound? Greater facility in a particular register? More projection? Are you trying to blend in with others in a section? These are the type of the kind of questions you should ask yourself in order to define your goals.
- Try to minimize the amount of change you make at any one time. The interactions between a mouthpiece and your embouchure can be subtle. Changing too many variables at one time can cause you to lose track of what you are doing.
- Know yourself. Some players have to keep rim dimensions the same with every mouthpiece they use; others can handle different sizes, contours and widths well enough to cope. The interaction between mouthpiece and trombone characteristics is also a factor to watch. You may find there are certain mouthpiece elements you have to pay more careful attention to more than others, depending on your instrument.
- Give yourself time. Playing the trombone involves many processes, not all of which are under conscious control. You may need time to 'reset' those before you can tell if a different mouthpiece is working for you. It might feel one way after 5 minutes of playing, but quite another way after 5 hours or 5 weeks of playing. In any case, you'll need time just to develop consistent proficiency with a new mouthpiece.
- Allow for subjective effects. You can tell if a mouthpiece feels better on your embouchure, but it can be harder to tell what it's doing to your sound. Try a blind taping test. Have a friend record you while you play the same music with both new and old mouthpieces: similar exercises, long tones, scales, runs, pieces you customarily play, etc. Play the tapes back and see if you can tell just by listening which mouthpiece you are using. If you can hear and/or feel a difference, you may be on to something. If you can't, it ain't there. Go back to where you started and try something else.
- Consult with someone whose abilities and judgment you trust. If you are taking lessons or attending a clinic, your teacher or the clinician may be able to give you specific feedback about what you are trying to do, and a more objective evaluation of the results. Several mouthpiece makers offer custom fittings, or will modify your current mouthpieces. Depending on how important these questions have become for you, you might wish to avail yourself of their services.
- One size does not fit all. What works for one person may not for another. The differences may be due to physique, native ability, or some other individual peculiarity. The only way to find out is to actually give it a try. It's your mouth--ultimately you have to take full responsibility for what you put up against it.
Remember: a mouthpiece is not the magic "secret ingredient" that all by itself will allow you to play longer, higher, faster, sweeter, louder, ______ (fill in the blank). It's only one of the elements, along with technique and the instrument itself, that will allow you to achieve your musical goals.
With this article, I've tried to describe what is involved in purposefully changing mouthpieces to achieve a musical goal. There are no simple answers, but it is possible to approach the process in an organized fashion. The next installment will conclude these meditations on the mouthpiece with a look at some special problems, and some speculation on matters that could stand further scrutiny.
Everett, Thomas G. Private communication with the author, September 17, 1997.
Mozart, Leopold, Concerto for Alphorn, Morley String Orchestra.
Norman Del Mar. (Dennis Brain, "hosepipe"). Angel Records 35500. (Music from the Hoffnung Music Festival Concert).