Tone trick: clock your mouthpiece

You probably saw it coming, or maybe you didn’t, but today I am continuing my blogging about how the mouthpiece affects your tone with the fascinating and unusual practice of clocking your mouthpiece. I learned this technique from my colleague and friend, the late Aigi Hurn, principal trumpet of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia.

Background: when your lips vibrate in the mouthpiece, they set up a standing wave of the air column surrounded by the walls of the trumpet tubing. The vibration can be somewhat dampened if any part of your trumpet is not ideally connected with the rest. This is especially true of the mouthpiece. At the very least, you can improve your tone by firmly putting the shank into the leadpipe receiver (with a small twist). This insures that the metal surfaces are really touching each other. However, there is a rotation of the mouthpiece that is optimal for this effect. It’s different for every mouthpiece/trumpet combination. How do you find out? You clock your mouthpiece!

How to clock: take a mark on the outside of your mouthpiece (like the number), and use this as a reference. Start by firmly placing the mouthpiece with the number up (at the 12 o’clock position). Play a few notes that are revealing of your tone quality (e.g., the beginning of Pictures). Then rotate the mouthpiece by a quarter turn (or 15 minutes, if you’re thinking of minutes on a clock). Play the same passage. Continue in this way two more times. When you’ve gone around the clock, think to yourself which clock position was the best. Then go back to that point on the “clock.” Shift the rotation slightly clockwise and counterclockwise to find the most optimal sound. When you have found it, then you should remember this for the future. You have clocked your mouthpiece for this trumpet.

Do this for the rest of your mouthpiece-trumpet combinations for the best sound.

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Mouthpiece sizes: do they measure up?

In the last couple of days, I spent some time writing about Bach trumpet mouthpieces. What about other manufacturers? There are many very good mouthpiece makers with varying philosophies on tone production.

The number one factor for most trumpeters in determining a mouthpiece is the (inner) rim diameter. Most of us have gone with Vincent Bach’s recommendation in choosing as large a size as possible:

We recommend that all brass instrumentalists — professional artists, beginners or advanced students; symphony, concert or jazz band — use as large a cup diameter as they can endure and a fairly deep cup. A larger mouthpiece with a fairly deep cup offers the advantages of a natural, compact, and uniform high, middle and low register, improved lip control, greater flexibility, and avoidance of missed tones. A larger-sized mouthpiece will also offer greater comfort, making it possible to secure a good tone quality even when the lips are swollen from too much playing.

Jens Lindemann does not take the exact opposite stance as Bach, but he comes close:

I believe that far too many trumpet players use mouthpieces that are basically too big. IMHO, going larger than a Bach 3C or the Yamaha/Schilke equivalent 14c4 or smaller than a Bach 7C or Yamaha/Schilke 11 should be considered ‘specialized’ equipment.

I feel like there is actually a lot of overlap in Bach’s and Jens’ philosophy. Playing a larger mouthpiece is great, but don’t play one too large. I can also honestly say that it is possible to play much larger mouthpiece than a 1X. It’s possible to play a 20mm mouthpiece and sound good, but it takes months to learn how to do it for most of us. I know because I have been making this transition in baroque trumpet playing. Nevertheless, for a modern trumpet, I think Jens’ notion that a non-specialized mouthpiece range is between 3C and 7C is reasonable.

Different manufacturers use different numbers to measure mouthpieces. We need to know how to compare. Fortunately there are comparison charts. My favorite is this one on the Mouthpiece Express website.

Apart from their philosophy of tone production, modern mouthpiece makers can be judged by their consistency and their ability to copy the relevant dimensions of any mouthpiece that a player may desire.

A good way to discriminate between good and bad mouthpieces is by doing A-B testing with experienced players listening. Starting out with 2 to 20 mouthpieces, keep eliminating the less-good ones until you have one or two winners. Switch roles, and have the listeners play. Do they wind up with the same choices? Sometimes yes, but often no.

Also, please keep in mind that that mouthpieces that do not immediately sound good might sound great with more practice. A mouthpiece that does not make the A-B testing cut could even potentially play better than its rivals if the player invests the time in learning how to resonate it well. This is a paradox that can benefit from the advice of a respected teacher, coach or friend.


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