I contend that there are four elements that contribute to success or failure in your chosen avocation-playing the clarinet. These four elements are your body, the clarinet itself, the reed/ligature combination, and the mouthpiece. I’ll discuss the first three elements in other essays, but now we will focus on the selection of the French-style mouthpiece.
Arguably, the most important part of the clarinet set-up is the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece is where all elements come together to produce your sound. A bad mouthpiece on a great instrument still produces a bad sound. Surprisingly, a bad clarinet with a great mouthpiece can sound reasonably good!
The major components of a mouthpiece can be generalized to the interior, the facing, and the tip opening. The components and their effects are described below, so you may put your knowledge to use and select the mouthpiece that is best for you and your clarinet.
The relationship of all of the following elements make up the total volume of the interior of the mouthpiece and affect pitch and color of sound. By removing material from different areas of the interior of the mouthpiece, a mouthpiece refacer can alter the pitch and sound quality of a mouthpiece.
- Baffle-Directs airstream to chamber. Can be easily altered to change darkness of sound.
- Chamber-The volume of this space defines the mouthpiece’s sound.
- Side walls-Shape either parallel or angled. Defines the sides of the throat.
- Throat-Focuses airstream into bore.
- Bore-Transfers energy and air from mouthpiece to instrument. Length affects pitch.
The components of the facing affect the way a reed responds on the mouthpiece and the feel for the individual player. I suggest that when choosing a mouthpiece, you use your best reed and listen for the sound and intonation that you like, keeping in mind that feel and response can be adjusted by a competent mouthpiece refacer and intonation of the clarinet can be improved by a competent clarinet repairman.
- Table- Either concave or perfectly flat. Holds butt of reed steadily.
- Window- Where air stream goes into mouthpiece.
- Side rails- Should be shaped to match your preferred brand of reed and should be even and relatively thin for good response.
- Tip rail- Shaped for reed and thin for good response, while a thicker tip rail results in a darker sound.
Measurements at four points (A,B,C, and D), using .0015 mm, .010 mm, .024 mm, and .034 mm thickness gauges, respectively, along the facing curve define the length and shape of the curve. These measurements can either be incorrect, uneven (asymmetrical) on both sides of the window, or even (symmetrical).
The above diagrams show from the side where measurements are taken, then examples of an incorrect facing, an asymmetrical facing, and a symmetrical facing. The asymmetrical facing is generally less accepted than symmetrical, however, there are many excellent performers who use an asymmetrical facing. The measurement on one side of the window will be longer than the corresponding measurement on the other side of the window. This facing requires reeds to be appropriately unbalanced to compensate for this unevenness – not an easy task to accomplish effectively. The symmetrical facing is the most accepted facing. Using feeler gauges from a mouthpiece refacing kit, measurements on both sides of the window will read the same. Using a tool such as the Reed Wizard, asymmetrical facing allows you to balance your reed exactly and obtain good response.
Once you have chosen a symmetrical or an asymmetrical facing, you must then determine what tip opening you prefer. A thickness taper gauge is used at point E (shown below) to measure the tip opening. Professional clarinetists use both open and close tip openings successfully. Generally, for French-style mouthpieces, American clarinetists prefer close facings and Europeans prefer open facings.
- Open Tip- Requires a softer reed. Will be easier to play and will produce a projecting, relatively bright sound.
- Close Tip- Requires a harder reed. Will require more effort to control, but will produce a darker more covered sound.
A mouthpiece refacing kit contains all of the tools necessary to effectively measure and assess the various parts of a mouthpiece. When you get adventurous, you can try to alter a mouthpiece yourself with these tools!
Now that you understand the components of the mouthpiece, you are ready to evaluate the sound, intonation and feel of the mouthpieces you are considering using.
- SOUND: After deciding on a comfortable mouthpiece/reed combination, the sound should be immediately pleasing to you. You should not have to “grow into the sound”, unless your teacher is having you use a mouthpiece for a short period of time to reinforce a particular part of your playing that needs attention.
- INTONATION: Generally, intonation is a product of a barrel/ instrument combination. The mouthpiece should provide good relative pitch throughout the range of the instrument, however. A good repairman can alter individual notes on a clarinet that are out of tune.
- FEEL: Ultimately, a mouthpiece and reed combination must feel good to the individual performer and play comfortably. If you have to work too hard to achieve a desired sound, other aspects of your playing will suffer.
There is no “perfect” mouthpiece. Even the best hand made mouthpiece is made for the person testing the mouthpiece. You must try every mouthpiece that you can to determine which mouthpiece is best for you. Once you have found a mouthpiece that seems to best fit your needs, it is advisable to visit a good mouthpiece refacer who can undoubtedly improve your mouthpiece after hearing you play. Do not fall into the trap of believing that a more expensive mouthpiece is a better mouthpiece. Have you found a mouthpiece that sounds good, that articulates well, that has good intonation and that feels good, allowing you to play various styles of music effectively?
Congratulations, you have found the mouthpiece for you, regardless of the brand stamped on it!
Ben Redwine is the Eb clarinetist for the US Naval Academy Band. He is a recording artist for the MapleShade Record label and can be heard around the Baltimore/ Washington, D.C. area performing as a free-lance clarinetist and saxophonist. Ben is the owner of RedwineJazz, LLC, and makes the Gennusa “Excellente” clarinet mouthpiece and Redwine brand harmony clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces. He is a Buffet artist, plays Canyes Xilema reeds, and the Gennusa “Excellente” clarinet mouthpiece.