A Guide to Band for Parents Episode Three: Revenge of the Mouthpieces

In this next installment of “A Guide to Band for Parents” I talk about mouthpieces. They’re a lot more complex than one would think. Here I will go into brass and woodwind mouthpieces, as well as reeds. In an attempt to make this material easier to understand, I am leaving some information out as this is a blog geared towards parents of students and not players.

There’s more to just a horn than the horn and the player, there’s the middle man, the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece can actually alter the sound of an instrument considerably, which is why they’re important. They can also help develop a good embouchure and tone.

Beginners should always start on the stock mouthpiece the horn comes with, because they’re made to be simple to play.

TRUMPET MOUTHPIECES

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Trumpet mouthpieces, and brass mouthpieces, are a lot easier to understand than reeded mouthpieces. Not only do they come in standard sizes, but it’s a pretty simple concept. Depending on the rim style the mouthpiece could be “easier” or “harder” to play for some students. A mouthpiece with a moderately contoured rim will make it more comfortable to buzz your lips and apply pressure, but it will inhibit higher range, especially for beginners.

The shape of the cup will also change the sound of the instrument. Deeper and wider cups typically make a darker sound, but require more embouchure control. The more shallow, the less control you need, but if you go too shallow, it will seriously inhibit sound.

Although the throat and backbore are also important to the sound, when purchasing trumpet mouthpieces, the rim and cup are the aspects that you should pay the most attention to. And remember, always have your child try different mouthpieces before you commit to one!

WOODWIND MOUTHPIECES AND REEDS

Another less complicated mouthpiece to understand is the flute “headjoint”. Unfortunately not all head joints fit into all flute bodies, however their material can change the sound produced by the instrument. That’s because of the different properties of different materials (i.e. sliver vs platinum).

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Variations on a headjoint include materials used, lip plate placement and shape,  and embouchure hole placement. All these factors can effect the sound that comes out of the instrument. One of the biggest factors is the blowing edge. It’s angle impacts the ease at which notes can be played. Another large factor is the materials used to make the headjoint, as they will determine the brilliance of the sound produced.

Have your flute student try out different headjoints. A new headjoint can completely reinvent an old flute’s sound. That may keep your child happy–and if they’re happy you’re happy!

Single reed instruments all have the same basic concepts when it comes to mouthpieces and reeds. Although there are variations on the reeded woodwinds (i.e. soprano clarinet vs. bass clarinet) the mouthpiece and reed concepts are still the same across the board.

Unlike flutes and brass, single reed instrument’s setup is slightly more complicate as there are two factors at work; both the reed and the mouthpiece.

REEDS

Reeds are produced from cane and are cut to certain specifications for certain instruments. Obviously, the larger the instrument, the larger the reed. As a parent, the main aspect of the reed you’ll be worrying about is reed strength, sometimes called “size”. 

Reed sizes vary as there is no true industry standard. Although lower numbers will always describe a thinner reed, it doesn’t mean it’s comparable to another brand with the same number. Reeds can also come in strengths called “soft”, “medium” and “hard”. Beginners typically start on a softer reed, and most older horn players use “medium” to “hard” reeds. 

SINGLE REED MOUTHPIECES

As a parent, the most important thing to know about a clarinet or saxophone mouthpiece is the distance between the reed and the tip opening, or “facing”. As a student progress from a small tip opening with a light reed, they will typically get a “medium” facing mouthpiece and later in high school and college, a professional mouthpiece.

Another important factor is the inside of the mouthpiece, or the chamber. There are three basic types of mouthpiece that either have a smooth opening, a “U”opening or a block opening.  Each produces a different sound and should be chosen by the player for the particular sound they want.

Remember, your director and/or private instructor can really help point you in the right direction when it’s time to upgrade a setup. Renting an instrument could really help in this situation because most companies already offer different setups for different level players. 

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