During my time as a teacher I’ve witnessed countless students coming into band or lessons with a shiny, brand new horn, and the same old, beat up stock or nameless mouthpiece. The thinking goes – if I want to improve my sound, I need to buy a new instrument. It is a misguided thought process that in the end delivers frustrating results. The end result? The student basks in the glow of a new horn for a few weeks but continue their struggle to improve their sound. The fact is that by ignoring their mouthpiece they were dismissing the most crucial part of their setup – more crucial even than the instrument itself.
Why Mouthpieces Matter
Outside of your own body, the mouthpiece (and reed) is where your sound begins. Your breath sets the reed in motion against the mouthpiece, which sends vibrations and sound waves through your mouthpiece and into your horn. Being your first point of contact with the mouthpiece, your mouthpiece has more influence on the quality of your sound than any other piece of equipment. In order to set yourself up for the most success, a quality mouthpiece is simply a must-have. Depending on what genre(s) of music you play, you might even need more than one!
Beginner Mouthpieces vs. Professional Mouthpieces
I’m often asked about the differences between a beginner mouthpiece and a professional mouthpiece. Generally speaking, a beginner mouthpiece is exactly what it sounds like – designed for beginners. This usually means they are designed with a very closed tip and made with much cheaper, less durable material with much less attention to musicianship, craftsmanship or design. They’re constructed to make producing a sound as easily as possible at the cheapest price. Not necessarily a great sound, or an acceptable sound – but a sound. While the low price certainly has appeal, the fact is that while more expensive, there are much higher-quality mouthpieces that students can start out on, and STAY ON for years with much better results over the course of their music education.
With professional mouthpiece-makers like Vandoren, the primary focus is on tone quality and response as opposed price point. While there are many models, tip openings and facings, ALL are designed for professionals. What that means is top of the line materials (most often a type of hard rubber called ebonite) and far superior attention to detail throughout the manufacturing process. Every step of the way is undertaken with the purpose of delivering musicians a product that will help them reach there highest levels of artistry. While designed for professionals, many models also work wonderfully for beginning students (see recommendations at the end of this article).
Personally, I move my students to a professional quality mouthpiece as soon as possible, and often times right from the start. In my experience, the students that switch sooner enjoy much better success in terms of tone production and section placement, and as a result enjoy their band experience that much more. And from the teaching perspective, a student on quality equipment is so much easier to teach. From fundamentals to more complicated elements of musicianship – it all comes much more naturally to a student who doesn’t have to fight against their own setup.
Some things you might notice when switching to a professional mouthpiece
This can vary a lot from person to person, and remember that there is no substitute for quality practice time. That said, some things you might notice after switching from a beginner, or stock mouthpiece include:
- a bigger, warmer and more even sound with more depth
- better intonation, better response
- greater percentage of reeds work for you due to a better and more exact facing curve
- ability to blend and ability to project become much easier
In the end, as a musician your sound is everything – and to that end your mouthpiece is arguably the most critical piece of equipment. So if you’re looking to improve your sound, don’t underestimate the difference a new mouthpiece can make. Talk with your teacher, listen to their advice and try out a several models. We’re all different but with a little research and guidance you will find what works best for you.
Concert Band Recommendations
Jazz Band Recommendations
Vandoren Ebonite Tenor V16 Series – T6 or T7
Dr. Michael Fenoglio is a saxophonist, composer, and educator residing near Champaign, Illinois where he works as the Vandoren Brand Manager at DANSR, Inc. – the importer of Vandoren products for the United States. He holds a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in Jazz Saxophone Performance from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a MM from DePaul University, and a BM from Millikin University. During his doctoral studies, Fenoglio won an award from Downbeat Magazine for outstanding graduate soloist, as well as a group award for outstanding graduate student group.
Outside of his position at DANSR, Fenoglio maintains a private studio and active performance schedule as leader and sideman. He has had the pleasure of playing with a variety of renowned artists including The Doc Severinsen Big Band, Ira Sullivan, Phil Woods, and The Temptations. His most recent recording projects include his band’s self-titled album, “The Old Style Sextet,” which received high praise and national airplay through BluJazz Records, and side work on guitarist Chris Beyt’s “120.”