CUSTOM FITTING FOR A SOPRANO SAX MOUTHPIECE Part 1
There have been a lot of players through my small shop over the last 10 years, players that have come from as far away as Brazil and Japan to work with me on creating the best performing soprano saxophone mouthpiece that they require. Of course, they were “on the road” and came by when they were in New York or Boston or Woodstock. But they each spent a good deal of time getting here and then a good deal of time working with me to optimize and perfect their soprano saxophone setup.
I thought it might be useful for everybody to know precisely what that experience is like, especially because so many players work with me “long distance”, meaning that they send me their mouthpieces and I work without them present. So, let me describe a typical session with a player in search for a great soprano mouthpiece.
If they have a car, they find their way to my home in the mountains of New York. But, many travel by bus from NYC, and in that case, I pick them up at the local bus station, just 15 minutes from my home.
Once in the shop, we begin. The discussions are all similar: what horn do we have and what mouthpiece and what reeds. I write it all down on an index card, with the client’s name and the date.
I start by carefully looking over that mouthpiece visually, with the naked eye and under magnification. Many times there are things that are apparent, such as odd rails or chamber shape. Also, I may see evidence of something not right about the table.
Of course, none of that means that the piece doesn’t play well for the client, but I like to look and to explain what I see to the client and tell them what those things MAY mean, in terms of performance.
I then “measure up” the mouthpiece, which means (for me), checking to see if the table is actually flat, and measuring the facing length, the entire facing curve and the actual tip opening. All the while, I am taking notes on these things.
Then, I tell the client what I “think” is likely happening or not happening, based on my measurements and observations. This is an important step, because I am, in effect, “predicting” aspects of performance and of response- before I’ve either heard the piece played or played the piece myself.
Why do I make those kind of “predictions”? After all, why not wait until I have played it, so I know for certain what is or isn’t happening?
The reason is important. I do that because I want the player to take away some knowledge about his/her mouthpiece, regardless of any work we may or may not do. And, it is also to “explain” some aspects of mouthpieces that most players seldom learn. And, then, there is the potential for an “AHA” moment. That’s when a player’s eyes go wide and he says “That’s exactly what is happening!”.
That moment, which happens probably 85 % of the time, tells the player a few things immediately. First, that the problem wasn’t “him”. Second, that there is every reason to have faith in any recommendations I might make about either that mouthpiece, or any other mouthpiece under consideration.
In other words, it’s about trust. And trust is very important, especially if I recommend “rebalancing” his mouthpiece. Often, it is an expensive vintage mouthpiece and the thought of “changing it” can seem a bit scary. All the “what ifs” start running wild in their minds.
I never try to talk somebody into having their mouthpiece rebalanced. But I do tell them what I think needs to be done and why, and also what it will do to the way the piece plays (sound and response). Sometimes what I suggest will not affect the sound at all, just the response. I tell them that, and I explain why. All along, the goal is to give the client all the real information he needs to have. The decision is up to him. I don’t care, in a way. He’s travelled a long way for a reason; I’ve told him what he needs to know. Now, it’s up to him.
If I have already”predicted” the issues correctly, and shown him why I came to those conclusions, he is likely to consider my suggestions positively. Most of the time, the work I suggest is modest and clear. If a mouthpiece really needs a lot of “renovation”, we are often soon talking about a different mouthpiece. But not always.
For instance, Dukoff mouthpieces , old and new, are notorious for having some rather “sketchy” chambers. Correcting those chambers means a lot of filing and shaping. But the payoff is big, because they then play the way Bobby Dukoff intended. I have never met a Dukoff piece that did not benefit greatly from being rebalanced completely, and I like working on them for clients.
But back to the possible fear a client may have about “changing” his mouthpiece. I understand it, and respect it. I don’t tell them that virtually every pro player I know, in all genres of music, has had their mouthpieces rebalanced is some way. The client should do what the client feels is best. I just offer the facts in front of us.
My favorite story in this area happened maybe 7 years ago. A pro player on the road came to see me. He had a Meyer large chamber soprano mouthpiece, quite vintage and quite valuable. He’d been playing it for a long time on his Mk. VI soprano. But, it didn’t always behave well. When I measured it up, I know precisely why is would misbehave, and I told him. The “fix”, so to speak, was a very small one that would affect only the response and not at all the sound of the piece. I actually showed him exactly what I would do. He was petrified, as he considered having me do the work. Instead, he played a few pieces I had ready, but every half hour, he’d come back to thinking about his vintage Meyer, which he loved, except for the part he didn’t love.
This went on for a little more than 2 hours. Finally, he kind of “hit a wall” and said “OK. Do it”.
And this is the best part of the story. I had been involved with that piece and so thoroughly connected with it for over 2 hours, that I knew exactly what to do and how to do it. I took the piece from him, turned to my workbench, where I had a clean sheet of 1000 grit sandpaper ready, made one short, light pass over the sandpaper and handed it back to him. Time elapsed: 5 seconds or less.
I didn’t even bother to measure it again. I expected either I got it just right or perhaps “almost” just right but greatly improved. He looked at me like I had two heads.
“You didn’t do anything”, he said. I said, play it. So, he did. The piece was perfect for him now; the issues were completely gone. But, he was incredulous. “You didn’t do anything. What was that? The ‘laying on of hands’?”.
In the end, he understood what had happened, but he found it hard to believe, nonetheless. He left there with a great playing mouthpiece and a lot of new knowledge that will serve him well.
Clients like that are rare, because players come to see me because THEY know that there is something ‘not right” in their soprano world. I didn’t tell them that; they learned it firsthand. And they’re looking to solve the problems being manifested. That’s what we do, together, in the shop.
More typically, this is how a session will proceed:
Discover the underlying issues.
Discuss the way to correct them.
Decide on a path forward.
Make the adjustment (usually incrementally, a little at a time) and have the client play test it.
Repeat as required.
We are finished when the client is happy with the piece. Sometimes, we agree that the piece should be played for some time to be certain it is right. If, in 3 weeks, the player thinks it needs tweaking, he either comes by or sends me the piece. By that time, the trust that we’ve established during our work together counts for a lot.
That is what it’s like here on a lot of days. I enjoy meeting and hearing new players, some of my heroes and a lot of very nice people who live on the same planet I live on: SOPRANOPLANET.
In a coming post I’ll explain how I work when a player sends me a piece in the mail and I need to “channel” that player’s issues and concerns.