Wrong Conclusions About Soprano Mouthpieces

Probably the most difficult thing for many players to realize is that they really have little or no idea about why a soprano mouthpiece doesn’t play well for them. It’s just as likely to be true about the other saxophones as well, but I know it first-hand about soprano mouthpieces. I hear from players around the world every day. We have, quite often, variations on the same conversation. And always I hear wrong conclusions about soprano mouthpieces from them. Why is that?

The players have variations on the same story: “I played a Brand X and it was too small a tip, and it played stuffy” Or, “I need a much bigger tip because I played a Brand Q #9* and it was way too resistant.”. Or, “I don’t like Brand Z because I played my friend’s piece and it had all kinds of intonation problems.”

The players know what they experienced but they have no idea what the real cause of those things could be. Their “wrong assumptions” have created an imaginary landscape that they are trying to navigate when, in fact, what they need to do is get rid of that landscape and see things more clearly. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult thing for many. Here’s why.

What information do we all get about the mouthpieces we play? The brand name and the supposed tip opening, sometimes the supposed facing length and sometimes the supposed “brightness” associated with it (think Berg Larsen).

That’s pretty much it. Add to that the endless conversations and posts that go on and on about these same things. Mostly the information comes from well-meaning players who have quite limited experience, although they may feel that having played 20 mouthpieces over the course of 10 years qualifies as a lot of experience. But the content of those posts and conversations never vary by much. Tip openings, brands that “work for me”, brands that “don’t work for me”, maybe some non-specific idea about facing lengths, how much mouthpiece to take, and, of course, “it’s all you. Practice and it will all be fine”.

We’ve all been getting this same input forever, yet it seems there is a never-ending line of players that can’t seem to find a really good soprano mouthpiece, meaning one that sounds right, responds correctly and performs  dependably as expected.

Why Is That?

There are two aspects to the answer. First let’s dispense with the imaginary landscape aspect.

  • The information imprinted on the mouthpiece or the box is more likely to be wrong than right, and I mean significantly wrong. The stated tip opening, the stated facing length and the stated “brightness” factor are virtually never accurate, making that information not only meaningless but even worse. It makes it false. And that false information creates that imaginary landscape I mentioned.

What do I mean by “virtually never accurate”? I mean that, using the sample size I see and play  every year (over 500 soprano mouthpieces from all makers), I can count on two hands the number of mouthpieces that are even close to the stated tip and / or facing. Less than 10 in 500. That means 98% are significantly wrong.

So, the chances are that the few pieces a player may try are 98% likely to be something far different from what he believes them to be. That is just a plain fact. Think about that for 30 seconds.

The second aspect is this: Players try to apply what they think they’ve learned playing these mouthpieces in pursuit of the next selection.  They believe that a longer facing or a shorter facing will help, but they have no idea what facings they’ve just played, therefore they have no idea which direction to go. They are thinking correctly but they’ve got only wrong information to work with. Same with tip opening. It goes on and on and on until pure luck or pure frustration wins out.

And all this time, nothing is really learned. Time, money and aggravation, yes, but real knowledge that is useful and valuable? None.

It’s like adding up a series of numbers, such as

3 + 4 + 6 +11 +7, and getting the same answer of 31. Except the ACTUAL numbers were never those numbers; they were different numbers and 31 is, well, wrong. Wrong input, wrong output.