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Why are there different sizes and styles of brass mouthpieces?

The importance of using the correct brass mouthpiece cannot be overstated. Many directors and teachers of brass, not to mention their students, have strong convictions about the brand name of the instrument used, but tend to neglect the importance of the proper mouthpiece. The mouthpiece that comes with an instrument may or may not be suitable for a particular player. Every player should use a mouthpiece that specifically fits the player, the player’s needs and the instrument. Proper embouchure development, correct breath control, and a good instrument are all important, but the most important variable is the mouthpiece.

In selecting the best mouthpiece, consider the player's teeth, jaw, and shape of the lips (thickness and width), as well as the strength of the embouchure, the desired tone quality, ease of playing the upper and lower range, endurance, intonation, and the style of playing.

Though a medium width cup diameter, rim thickness, rim contour, backbore, cup depth, volume, and shape may be recommended for the average player, as a general rule it is desired to encourage the use of larger sizes as the embouchure develops. A larger cup diameter and cup volume allows more of the lip to vibrate which in turn produces a fuller and more resonant tone. This also encourages more lip control and endurance. The location of the high point of the contour is another variable that should be kept in mind; this changes the feel of the width of the cup.

The sharpness of the edge of the rim or the "bite" affects both the flexibility and precision of attack and is an important variable.

A small or shallow cup produces the brightest sound and aids in playing high notes while a larger deep cup aids in producing the lower tones and produces a richer darker sound. The "C" cup is a good standard size producing a good tone without unduly favoring either the very high or very low register. The player with thick lips should choose a somewhat deeper or larger cup to compensate for the extra space lips take up inside the cup.

A player who needs some help in the upper range should experiment using a shallower first cup with a widened second cup. The shallow first cup facilitates the playing of the upper register while the widened second cup promotes a fuller and richer tone. As the bottom of the cup becomes flatter one's attack improves but the quality of the tone becomes coarser. The more the cup shape becomes conical the better the quality of sound, but as this is accentuated the tone may become too dark.

A round and narrow rim contour permits greater lip flexibility but tends to reduce endurance. A rather flat and wide rim contour feels the most comfortable, but tends to hold the lips somewhat immobile, thereby reducing lip flexibility. For most players, using a mouthpiece which has a reasonable rim curvature to provide flexibility, but with sufficient surface to improve endurance, is a compromise.

An average size throat (the narrowest part of the mouthpiece opening) is also preferred for the average player. However with added embouchure development a somewhat larger throat should be tried.

The importance of the backbore should not be forgotten. Players frequently examine the mouthpiece with great care from the top, but never really examine the backbore. Part of the trouble is the backbore is not readily visible to the naked eye and a lack of understanding of the importance of the shape of the backbore. The tighter the backbore, the more brilliant is the sound; the larger the backbore, the mellower is the sound. Occasionally a change in the backbore will improve the inherent faulty intonation of an instrument. The largest backbore gives the largest volume. However, should one wish more control, a backbore toward the "a" range would be desirable.

Experimentation is encouraged.

All teachers and players of brass instruments, both professional and amateur will benefit much by understanding the various parts or surfaces of a brass mouthpiece and what functions each has. Only then can one make intelligent and practical recommendations as to which mouthpiece will produce the desired results with a particular player.

When a player wishes a better mouthpiece, there are several questions. What mouthpiece are you using now? What difficulty, if any, do you have with that mouthpiece? In what direction do you want to go? A change of tone color? Increased range? Better intonation? Increased endurance? The answers to these questions determine what new mouthpieces should be used.

At times a player may have air escaping at the side of the mouthpiece. Usually this is not the fault of too little pressure, but stretching the lips (instead of contracting them): perhaps his teeth and jaw formation is too irregular. Mouthpiece pressure reduces endurance because the blood circulation in the lips is cut off and lip swelling results. On the other hand, widening and flattening the mouthpiece rim contour will compensate only in part for added pressure. Carrying this type of mouthpiece too far reduces lip flexibility and the desired exact point where the lips cannot and should not vibrate. Pinching the lips using too much mouthpiece pressure, and using too small a mouthpiece (unless absolutely essential) are no substitute for embouchure development.

A mouthpiece will not sound the same to the player as to one standing a distance away. Also, the same mouthpiece and instrument can actually sound different when played by two different people: due to differences in the formation of lips, teeth, jaws, not to mention breath control and experience.

Since it is impossible to deep dirt from coagulating in a mouthpiece, and since any dirt especially in the throat and backbore interferes with intonation and playing ease, it is imperative to keep the mouthpiece clean. A mouthpiece brush should be used every week.

In selecting a brass mouthpiece one should strive for optimum tone quality and accurate intonation rather than ease of hitting the high notes, unless the latter is an absolute "must." Often the best possible mouthpiece is an intelligent compromise. Every teacher and player should strive for the optimum combination of the major variables. As with many things in life, there's more to a fine brass mouthpiece than what meets the eye.

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