Understanding Your Mouthpiece

Understanding Your Mouthpiece

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The amount of misunderstanding and pure nonsense surrounding saxophone mouthpieces is staggering, and it has consequences for students and players. First, there are consequences in performance, but there is also consequences in expense and in satisfaction and joy. In short, your mouthpiece can make your life miserable if it is “wrong”.
But, how can you know?
Like anything else, you need a knowledge base; you need to have some understanding of what happens (or doesn’t happen) in your mouthpiece. Once you have a bit of knowledge, you’ll see how quickly you can identify problems or tendencies in your mouthpiece.
The physics of the saxophone (essentially a truncated cone) tells us that the mouthpiece chamber is really the absent “truncated” part of the cone. In essence, it completes the cone in terms of internal volume.
Of course, the mouthpiece is more than just a chamber, but its chamber is responsible for a lot in terms of tone and intonation. Here’s why: the chamber has a specific volume but it also has a specific shape.
  • There can be an infinite number of chamber shapes that can have equal volume
  • Consider the internal shape of a Brilhart Levelaire compared to an Otto Link Tone Master.
The specific shape impacts the way a mouthpiece performs.
Now, you might think that small variations on a given chamber shape create small differences in performance. Not exactly.
Small variations can have enormous consequences on how a mouthpiece plays.
But let’s talk about the WHOLE mouthpiece for a minute. Regardless of chamber shape, the mouthpiece needs to do something precisely and efficiently: allow the reed to vibrate with integrity.
What do I mean by that, especially the “with integrity” part? That’s easy to answer. We all know that  the vibrating reed is the single source of the sound. If the reed cannot not vibrate efficiently for any reason, it is NOT vibrating “with integrity”. The reasons for that are a few, including a defective reed (chipped, split, incorrectly manufactured). For any of those reasons, the entire reed is not vibrating as a single unit and we can tell something is not right.
But a perfectly good reed can also be prohibited from vibrating with integrity. There are two sources for that problem: player or mouthpiece. If a player puts enough pressure on the reed, it will dampen the reed’s vibrations, effectively “choking” it. Great players utilize this technique to alter the tone, but done unwittingly, that same pressure creates a reed that is vibrating without integrity.
But the unknown, unseen source of problems for the vibration of the reed is a mouthpiece that has certain kinds of issues. It can look beautiful, perfect actually, but there are conditions that prevent the reed from vibrating with integrity: fully and unimpeded.
The usual problems, often found in tandem with each other but not always:
  • A table that is not flat
  • A facing that is crooked or unbalanced
Those two are “mechanical” problems. They impede the reed physically by contact or lack of contact.
But there is a third source that is different and completely unseen: acoustical interference. And that involves the chamber of the mouthpiece. We’ll get to that important aspect later.
That’s it. When the table is flat and the facing is correct and balanced, the reed can vibrate with integrity. Now, the fact that most commercially made mouthpieces have one or more of these issues is also the reason you think that most reeds are awful. They’re not. They just are not being allowed to play correctly. The odd reed that plays on a bad mouthpiece (as described here) is really an “odd reed”. The rest of them are fine, almost always.
In another post, we’ll get into more specifics about each of the areas mentioned above, and more.
Know your equipment!