Some Thoughts on Trumpet Mouthpieces: What’s Best For You?

trpt-1pcHave you ever looked at a mouthpiece catalog and read those short descriptions of what each mouthpiece was designed for? Much of that reading shows how a manufacturer addresses the symptomatic problems many players have stemming from poor fundamentals (“…for players who do not like a sharp edge”…”for those who use too much pressure”…”for a dark, full sound…”, etc.).  While there is a definite, useful need for mouthpieces of different sizes and shapes, searching for a new mouthpiece without a clear understanding of one’s own foundational deficiencies (embouchure formation, weight distribution, breathing, etc.) can be a waste of time and money (unless the current mouthpiece is damaged, or if it leans too far towards the extreme).

A2Think of it this way…if you wanted a car with a faulty fuel pump to perform better, would the solution be to buy a better engine? Or if it’s tires were worn, would they function better if you upgraded the car’s brakes?  While a better engine or brakes can definitely improve a car’s performance, you cannot enjoy the full benefits of what they have to offer if the fuel pump and tires are not functioning properly.

If you are thinking about choosing a new mouthpiece, it is best to determine not only what you are trying to accomplish with the change, but also if you have honestly addressed any fundamental issues that could be contributing to the dissatisfaction with your current mouthpiece.  1A manufacturer must know and understand the key components of mouthpiece design (some labeled at the left) and how all of those variables impact the mouthpiece’s performance.  In the same way, a player must be aware of the variables that exist in the chain of human components before the mouthpiece.  Most of you are probably familiar with how two different mouthpieces only one rim size apart can feel (check the cup diameters of adjacent mouthpieces on the mouthpiece comparison chart link below to see how small the differences really are), and yet many players (unconsciously) allow for a much greater dimensional change in their embouchure (floating jaw, erupting or pinching lips, etc.), or carelessly place their mouthpiece in a way that inhibits the initial embouchure formation or the vibration of the top lip (see the “Landing” Series links below).  The better a player understands the roles and requirements of the human elements of the instrument, the better he can address any deficiencies, and then choose a proper mouthpiece.  Educate and fix yourself first.

images-1While there is nothing wrong with finding equipment that is tailored to your musical needs, attempting to use equipment changes to fix symptomatic problems (caused by poor funda-mentals) is similar to expecting a pill designed to alleviate symptoms (like pain) to cure the disease.  And we all know that pills often have side effects.  Likewise there are certain trade offs in performance to be expected, especially as the mouthpiece design approaches the extreme, and when combined with poor fundamentals.

High RegisterFor instance, most players would like to improve their range, and therefore look for a mouthpiece that will help them achieve that goal.  In this case smaller rim diameters and cups can help with range, but they will usually brighten up the sound, or have an adverse impact on the lower register (here when I say “smaller” I mean something relatively smaller than a 7C).  A bright sound can be called for when playing lead trumpet, but that characteristic sound is not well suited to many other situations.  Having said that, many great players (with their fundamentals in place) know how to compensate for a smaller mouthpiece’s shortcomings…by playing more relaxed, and with a stricter embouchure focus, even in the low register.

Another example…changing to a large mouthpiece (with a wider inner rim and deeper cup) to get a big, warm, dark sound (the rotary valve trumpets below are known for their dark sounds).  While such a mouthpiece can definitely help a player move in that direction, having an overly bright sound to begin with (when not related to a much smaller mouthpiece) is usually the byproduct of too much tension, where the body’s resonant chambers (chest, throat, and oral cavity) are constricted, and/or where the lips are misaligned and are squeezing at the center (as opposed to just focusing towards the center).  DSC02256If a player with these problems moves to a larger mouthpiece, he may notice a relative improvement in his sound, but there is a good likelihood the fundamental problems will only become more pronounced.  Many of these players “fall into” the larger cup (their lips “chase” the airstream), which action actually decreases the volume of the mouthpiece’s cup, and therefore the size of the sound (when compared to what the mouthpiece is capable of).  This can also contribute to the loss of focus at the embouchure’s center…increasing the size of the aperture.  Consequently this lack of focus demands even more air (just like a lower gear on a car or bike requires more gas to maintain its speed), but that demand is rarely met by a player who already plays with weak fundamentals.  This only encourages more tension, especially in the upper register, which now is more difficult.  Endurance can also be negatively impacted.

Some of my students have band directors that require all of their trumpet players to play on a 3C mouthpiece, the goal being to have a uniform, “professional” sound in the section. Parents often balk at the expense of a new mouthpiece, and ask if the change is necessary, especially if their child’s original 7C appears to be perfectly fine.  In these cases I’ve told the parents to avoid the purchase and stick with the current mouthpiece, for usually (if the student has been making good progress with their fundamentals) the band director never notices the change was not made, and may even compliment the student on their beautiful sound since moving to the “new” mouthpiece.  I’m still amazed at the sounds my students can get with their 7Cs (see the earlier post, Great Work Kaley! for a great example).

0If you are searching for a new mouthpiece, you can judge the merits or deficiencies of any candidate the better your fundamentals are in place (returning to the car analogy…it’s easier to see the value of better brakes when you have better tires, and a more powerful engine can best be appreciated with a great fuel pump).  For that reason, I usually delay that audition process for many students.  As they improve as players, many of their current mouthpiece’s “deficiencies” seem to go away, and they no longer feel the need for something new.  In spite of everything I’ve said here, it’s never a bad thing to learn more about the impact a different sized mouthpiece can have on your playing…to experience first hand the changes in sound and feel resulting from modifying any of the variables of design and manufacture.  Just remember to keep all of the aspects of your playing as consistent as possible during the audition process.  Set your embouchure carefully, and be very aware of the mouthpiece placement and the distribution of its weight…and alternate back and forth with your current mouthpiece too.

No mouthpiece is perfect…one mouthpiece simply cannot offer all of the desired performance parameters we seek, and there is usually a tradeoff with many kinds of equipment solutions.  We should therefore pick the mouthpiece that comes the closest to delivering the qualities we value the most, and then learn to compensate for its shortcomings with improved fundamentals (are you starting to notice a theme here?).

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