One or More, Big or Small, Should do it?
A discussion by Richard Colquhoun about the differing attitudes towards choices of
trumpet mouthpieces for performance and their use in pedagogy.
In April 2016 I travelled to Belgium to meet with Bahb Civiletti. Bahb is one of the world’s pre-eminent baroque trumpet players and his The Art Of The High Baroque album features some of the only recordings ever made of certain solo repertoire on a natural trumpet (the fruits of him having studied with Jerome Callet and Friedemann Immer can also be heard on his YouTube Channel). Over the time that I spent with Bahb one topic of conversation that came up a few times was that of trumpet mouthpieces. I was quite keen to hear Bahb’s opinion on this topic partly because it is often a point of contention between trumpet players, but also because Jerome Callet asserts quite a strong ideology in terms of mouthpiece choice and I was curious whether this had rubbed off on Bahb at all.
When asked he joked about people’s obsessions with trumpet mouthpieces and told a story about how he once challenged a room of people to find a mouthpiece that he couldn’t perform the first sixteen bars of the third movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto on; apparently they couldn’t (including a french horn mouthpiece). On a more serious note he stated that one could learn to play anything they want to with any mouthpiece and that the only reason you may have to change is to get an appropriate tone colour for the music you’re performing. He also recommended to avoid discussing mouthpieces with other trumpet players as these things always end in an argument. Since the popularity of my article about Vincent Bach mouthpieces I’ve been trying to write a more general follow-up and, like many of my articles, I have a number of failed attempts in my drafts folder. The other day I met with some trumpet-playing friends and the inevitable debate began. By the time the discussion had finished there was no clear movement in anybody’s opinion. Plenty of good points were made but these decisions tend to be intrinsically tied to deeply held opinions based upon very different levels of experience, exposure to ideas, and goals when playing the instrument. What you will read here is my attempt to describe a few conflicting attitudes that people have towards choice of mouthpiece that I hope will be helpful not only to make informed decisions, but also in understanding why no choice you make will ever please everyone you meet.
Idea 1: One Ring To Rule Them All
A particularly prominent voice in the trumpet pedagogy world is Claude Gordon. Claude’s philosophy is that once you have addressed all aspects of playing technique in a systematic, progressive way then you will be a competent player and that all abilities are inevitable. He says in his book Brass Playing Is No Harder Than Deep Breathing that an aspiring trumpet player should buy one good mouthpiece and stick with it. This is a conclusion that he came to after spending much of his playing career searching for the “perfect mouthpiece” and his intention behind the advise is to warn others not to make the same mistake, which would be to believe that a change of equipment is of equal value to quality practise. His recommendation for a sensible mouthpiece is one with and open backbore, longer v-shaped cup and a wide throat. Claude talks against using mouthpieces that feel tight, or provide resistance. Claude Gordon’s general rule is that the physical side of playing should be focused mostly on wind power, which goes a long way to explain his ideas about mouthpieces. In musical terms, students of the Gordon school believe that all variations in tone that you may want can come from your intentions as you play. This is a very common idea that Arturo Sandoval does a good job of demonstrating it in this video.
Jerome Callet is another famous American trumpet pedagogue. In his teaching he puts a lot of emphasis on the idea of correct sound. To him there is only one correct sound that one should strive to make on the trumpet, regardless of the genre of music you play. He teaches that in attempting to create “a big orchestral sound” many players force their tone to “spread”, which in turn leads to over blowing. His philosophy puts a premium on efficient use of air, stressing that Harry James (often used as a model for tone) only used as much air as was necessary to get the job done. On the subject of mouthpieces Jerry also believes that players can and should only use one mouthpiece. Contrary to Claude Gordon’s teaching, disciples of Jerry favour mouthpieces with shallow cups, long tight backbores and small throats. Callet also alludes to the need for a mouthpiece design to be “balanced”, but I’ve never found an explanation of what he means by that.
Idea 2: The Right Tool For The Job
Whilst consistency is important in your practice and goals as an instrumentalist many believe that choosing one mouthpiece to use forever is likely to cause a player problems if they play a wide variety of music. If you were to only use a shallow mouthpiece such as Schilke 14A4a then you may struggle with soft entrances in an orchestral setting or even making a characteristic sound. Similarly if you always play on a wide bowl such as a Vincent Bach 1X then you are going to need a lot of physical effort to play lead trumpet in a big band. Many players take pride in the so-called strength they’ve built up over years of playing on inappropriate equipment and believe that others are cheating if they aren’t punishing themselves in the same way. K.O. from Stomvi discusses his point of view nicely in this video. Of course some may surmise that the best option would be a middle-of-the-road mouthpiece, thus getting no assistance from your mouthpiece for either job… paraphrasing Mark Van Cleave I’ll just say that average [mouthpieces/ideas/methods] produce average results and average trumpet players. Trying to use logic simply to avoid exploration will only result in missing out on the fruits of knowledge.
Bobby Shew is possibly one of the most accomplished trumpet players alive today. He explains in this article how he spent years believing that you could play everything on one mouthpiece, avoiding getting caught up in the decision making traps. Eventually he came to realise that trying out different equipment and learning to use it can be extremely beneficial. This is something that I will explain in greater detail later on. I wanted to quote a lot of Bobby’s article, but I’d rather you just go and read the whole thing. I’m just going to take this part:
The use of an improper mouthpiece equates with trying to drive nails with a screwdriver – Bobby Shew
Roger Ingram studied with Bobby Shew when he was younger and has a very similar attitude towards choice of mouthpieces. On his website he sells a set of six mouthpieces, all of which are intended for specific jobs. The really interesting thing is that he says that he doesn’t even bother to try playing high parts on any but the smallest of these (despite the fact that I’m sure he could nail a killer Double High C on a bucket!!). In his book Clinical Notes On Trumpet Playing Roger recommends that when playing lead trumpet you should use the “smallest mouthpiece you can get away with” and for orchestral playing you should use the “largest mouthpiece you can get away with”. His chapter on mouthpiece selection is actually very interesting and he firmly believes that what works for one person will not work for another. He also talks about consciously placing more or less lip in the bowl of the mouthpiece before you play in order to adapt to the size.
Idea 3: Mouthpieces As A Teaching Aid
A very common teaching practice that I’ve written about in the past is the idea that as pupils progress they should be moved on to bigger and bigger mouthpieces. I wrote about why this isn’t logical in reference to Vincent Bach mouthpieces because of the inconsistencies in design and manufacturing, but if a player were to use mouthpieces of a different brand then that argument would be negated. Another reason that it doesn’t make sense, however, is the idea of strength. Imagine that you start out playing on a Yamaha 11B4. As you become a stronger player you move on to using a Schilke 14, but you’re not strong enough for that mouthpiece so you have to work to build up more strength. Once you master your Schilke 14 you “graduate” up to a “professional mouthpiece”. That could be a Yamaha 16C4, Schilke 17D4d or 18, Vincent Bach 1C, Monette B2, the choices are endless. Unfortunately you’re not strong enough for these mouthpieces yet so you have to work to build things up again.
This process is so ridiculous that I am beside myself just writing this explanation. Every time you begin to make progress you’re slapped back to the beginning by the wisdom of “this is how the big boys do it”. It’s not only the constant punishment for practising that annoys me though. The definition of strength in this situation is the ability of the lips to resist an ever-increasing volume of air that if you weren’t using in the first place you’d never need the strength to resist. It was the opinion of Renold Schilke that anybody, whether they’ve every played before or not has strength to resist as much air pressure as required to play any note on the trumpet (refer to this article for more information).
Large mouthpieces are really good at hiding poor technique, whether that be allowing the lips to collapse into the cup (usually), poor articulation (dwah dwah dwah), or just relying on air to compensate for lack of embouchure training (definitely). Large mouthpieces do not teach you to play properly and more importantly they allow you to play incorrectly. Some people will make them work through realising that just because you can use power it doesn’t mean that you should, and everyone else just suffers and starts to believe that not everyone is cut out for playing the trumpet. It is this sort of trouble that makes people lean in the direction of Claude Gordon’s school of thought – get a sensible mouthpiece and work on your technique. When presented only with these two options, Gordon is absolutely the better choice. There are, however, many other, more modern, approaches.
A relatively recent movement in the trumpet pedagogy sphere is Lynn Nicholson. In the last couple of years he has released a number of video tutorials and mouthpiece design that constitute what he refers to as the Mindless Hardware Methodology. The idea behind the MHM is that using a small, v-cup mouthpiece with a very high alpha angle for short periods will force you to learn correct playing habits because playing incorrectly simply won’t work on that equipment. No thinking or analysis is necessary. Whilst this is an extreme example, this idea is not one that I’m opposed to.
Players who frequently use small shallow mouthpieces will often point out that they are still capable of using deep mouthpieces whereas the reverse is very rarely true. Users of bigger mouthpieces complain of their lips hitting the cup on shallow mouthpieces and not being able to make a big tone. These are both things that are the results of technique and not the equipment. Usually players of larger mouthpieces allow their lips to collapse into the mouthpiece, effectively making it shallower as the distance from their lips to the base of the cup is reduced. Lips in this position are not effective at resisting the air stream and the only solution is to use more air, which makes the problem worse. It is much more difficult to create the compression required for playing high, or making a big tone, when using large volumes of air. Jerry Callet always recommended that people learn to play with shallower cups because you know straight away if you’re over blowing or using too much pressure. How? because the sound stops coming out of the trumpet! Although Jerry would say that once you are making a correct sound you can play anything; Bahb Civiletti points out that as you’re capable of playing bigger gear then you can choose to do that to appease the tastes of others. At the end of the day the conductor is in charge.
I started out playing on a small cupped mouthpiece by accident. Without knowing the significance of what I was doing, I immediately learned how to keep my lips out of the cup to make the mouthpiece work for me. Had I not, I probably would not have been able to produce much of a sound, if any at all – Roger Ingram
Food For Thought: Change Your Trumpet Or Change Your Mouthpiece?
Recently I went to watch a concert that was given by an ensemble called Spiritato! They are a group of musicians who perform music from the 17th century on authentic period instruments. There were four hole-less natural trumpets in the ensemble, all pitched in D. Two of these instruments were playing high clarino parts and the other two lower tromba parts. Interestingly each member of the section used a different sized mouthpiece. The players of the lower parts had mouthpieces of the size that you’d expect to see in a trombone and the players of the higher parts had mouthpieces that were much smaller. This approach seems to echo the “Right tool for the job” philosophy, and is historically accurate. Also worth noting is that their sounds all blended together nicely as each player made a tone that was appropriate to the pitch they played at.
Since the advent of the valved trumpet, in the classical trumpet field, it is pretty standard practice to switch to smaller higher-pitched trumpets when the music ventures above the stave. People often tend to use a smaller mouthpiece to match their smaller trumpet and this practice was also recommended by Vincent Bach in his older catalogues (as can be seen here: 1 2). It is a generally accepted rule that the B-flat trumpet, being the largest commonly used, produces the most pleasing tone and also has the best intonation of any valved trumpet. Why do players not simply move to their smaller mouthpiece and maintain a richer sound, rather than changing the whole trumpet? Players don’t realise that the true advantage they get from using the smaller trumpet is that they have a more brilliant, focused sound and sharper attacks. These are the properties that they are often trying to avoid on the B-flat trumpet in the name of having a “dark, orchestral sound”. Allowing your sound to be brilliant, focused and articulate comes with the added bonuses of greater control and range (this simple argument completely changed my trumpet playing for the better!).
People use the C trumpet in the orchestra so that they can make the right sound on the wrong mouthpiece – Jerome Callet
AOB? The Biggest Lie Of All
The final thing that I’d like to mention before leaving you to get on with your day is a myth and lie that is often sold to aspiring players by shops and mouthpiece manufactures. This is an idea that is often sold (literally) to people to keep them trying new equipment when practise and lessons would suffice. I have chosen to represent The Biggest Lie in the form of a graphic. Don’t believe what it says!
After all of this, do I regret forgetting Bahb’s advice and starting a conversation with my friends about choices of mouthpiece? No.
In a recent podcast Hunter Maats was talking with Bryan Callen about why he gets into arguments with people about their beliefs. He points out that it is the only way to practise clearly articulating your opinions under pressure. The disagreement is relevant because not only may you learn something you didn’t know from someone else’s point of view, but you find out quickly if your arguments hold water. I may have suffered a bit (a lot) of cognitive dissonance upon hearing the improvement in my friend’s playing since taking lessons from Jeff Purtle, but it showed me what has been missing from my practice lately and helped me to finally write this mouthpiece article, which has been brewing for years. Thanks guys!