I was a music education major as an undergraduate student, and for most of my undergraduate career was aiming toward a career as a school band director. I probably practiced a little more than most music education majors I knew and was certainly more interested in covering a wide array of solo and chamber repertoire, but I didn’t consider myself “good enough” to pursue graduate studies in performance or a career in playing or applied teaching. The change of career goals during my junior year that placed me on my present path precipitated a massive increase in the amount of time I spent practicing, as I felt a very real need to “catch up.” Again, not because I was not diligent in practicing by “music ed standards,” but because the amount of practice required for a chance at a performance career is much greater.
Because my focus was education rather than performance, I gave little thought to mouthpiece choice during my early college years, thinking that a change would be an unnecessary distraction. I played tenor trombone for most of that time on a Schilke 51B, which in hindsight was much too small, a mouthpiece designed especially for principal trombone playing but nowadays used by some as an alto trombone mouthpiece! To his credit, my teacher was not an “equipment junkie” and was slow to blame problems on mouthpieces or other equipment issues (a trait I share). But, as I began working in earnest to further develop my playing in preparation for a performance career I became convinced that a darker sound was necessary and that a mouthpiece change was in order.
My first step was to change to a Schilke 51. This was logical, as this mouthpiece had a fuller and deeper cup than my previous one but the change in cup diameter was negligible. Additionally, it was close to the 51D I was already using on euphonium, so this change offered a great improvement in sound with little difference felt on the face. Still, I was dissatisfied, particularly with my high register development. While I was developing an ample high register, my facility and the fullness of my sound in that part of the range were not progressing as I thought they should. Additionally, my low range was neither as large nor as responsive as I thought it ought to be. Everything I knew about mouthpieces up to that point said that upper register problems would indicate the need to move to a smaller mouthpiece, but I didn’t want the compromise in sound or the further loss of tone quality that this would bring.
Providentially, in the fall of my senior year one of my roommates purchased a copy of Understanding the Mouthpiece by John and Phyllis Stork. This little book is only 21 pages in length, yet in that short span contains a wealth of knowledge about what might be accomplished by changes in certain mouthpiece dimensions. About halfway through I encountered a section which essentially described the problems I was having (except the upper register issues, other than indirectly), and identified these as being associated with an inner diameter that was too small. I was placing the mouthpiece rim largely or entirely on the red part of my lips, and not allowing the freedom of movement that my larger and fleshier lips required.
After this, I began several months of experimentation with larger and larger mouthpieces, and eventually was able to arrange for a lesson with Doug Elliott, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on embouchure types and mouthpiece selection for low brass players. During our phone consultation he was skeptical that my ideas on what mouthpiece might be good for me were correct, but to his surprise after watching me play he agreed that a wider than usual diameter was right for me, and sold me the mouthpiece that I still use on the large-bore tenor trombone. I have occasionally considered trying other mouthpieces in the 14 years since that lesson, but I have never considered moving to a smaller diameter. My unconventional setup, basically a Bach 2G rim with a 4G cup and backbore, works well for me, and I use that same rim with appropriately larger or smaller cups and backbores on alto trombone, small-bore tenor trombone, and euphonium. My bass trombone mouthpiece is more “normal.”
Discovering the book Understanding the Mouthpiece was a boon to my understanding of how equipment affects brass playing, and particularly to my own development as a trombonist. I use the ideas learned there on a regular basis when working with students, and recommend that every brass player and teacher consider purchasing a copy.