Woodwind Mouthpieces:
Parts, Function, Concept

The Mouthpiece

By Mike Vaccaro

This text is a supplement to a video I did for Eastman Winds and includes some additional information that was left out of the video for various reasons. I would like to talk basically about the mouthpiece, how it functions and how to select the best one for you.

It is important to realize that the mouthpiece, reed, and ligature are a marriage that together determines your sound, approach and the response of your instrument.

Instrument makers are in the business of making woodwind instruments, and generally, not mouthpieces.

The job of fitting a mouthpiece to any particular person is based on the tradeoff between flexibility and stability in the mouthpiece and the playing needs of that particular person.

I can say with certainty that the mouthpiece that comes with your instrument will either not play or will be inappropriate for your use. Why is this? Simply put, it is because the instrument maker does not know you, your playing style, your level of experience, nor the situations in which you perform.

The technology of mouthpieces has progressed at lightning speed over the past few years and a specialist/mouthpiece maker who can match a mouthpiece to your needs and playing style can make your practicing easier and you won’t end up with a shoebox full of useless mouthpieces over the years. Think of the money and aggravation you'll save!

It is much better to go in person to a mouthpiece craftsman than to go through the mail order process, because the craftsman can watch and see how you play and help you asses your needs. Or, in the case of the beginner, can hand that person a mouthpiece that facilitates their fastest advancement.

In short, the craftsman can assess your manner of playing.

Some musicians play very tight, some very loose. Some take a lot of mouthpiece and some take very little. Some musicians blow a lot of air through the instrument and some hardly any. Some musicians play with tight body position and some play loosely.

There are as many variables as there are players.

The mouthpiece maker also provides ears that are in front of the instrument and not behind it so they can give you input on the sound that they hear, what the audience hears, and many mouthpiece makers can play the mouthpiece for you on your instrument so you can hear it from a different perspective.

The correct mouthpiece will save you many hours of practice and money spent on reeds.

If you go to the music store and try 10 mouthpieces that are supposed to be exactly the same, one will play better than the others. Try that and find out. An aftermarket mouthpiece craftsman can transform the one out of ten mouthpieces to a better playing mouthpiece or through their experience, introduce you to a custom mouthpiece that may be much better than the one you have selected.

It’s like buying a custom made shirt and suit or a custom pair of shoes. They just fit better.

These days mouthpieces are made from all types of substances, plastic, ebonite, rod rubber, glass or crystal, wood, and metal of all types to list just a few.

Some people don’t think material matters in a mouthpiece, but I say if a mouthpiece was made out of cement they might change their mind. Using extremes is sometimes a way to prove a point.

It has been my experience that most advanced classical clarinet and saxophone players have a general idea of the concept of what they want to sound likeŮ.remember, I said general idea.

Some are looking for a firmer approach and some are looking for a looser approach.

With jazz and rock musicians, there is much more variance and acceptance of different sound concepts. There are even mouthpiece makers that cater to these specialty sound concepts.

What is the purpose of a mouthpiece?

For the beginner the purpose of a mouthpiece is simply to easily get a sound, and the mouthpiece that came with the instrument may or may not do that. Most likely not. A custom mouthpiece will do it better.

For the intermediate musician the function of the mouthpiece is to be able to start to develop a style of playing based on interests, concept and reed preferences.

For the advanced musician the goal is refinement of sound and finding a mouthpiece that will facilitate the style of music they will be playing. The idea is to be able to adjust the nuances of the mouthpiece with a mouthpiece maker to develop different characteristics of sound (brightness, darkness, overtone series etc.) and air potentials (i.e. how easy the mouthpiece plays, air angle, and where the kick back starts), and even intonation.

What is true is that if a professional musician usually can’t play on a student mouthpiece, what chance does a student have to excel on a student mouthpiece?

Wouldn’t it be great if the student could be handed their first mouthpiece and have it last a lifetime, making their journey easier, and saving them practice time, money, and frustration. That is possible now.

Checking in with a mouthpiece craftsman every few years can help you decide if your mouthpiece is still what you need, or if it could use a modification, or if a new mouthpiece is what you need. Or even better yet, saying that no change is needed.

Mouthpiece Nomenclature

Outside nomenclature:

Tenon ֠where the cork is at the bottom of a clarinet mouthpiece that fits into the barrel

Shoulder- where the tenon meets the mouthpiece body on a clarinet mouthpiece

Body- the outside shape of the mouthpiece, including the density of the material from which it is made.

Beak- the part you put in your mouth. This can be a very important part with the many different beak designs for comfort in playing and determining how open your mouth is. There are many designs that change the angle from the body to the tip of the mouthpiece. In short, the beak has an effect on comfort and tone. Mouthpiece patches enhance the effect the beak.

Bite- The bite is the part of the beak closest to the tip. It can be thick, medium, or thin. For the mouthpiece maker the thin bite leaves little room for alterations as the beak must have enough strength to support the embouchure and once the bite has been compromised it is very difficult for the mouthpiece maker to continue working on the mouthpiece.

Shank- the part of the sax mouthpiece that fits over the cork and that correlates to the tenon on the clarinet.

Facing nomenclature:

Table-where the reed is placed to be secured by the ligature. It is very important the table be flat (some mouthpiece makers make a concave area in the middle of the table and claim that it creates suction with the reed. I prefer flat.) Flat tables are best for finding reeds. This eliminates an important variable. Mouthpieces that are bought in stores or come with your instrument are rarely flat as they are made by machines and almost never hand finished. There are some mouthpieces that will work without flattening the table but consider yourself lucky if you get one that works.

Window-The whole open part of the mouthpiece from the tip to the table.

Side Rails-the left and right rails that go towards the tip to the right and left of the window.

Tip Rail-the area at the tip of the mouthpiece at the top of the window.

Tip Corners-where the side rails meet the tip rail.

Throat-where the chamber meets the bore.

Facing-The portion of the window where the curve starts that goes to the tip and creates a curve.

Tip Opening-The actual opening measured from the Table to the distance away from the tip rail. This is usually measured in thousandths of an inch in America and in millimeters in other countries.

Internal nomenclature:

Bore-the bore takes up much of the bottom of the mouthpiece basically from the bottom of the window. The top of the bore is the crown and the exit bore is at the bottom of the mouthpiece.

Chamber-The chamber is the area in front of the baffle to the reed and down to the bore area. The chamber has the biggest effect on tonal color and freedom, based on the proportions of the internal parts around it.

Sidewalls-To the sides of the chamber are the sidewalls and they control the shape of the sound. The shape of the sidewalls is very important in tone color.

Baffle-The surface opposite the window. This area controls brightness and darkness, and the ease of blowing, depending on how it is designed or modified.

Baffle Tip-the area about 1/8 of an inch from the tip on the mouthpiece. Some mouthpiece designs have what is called a rollover in this area, which helps the air through the mouthpiece, somewhat like an airplane wing.

Ramp - the area right underneath the table, inside the mouthpiece, where the window ends.

How to Select a Mouthpiece

If you know, let the mouthpiece maker know what you are looking for. Play so the maker can hear you and any problems your setup may have. Let the maker know the size of reeds you are comfortable with. That will narrow down the search.

No matter how many times I have asked a musician, before they come to my shop, to have a selection of reeds in different sizes that play well, to use in trying out a mouthpiece, almost 100% of the time, they don’t do it, and end up looking for a mouthpiece similar to what they have. What's the point of that?

Have new reeds of various strengths that you have played briefly but are not married to your mouthpiece.

Remember that if you are looking for a new mouthpiece, you most likely are not completely happy with the mouthpiece you have, so keep an open mind.

Be willing to learn how to play a new mouthpiece that you think is good.

If a mouthpiece is close to what you want, and has good qualities you can get used to it.

Remember, that the mouthpiece should function as a tool to make your job easier. Your concept will determine your sound, and your equipment will help you or impede you from getting the sound you hear in your head.

Remember, you are likely to sound like you already do unless you buy a somwhat different mouthpiece, so in selecting a mouthpiece, select one that makes it easier to fulfill your concept.

Or, if you want to change your concept, buy a radically different mouthpiece and learn to play it. Of course, this should probably be done with some guidance.

My background is classical, show work, celebrity accompaniment, jazz, and rock and roll, so I generally take three or four sax mouthpieces to a job where I don’t know what to expect, so the mouthpiece will make the job easier for me. On clarinet, I take two mouthpieces, one on the classical side, and one more for jazz/pop/Broadway, and microphone needs.

It is also important in selecting a mouthpiece, to know what acoustics you are working in. You could be in a carpeted pit, a concert hall, outside, a large motion picture studio, or a small home recording studio. Are you playing with a large group or a small group or even putting a solo track on a pre-existing recording?

The correct mouthpiece can make any of these conditions easier.

When selecting a mouthpiece don’t play all your fantastic excerpts or licks. Play slow and listen to the mouthpiece and the response. Check the octaves, fifths, and fourths.

Make sure the mouthpiece is in tune and responding throughout the range of the instrument the way you want it to.

Only then play an excerpt or your favorite lick to see if it feels good.

Mouthpiece makers have heard many solo concerts and are not really that interested in the technique of the musician except for listening to how the new mouthpiece can help the client.

Don’t worry about facing numbers or openings or anything else. Just play the mouthpiece and listen and feel.

It is not a numbers game, it is a comfort game.

A mouthpiece can have basically the numbers of one that you covet and still not play the same.

NO TWO MOUTHPIECES PLAY EXACTLY THE SAME. Nothing drives a mouthpiece expert more bonkers than a client coming in and dictating a facing or adjustment when the whole mouthpiece needs to be considered. Each modification, even by a thousandth of an inch, effects every other measurement on the mouthpiece. A mouthpiece that plays good is a sum of all its parts, and not just one measurement.

Some companies with the biggest names, and that sell the most product on the market, don’t make the best mouthpieces.

Buy the mouthpiece and not the name.

If you are studying with a teacher, and they suggest the same mouthpiece that they use, remember the one you buy will not be exactly the same, most likely similar, but not the same. Ask to try your teacher’s mouthpiece, reed and ligature set-up, so you have something to compare to. Also, remember that your teacher’s mouthpiece may be many years old and the company that made it may have altered the design.

There are many mouthpiece craftsmen, and women, who make good mouthpieces and there is probably one near you. Look on the web and ask around. If there is not one near you it is best to take your vacation time and spend a day at the mouthpiece maker’s shop.

It is much better if the client can come to the mouthpiece craftsman rather than utilize mail order purchases.

A mouthpiece should be tried on the horn it is going to be used on, as each mouthpiece plays differently on every instrument.

You also need to consider mouthpiece patches when trying a mouthpiece, as they change the sound you hear in your head, and they change the opening of your mouth. I am an advocate of mouthpiece patches, however there are many thicknesses, shapes, and brands of patches. If you know your preference, always use your preferred mouthpiece patch when trying a mouthpiece. If you don’t use a mouthpiece patch, and the mouthpiece you are trying has a patch on it, take it off. Many times, this will make the difference in whether you like a mouthpiece or not. It is a small change, but in mouthpiece selection, small changes are big changes.

Remember that terms like bright, dark, centered, big, free blowing, and a sound with a ping, are all arbitrary and don’t mean the same thing to any two people.

Describing a sound really does not go very far. You need to find a mouthpiece that sounds and feels like you want it to, and it is best to use descriptions in only the most general terms.

It is the craftsman's job not to moralize about "The Correct Sound", but to provide the performer with the mouthpiece that is what the client is looking for, that is, IF the client knows.

So, to review, mouthpieces are basically about your needs and making your practice and performance easier.

Many musicians are using aftermarket products, as specialists in particular aspects of instrument production are creating new and superior products. Keep your eyes open for mouthpieces, ligatures, barrels, bells, and whatever new instrument concept is out there. The more you know the better you play.

If this article has been of assistance to you, please take the time to read some of the other articles on this site. Also, please sign on to my not-so-regular email broadcast, using the form on the left of this page.

Remember to be happy with where you are at musically, while you are trying to get to where you want to be. Enjoy the journey. Happy music making !!!