Know Your Vincent Bach Mouthpieces

Have you heard of Vennture Mouthpieces? Doug McVey is making a big name for himself in the trumpet mouthpiece world and it’s absolutely deserved. As well as making his own lines of fantastic brass instrument mouthpieces he is a real master of custom work. His VennCAD software is available free-of-charge from his website and enables anybody with an idea to combine cups, rims and backbores to create the mouthpiece of their dreams. If you’re interested in mouthpieces then I’d recommend you take a look. I also highly recommend you listen to one of the many interviews that he’s doing at the moment such as this one: Trumpet Gurus Hang Podcast

I was taking a look at the wealth of information available in the VennCAD software recently and thought it would be interesting to revisit a topic that I have discussed before. In one of my earliest posts about Vincent Bach mouthpieces (click here) I made a reference to how not all ‘C’ cups are created equal.

Something that Doug discusses differently to the marketing materials of most trumpet mouthpiece manufacturers is the topic of a mouthpiece’s cup volume. He’s less bothered than most about the shape of a cup, or the diameter of a rim, but what the volume of the cup is and the consequences that this has on the acoustic properties of the instrument. The volume of a mouthpiece cup will change the frequency of the sound that is produced when you tap the end of the mouthpiece with your palm. This “pop frequency” is a good way to compare the sound that you can expect to be produced when you put that mouthpiece into a trumpet. As this experiment is performed without the variable of the player being involved, it can give you an objective understanding of the physical properties of the equipment without the need for subjective opinion interfering. He’s much better at explaining this than I am so I suggest you go and listen to the podcast.

There is a lot of interesting information to be uncovered when considering a mouthpiece as a three-dimentional shape, rather than a product of its two-dimentional components. For example, a Schilke 15B (which I had in my rotation for years) has about the same cup volume as a Vincent Bach 11C. That’s not information you’ll find on a comparison chart, or that you’d instictively believe by looking at them.

Interesting observations

The points I thought people would find interesting are what follows, and I won’t ramble on too much about what it all means. In terms of cup volume, here is a chart of some popular Vincent Bach mouthpieces listed by size. Who knew that a 7C is bigger than a 1-1/2C? That’s not the only thing most players would find surprising. All measurements are in cubic inches.

An awful lot of players choose to play a 3C because they consider it to be fairly medium in size. In the grand scheme of things, when you consider other brands, it is. But clearly when comparing it to other Vincent Bach mouthpieces, it is not – even the 10-1/2C is bigger! There’s a lot of talk along the lines of how it’s easier to play than a 1-1/2C, but still big enough to get a “legit sound”. Again, this is true, but I am pretty confident that players also think “It’s bigger than a 7C, so that makes it alright. I won’t be criticised by everyone for using a small mouthpiece.”

I find it pretty funny that teachers tell pupils that they need to move onto a bigger mouthpiece and then unknowingly move them onto a smaller one, often more than once!!

Other factors

Of course there’s more to a mouthpiece than just the cup size, but a the effect of a backbore and throat combination can often have counter-intuitive results. In the interview Doug explains how a larger backbore actually creates a brighter sound. This is interesting because often we tend to think of a backbore in terms of balancing the resistance that it provides when we play, but may end up making a choice that takes us in the wrong direction in terms of the desired sound.

If you consider something like a Vincent Bach 1-1/4C with a 24 throat and a 24 (larger) backbore. Compared to the stock design, the larger throat reduces the brilliance (higher overtones) in the sound, but the larger backbore would encourage them, thus the two would cancel each other out to a degree. The mouthpiece may feel a little more ‘open’, but it would end up sounding basically the same as the stock model.

When you read the earlier Bach mouthpiece manuals (that I shared in my previous post on the subject) you can see that Bach intended his various cup sizes to match various different sizes of trumpet, rather than thinking of people playing the B-flat trumpet in different styles. That’s why some might say that there aren’t really any traditional Vincent Bach mouthpieces that are ideal for playing lead trumpet, for example.

Anyway… I said I wouldn’t ramble so I’ll leave it here.

~iii<0

One (Mouth-) Piece To Rule Them All

The purpose of this post is to discuss my experience of having used a single mouthpiece for professional playing over a relatively long period of time.

Some history

Like many trumpet players I like mouthpieces. I really like them. Over the years I’ve owned a lot of them and my preferences have changed over time from one extreme of design to another. A major shift in my habits and opinions happened when I first began learning from Jerome Callet in 2012. I should also say that a lot of experimentation has been fuelled by other players that share the enjoyment of experimentation with mouthpieces. As a result of what I learned from Jerome, and from Bahb Civiletti, I am quite happy to pick up most mouthpieces without any immediate loss of ability. It tends to be the changing habits over time that come from choice of equipment that would cause me to suffer, but that’s a subject of its own that I could write another post about (in fact, check this one for some of my thoughts about that). There will be more on this subject later on.

When I try to list the mouthpieces that I used exclusively for any period it gets very difficult very fast. I used a Vincent Bach 1-1/2C for nearly five years in my late teens/early twenties and then the next longest period would have been eighteen months that I used the TCE-RC, about eighteen years later. There were six-month periods when I only used a Bach 3C, Jerome Callet’s Superchops 4 (when changing my approach to playing) and I used Bahb Civiletti’s TCE#3 a lot over a four-year period, but not exclusively. I had the Callet Superchops 3 in rotation for five or six years but exclusivity is the key to this discussion.

Despite having owned and used many differing designs, I know with certainty that the times when I stuck with one mouthpiece for a long period were my most consistent and probably most enjoyable. Having said that, the topic isn’t as simple as it sounds. My experience could lead one to believe that my advice should be to choose a mouthpiece and stick with it for a long time. However, as a professional freelancer I need different tools for different jobs. It would not be practical or appropriate to use the same equipment to play lead trumpet in a big band and second trumpet in an orchestra. There have been times when I’ve had to do this on the same day and it’s not at all uncommon to do both over the course of a weekend.

You may know from a previous post (click here) that when I brought out the TCE-RC mouthpiece in January 2019, I then used it exclusively, for better or worse, for a little over a year of professional playing. In my description for that mouthpiece I wrote that it was intended as an 80-90% solution and that you may need to swap for certain extremes of playing. Whether or not this is true must depend completely on the individual, their sound concept, the music they play, and their approach to playing; I made it work, I played a wide variety of music and I learned from the experience.

What I’ve learnt from using one mouthpiece exclusively

Pros:

The main advantage, and maybe only advantage of using one mouthpiece exclusively is consistency. Consistency is very important for a brass player. Simply put, as your equipment always feels the same you are always going to know what to expect when using it. Even writing this down makes it seem like a stupidly obvious statement. Why would you change the equipment if there is a chance that you wouldn’t know how it is going to feel when you play? Well… maybe consistency is closely related to stagnation. It’s easy to stop learning about yourself and your instrument by imposing limits. It’s a delicate balancing act between pushing yourself to improve and maintaining the standard that is required of you as a performer.

Doc Reinhardt wrote about what he called Sensation Theory in his Encyclopaedia Of The Pivot System.

Sensation Theory is the approach to the instrument whereby the player relies primarily on feeling rather than on sound to produce his notes. Generally speaking, the more completely the dependence on feeling the player can achieve, the more accuracy he will acquire.

When describing the process of warming up he goes on to say that it is simply returning to the point where things feel as you know they should. The quicker a player can return to the correct feeling of playing, or homeostasis, the better. Following this theory, it is logical to assume that keeping the physical equipment the same is the best route to take. An alternative view is that if you are likely to use more than one mouthpiece, or trumpet, then you should do equal amounts of practice on each.

The real question that should be addressed is whether the advantage of a consistent feel outweighs the potential disadvantages.

Cons:

Put simply, my opinion regarding the disadvantage of using one mouthpiece exclusively is that the player will end up compromising their playing for the sake of consistency. Common knowledge on the subject of mouthpieces says to choose one that gives you a good sound and that everything else will develop over time. Having known a lot people who chose a Bach 1-1/2C because it sounded pleasing and still struggle with range, flexibility and endurance after decades of using it, I would have to suggest that this wisdom is not based in objective reality. Anything as large as a 1-1/2C belongs in the category of specialist orchestral equipment and unless you’re a professional orchestral player there is probably something more suitable for you. I’m not really aiming that statement at professionals who make a large mouthpiece work well but let’s be honest, there aren’t many of those either. That’s a subject that goes much deeper.

For me the TCE-RC seemed ideal in the practice room. It has a centered sound, easy note production and requires that you play in a disciplined way to get the most out of its use. However, because I play a wide variety of music there were always situations where it wasn’t the best tool for the job. Playing second trumpet in a Mahler symphony for example, which I had to do during the time I was using the mouthpiece exclusively. Similarly, although I can play my full range on it, it wasn’t intended as a lead trumpet mouthpiece and playing the lead part in a big band was not as easy as it could have been.

Conclusion

If I were to give some generic advice it would go something like this:

  • Have a mouthpiece that you know well so that when trying something new you can make direct comparisons with it.
  • Have a mouthpiece that you know well so that you can be consistent in performance.
  • The longer you have a mouthpiece the more you will learn about how you can make it work, or not work.
  • By all means experiment with mouthpieces but don’t get into the habit of swapping mouthpieces constantly to try and maintain your level of playing.
  • Learn what your equipment is good for and use it for that.

Players who specialise in high-note playing tend to recommend that you use a mouthpiece that enables you to do the job and then learn how to play it with a good sound. Those who specialise in classical playing tend to recommend that you choose a mouthpiece for its sound and then learn how to make it work. In my opinion choosing something in the middle will not give the best of both worlds but in fact the disadvantages of both and advantages of neither.

In an attempt to keep this post on-topic I’ve had to stop many trains of thought and delete a lot of opinion – hopefully I’ve left you with something helpful. Please check back for insightful edits!

~iii<0

Thought Experiment: The Modern B-flat Trumpet Is A Piccolo?

Come with me on a journey through time and space as we explore the modern trumpet through a different lens. I hope with this short article to present an idea that allows us, as trumpeters, to practise with an altered perspective and to hopefully gain some ability as a result.

The modern trumpet and cornet are usually described, in modern times, as being the same instrument (except for the mouthpiece and the number of 180-degree bends in the tubing). Detailed analysis of modern and old cornets and trumpets has demonstrated this to be fact. Actually, contrary to popular belief, many modern trumpets are more conical than cornets and vice versa.

Personally, having played both instruments for most of my life I tend to see the difference between the instruments as a matter of musical style. Switching from one to the other happens similarly to switching between a classical and commercial style on the trumpet (it’s all in your head). The true innovation of the historical cornet was to make the soprano brass voice fully chromatic. Emphasis in cornet methods is upon the finger technique and the ability to play fluently in the lowest two octaves of the instrument, which makes sense seeing that these are the things the cornet could do that the ancient trumpet could not. On the subject of “trumpet vs cornet” that is all I have to share, but it was important to mention as it paves the way for my opinion about how we could think about playing the trumpet.

The modern trumpet is normally taught just as I describe the cornet above. As a chromatic instrument that people learn to play by changing fingering and slowly growing their range, diatonically, one note at a time. This may make sense when you look at the instrument, but in antiquity this approach was not possible. On the instrument that we commonly refer to as a “natural trumpet” there was only the harmonic series, so people first learned to play a single note and then subsequent notes by manipulating the embouchure. Instantly people studied the embouchure from the start.

Regardless of methods that people follow or ideologies that their teacher follows an aspiring player on the modern trumpet will eventually be given flexibility exercises, or “lip-slur” exercises. For many, these exercises are the only gateway to embouchure development and they may play for many years before they begin practising them. Considering this fact alone makes it obvious that so many modern trumpet players struggle to understand the basic mechanics of embouchure – the topic is pretty much avoided by all teachers (except for those dreaded ones who go around screwing people up with their half-baked theories about flat chins and jaw alignment).

When studying transposition many pupils have asked me why it is that in order to play music written for the trumpet in F we transpose the music up a perfect fifth, rather than down a perfect fourth, considering that the trumpet in F was a longer length of tubing. The trumpet in F doesn’t get talked about very much in current times, but I believe understanding the way it was played could assist us in developing or indeed changing our understanding of the B-flat trumpet and performance of certain classical repertoire. The simple answer to the question, of course, is that the trumpet in F, although it had valves and thus making it fully chromatic, was essentially the highest pitched natural trumpet, plus valves. If you were to play a written middle C on a natural trumpet in C then it would be the fourth available harmonic, and it would sound the same pitch as the same note on the piano. As you shorten the tubing, raising the pitch for the other common natural trumpets (D, E-flat, F, G) the pitch of a written middle C also raises. Hence a middle C written for the trumpet in F would be played as the note G, the second available open harmonic, on a modern B-flat trumpet.

My proposal is not complicated, or in any way clever, but if we were to take the modern B-flat trumpet and compare it to its predecessors (natural trumpets or F-trumpets) rather than its country cousin (the cornet) then what we would have is an instrument that would be thought of as a piccolo. If the fourth harmonic on a natural trumpet is a middle C, then we could read any music in the same way on the modern trumpet too. Of course at this point it just sounds as though I’m suggesting that we just play everything an octave higher than written, so allow me to suggest another idea.

If we were to forget the natural trumpet and focus on the trumpet in F then what we have is an instrument the same length and with the same fingerings as a French Horn, or more specifically, a single horn in F. What I suggest is that anyone playing the modern B-flat trumpet can and should learn to play music from a basic french horn tutor book, which is easier to get hold of than an authentic F-trumpet tutor, but transpose that music such that you are using the same harmonics and fingerings that the book suggests. Thus the relationship between the B-flat trumpet and the F trumpet would be the same as the relationship between an E-flat trumpet and a B-flat trumpet is thought of today.

Practically speaking this is still, in one sense, a transposition exercise. But it shifts the focus of the instrument back a little closer to what it is – a small trumpet. In any case I believe this to be preferable to thinking of the B-flat trumpet as the largest of a set of ridiculously short trumpets/cornets that people use because nobody taught them about embouchure.

Reflecting On A Successful Year, 2019.

It’s January. This means that, in the UK at least, it is time to fill out the tax return again. Of course, I could have done it many months ago. Considering that the country was in lockdown and I wasn’t doing much of anything else. Actually, that’s not wholly accurate as I was working pretty hard getting the openArbanProject off the ground, teaching the TCE online, learning to program computers in Python, making websites and building my own desktop environment. Only a couple of those things relates to my music work and, as you can tell, my taxes were not on my radar!

Although going through all of my records, creating spreadsheets and counting milage for a year’s worth of gigs and private lessons can be pretty tedious, it also gives me a chance to reflect on the previous year and check whether any semblance of a career path is being followed.

Looking back at 2019 (and early 2020), I can say without doubt that is was my most varied and successful year as a freelance musician to date. On the classical side of things, I performed the Hummel Trumpet Concerto with an orchestra, played in two Mahler Symphonies, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The year was finished off playing in a ten-piece brass ensemble that accompanied the Brockenhurt Choir with arrangements by a colleague of mine, David Bertie. Just before the nation went into lockdown I played in a week’s run of Samson and Delilah with the Bristol Opera. In times of normality I still get classical gigs every couple of months, but this year had some particularly good moments.
In the more commercial field I had regular gigs with my band Mango Factory, including a couple of festivals. Regular rehearsals through the winter really paid off for us and I’m looking forward to getting back to that after the pandemic. I became a member of The Big R Big Band and we had a bunch of great gigs for swing-dance and vintage/nostalgia clubs. I played a few times with The Bare Souls, and a handful of engagements with Backbeat Soundsystem. I particularly enjoyed working with Backbeat because they have a very mature style and a lot of performing experience. Hopefully in future some previous members of that band will look my way when looking for a horn section! Another band I’m a member of is Fiesta Resistance, an authentic Cuban Salsa band. We had a few more bookings during that year including Cardiff Food Festival and some private engagements.
Other than all these great gigs I was also first refusal for a couple function bands from Bristol. A lot of professional musicians don’t tend to publicise that they do this sort of work but these days it is real bread-and-butter for freelancers. Personally I enjoy providing a service to the public and learning a few special songs for a client can really add to their event. This year the wedding scene was busy to say the least. I was out playing every weekend from April to November with often up to five gigs per week. These gigs were all over the country, literally from the south coast to Dumfries and from Fishguard to somewhere near Norfolk. I certainly got about, and it was fun. Thankfully I get on with the players in these bands or those hours on the road wouldn’t have been so enjoyable!

My teaching also went pretty well, picking up a bunch of new TCE converts all over the globe and selling a lot of eBooks. For those who don’t know, I’ve now split this website and its eBook store into two. The new online store can now be found at NeotericBrass.com.
On top of this I should also mention my TCE-RC trumpet mouthpiece, that I used for nearly all of the gigs listed above, both classical and commercial. There were occasional days when I experiemented with other mouthpieces, or changed to a deeper cup to better match those I was playing with, but I mean once or twice out of a whole year of playing. Invariably I found that because I am so accustomed to the TCE-RC, I wanted to get back to it as quickly as possible after trying something else – a real lesson in consistency was had there.

Looking back at all this whilst doing my accounts and thinking of the experiences, I’m really happy that I’ve been able to build up the friends and contacts over the years to make it possible; but there is also a flip-side to this experience that’s worth taking on board for anyone who is considering becoming a professional musician.

It would barely have been possible for me to work more during this time. Maybe I could have fit a few extra pupils in, or chosen weddings over my more artistic pursuits. But in terms of time and fatigue I was flat out and couldn’t have sustained this pace forever. In September 2020 I began working a day job out of necessity. All of my gigs since March 2020 have been cancelled and there’s not much hope of them coming back this year. I did not have enough teaching to make a living from it so I looked in another direction for earning money. I started a job for minimum wage and I was earning what would have amounted to about £18,500 per year. In my busiest year to date as a professional musician and teacher, who also happens to occupy a niche in that market too, I earned little over £19,000. After expenses, on paper, my profit was about £13,500. That was the most I had earned in fifteen years doing this job. I could never afford to buy a house, or plan for a meaningful future.

I’ve thought about these figures quite a bit since having a day-job and I realise now the true cost of the badge-of-honour known as “being a professional musician”. Obviously I’ve known for a long time that I didn’t earn much money, and just accepted it as a way of life. But comparing my earnings to what is considered by most as barely enough to survive, and realising that I was coming up short by comparison for my whole adult life has given me a slightly different perspective.

It will be interesting to see how the music scene rebuilds after the coronavirus pandemic, and I absolutely intend to be a part of it, but at least for now I think I’ll be keeping my day-job too.