The Moral Code of Mouthpieces

Mary Galime

“I want to play higher."
“I want to play louder."
“My teacher told me to get a jazz mouthpiece. Can I try the Bobby Shew one?"
“I’m in high school now. I played the 3C in junior high, and now everyone in band plays the 1.5C."
“Can I get the one that Allen Vizzutti plays?"

The above statements are valid requests of a mouthpiece but are those the best “morals” to lead your choice? What is good moral conduct? Let’s take a look at the bad first. A player walks into a store and looks for the mouthpieces that they believe will achieve higher, lower, etc. They use their highest/lowest  music to test the mouthpiece and bring home the winner. A week later they’ve reached the moral to their story: their lip is injured and they can’t play anything. 

I use the grand “they” in this scenario, but I think we all can relate in some degree to this situation as we all have at some point searched for the tool that would magically make something work when practice and study seem to have failed us. 

If not magic, what then should guide your search? The moral code of sound. The moral code of sound suggests that good mouthpiece moral conduct is guided by good sound. As beginners, our task was to learn how to make a sound. Once we were able to do that consistently, we began to learn how to make a great sound. In order to create great sound, we have a great sound concept. This sound concept that  we latch onto gets so engrained in us it becomes our musical heart and soul. Your sound will tell you immediately if your equipment is not the right fit, if something is healthy for you or unhealthy.

Whether you are looking for a specific tool (like a lead trumpet mouthpiece) or for an improved all- purpose mouthpiece, always begin your search with the question “What is the best sound I have ever heard – the one I want to sound like all the time?" With each of the following steps, be aware of whether your desired sound production is happening naturally or through manipulation.
• Have a selection of mouthpiece options ready. I would compare no more than 3 at a time.
• Using a familiar scale, start in the middle register of the mouthpiece and then explore the range, both
high and low, loud and soft
• Using the scales test the articulation in all registers both loud and soft, legato, staccato, etc.
• Use lip slurs to focus on the tuning of the mouthpiece

No matter how comfortable you think the mouthpiece is or how high or low you can play on it at the store, if the sound is not what you expect in all registers, you will uncontrollably manipulate your air and embouchure to create the sound you want.  Prolonged usage like this will  handicap your playing, and at worst injure your lip. Imagine sitting in an audience and you can’t see the soloist at a concert, you bend your head to the side so you can. You’ve solved the problem of not seeing the performer, but 30 minutes later you’ve created the problem of a stiff neck.

Let your mouthpiece choice be guided by what your sound is telling you, and it will be hard to take home an unhealthy option.