“Low Brass Basics” for Doublers, Part Two

Read Part One here.

The mouthpiece

The mouthpiece is the chamber in which the player buzzes his lips in order to create sound on a brass instrument, and is thus the primary interface between player and instrument. In a sense, the instrument is but an amplifier of the sound created in the mouthpiece, and thus the quality of sound produced by the instrument depends upon the quality of buzzing which takes place inside the mouthpiece.

Because the mouthpiece is the point of interface between player and instrument, it is vitally important that the mouthpiece selected be appropriate for the facial structure of the player and for the instrument being played. A mismatch in one or both of these areas can make the production of an instrument’s characteristic sound difficult or impossible for the player, regardless of the amount of practice time devoted to it. Conversely, finding the right fit for both player and instrument makes the process of learning and then performing a smoother and more enjoyable one, perhaps particularly when learning a secondary instrument.

While the idea of finding a mouthpiece that suits both player and instrument sounds simple enough, in practice it is not always easy. Developments in brass instrument manufacturing have led to a plethora of mouthpiece choices in recent years, but there remain certain combinations of mouthpiece dimensions, particularly of cup diameter and cup depth, which are considered standard for a given instrument. The player who deviates from these standard configurations will incur greater expense in order to procure a mouthpiece in the proportions that he desires, and the mouthpiece he finds or constructs might be viewed as suspect by those who believe that the standard sizes exist for a reason, and that mouthpieces which depart from the usual proportions will fail to yield a characteristic sound. This has led to the development of two opposing schools of thought among low brass players regarding the selection and use of mouthpieces, particularly when doubling. We will call these the “standard size” school and the “match the player” school.

Advocates of the “standard size” school believe that an instrument’s characteristic sound is most easily produced using a mouthpiece whose dimensions are in keeping with those which previous generations of mouthpiece makers considered standard for that instrument. When cup depth decreases in order to accommodate a smaller instrument, cup diameter should likewise decrease, and vice versa. While players who argue for this approach concede that some very fine musicians deviate from it, they contend that any benefits of such deviations, particularly pairings of cup diameters and cup depths which were once unheard of, are negated by the player having to work harder to achieve a characteristic sound. They would suggest that doublers need to “get over it” and use standard-sized mouthpieces on every instrument they play, regardless of the number of different mouthpiece rims that the player will have to manage.

Those who follow the “match the player” approach find this unthinkable and unnecessary. This approach states that while the cup depth, throat, and backbore of the mouthpiece should be matched to the instrument being played, the rim, and particularly the inner diameter of that rim (referred to elsewhere as “cup diameter”) should be matched to the player. Advocates of this school thus take seriously the concept of the mouthpiece as the interface between player and instrument, and seek to create and use mouthpieces that best correspond to the player’s physiology on one end and the requirements of the instrument on the other. For doublers, this introduces the possibility of playing multiple instruments on a single mouthpiece rim (or multiple rims of similar size), an approach which eliminates certain difficulties associated with playing multiple instruments with rims that feel different on the player’s face.

Advocates of both schools of thought are right about their particular points of emphasis, leaving one unable to dogmatically insist upon one way or the other. On the one hand, deviating from the standard mouthpiece configurations does introduce certain difficulties. Playing a shallow-cupped mouthpiece with a wide rim on the alto trombone, for example, can lead to difficulty achieving the focus, clarity, and upper register response needed for that instrument. Using a tuba mouthpiece with a bass trombone rim does work, but the lowest part of the range might not speak as readily and the warmth of sound characteristic of the tuba will be harder to realize.

On the other hand, playing on multiple mouthpiece rims introduces a certain amount of confusion in the facial musculature, partially negating the possibility of transferring skills from one instrument to the next. Doubling is usually easier and the necessary practice time less when one does not have to effect a wholesale embouchure change when changing instruments. Additionally, depending upon the player’s physiology doubling on certain instruments will be difficult without the use of the “match the player” approach. Those with thick, fleshy lips will have difficulty forming an embouchure that fits the narrow mouthpieces normally associated with alto trombones and small-bore tenor trombones. Conversely, those with thinner lips might find the widest bass trombone and tuba mouthpieces impossible to negotiate without air leakage and related problems.

Both of these approaches to mouthpiece selection for doublers have their advantages and disadvantages, though my own preference for the “match the player” approach is no doubt evident. Still, it is no panacea, and for my own playing I have adopted a combination of the two approaches. While I have difficulty accommodating my thicker lips to a standard-sized alto trombone mouthpiece, the combination of a wide rim and shallow cup that I use requires a bit more conscious effort to maintain the focused blowing and buzzing required by that instrument. Conversely, while I began doubling on bass trombone by using the same rim that I use on all of my other instruments, I eventually determined that moving to a standard-sized bass trombone mouthpiece would be necessary to achieve quicker response in the pedal register. I therefore use two mouthpiece rims on five instruments, playing bass trombone on the larger one and everything else on the smaller one. This is perhaps an odd combination, but it works for me.

For those that find the “standard size” school to be better for them, the negative effects of using multiple mouthpiece rims can be partially mitigated by choosing mouthpieces whose rims have a similar contour. Using a mouthpiece with a wide and flat rim on one instrument and one with a narrow and rounded rim on another, for example, creates a felt discrepancy in addition to the one already present from using different cup diameters. When the rims of the different mouthpieces share a similar contour, the change from one diameter to the next is less jarring.

Should you use one rim or several when doubling on multiple low brass instruments? In the absence of a definitive answer that works for every player in every situation, we can only present the “pros and cons” of the different schools of thought and encourage you to find the approach that works for you. Remember, too, that a hybrid approach might be best.

Sound concept

Having a correct concept of an instrument’s characteristic sound is a vital part of achieving success on that instrument, though the effect of sound concept on one’s playing occurs almost entirely subconsciously. If you are moving air effectively, buzzing freely, and have chosen an appropriate mouthpiece and instrument, all of the necessary ingredients for producing a good sound are in place. And yet, we have all heard players on secondary instruments whose timbres on those instruments are not quite right, perhaps sounding more like a modified version of the person’s primary instrument than like the instrument being played. In such situations, a faulty sound concept is almost certainly to blame, and if the player were to have a better “mental picture” of how the secondary instrument should sound the faulty tone quality would mostly be corrected. Know what your instrument should sound like, and then create that sound!

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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