THE CLARINET MOUTHPIECE
The mouthpiece market is booming . . . some good ones and some very poor ones. The confusion lies in the fact there are thousands of different facings, and unless you are skilled in mouthpiece nomenclature and good critical judgement in what constitutes a fine mouthpiece, chaos reigns supreme. Assuming there is a standard of what a good clarinet tone should sound like (i.e., one which emits clarity, resonance, focus and projection), then one might want to agree that there are entirely too many variations of mouthpiece facings available for purchase.
The "lay" or "table" of the mouthpiece is very important, however, it is only one of several factors that contribute to the end result. Since it is impossible to make any two things exactly alike, we find ourselves depending upon our own personal skill to make up for the slight variations in different mouthpieces. Good mouthpieces have a good tone chamber, and if it is so, regardless of what facing is placed on it, it will play. A mouthpiece with a poor tone chamber will not play well no matter what its facing. Mouthpieces in general are faced in at least three types - long, short and medium lengths.
THE LONG FACING
A facing of this type is fine for the low notes but make the high notes harder to play and sustain. Its pitch is rather on the "wild" side, unless the player uses very good control. It will sound "reedy" or "mushy" because a longer portion of the springy section of the reed is in motion and therefore strikes the tip rail of the mouthpiece with a harder impact. To counteract this effect, the player is forced to take a shorter grip or "bite" in his attempt to clarify the tone quality. In so doing, he overtaxes the muscles of his lip to the point where they not only feel fatigued, but also cause the lip to become cut from the teeth being pressed so hard against the lip. In the end, good results might be prevail, but far better results might be obtained with far less effort if he uses a more moderate length of facing.
THE SHORT FACING
This is the other extreme. A short facing causes a shifting of playing responsibilities. It takes a load off the lip muscles and places more responsibility on breath control. A very conscious and even stream of air is necessary if any control is to be maintained. Players will find it almost impossible to keep from jumping to the third register because only a short section of the reed actually vibrates. Playing a short staccato is risky business. The advantage of the Short Facing is that it makes the high notes easy to reach.
THE MEDIUM LENGTH FACING
Here we have a compromise. For the vast majority of players this type is ideal. Because of its versatility, it is suitable and comfortable for all types of playing. It makes both high notes and low notes easy to control, and allows for a more workable selection and a wider variety of reeds.
For many years the material of choice for mouthpieces was wood. Because of the unstable conditions of this material i.e. constant shifting of material, one rarely hears a clarinetist playing on this type of mouthpiece. The "old timers" say that modern clarinet mouthpieces just don't compare to the wooden ones for beautiful tone. The great majority of clarinetists today use a mouthpiece made of "rod" rubber. Of course there are exceptions, and those players who enjoy playing on a mouthpiece of other materials are some of the finest players. The question exists as to whether the material in the rubber mouthpiece is superior to that made of crystal or plastic (acrylic), and whether the particular material used in a mouthpiece construction contributes heavily to the overall tone production.
Experiments with various mouthpiece materials have concluded that the tone produced by the hard rubber mouthpiece is accepted as the most desirable because the strongest fundamental and stronger and more partials (overtones). The plastic mouthpiece came in second, crystal third and wood fourth. Converting player energy into sound (tone), it would appear that since mouthpieces made of hard rubber produce the strongest fundamentals, the amount of expended energy used would be lessened. Regardless of the "old timers" loyalty to wooden mouthpieces, it is very doubtful that in a large concert hall tone projection would be very effective. The wood mouthpiece could be effective only in days of the small concert hall and a small chamber orchestra. Considering the 18th Century setting of an orchestra at the time of Mozart and Beethoven - with players such as Anton Stadler or Josef Beer - the intimacy of a Kammersaal (chamber hall) would be very adequate for good sound projection from players who most likely used wooden mouthpieces.
Even though the material of choice appears to be the hard rubber mouthpiece, to be fair to the other materials one must consider:
While more stable than plastic or wood, hard rubber is not as stable as crystal. But because crystal breaks so easily, it is not practical for very young students. . . or careless elders!
Plastic (acrylic) is a relatively soft material and is prone to warp and wear quite fast. For these reasons, it would seem plastic is not a desirable mouthpiece material - other than cost effectiveness - even if great care is taken in the design and manufacturing process.
THE COMMERCIAL MOUTHPIECE
There are many fine companies and individuals that produce exceptional mouthpieces. Certainly among many facings offered by many makers, one will surely be able to select one that suits personal performance standards. Some makers tend to provide several to many individual facings for the clarinetist, the only problem being the choice of which one to buy. With some professional help, that choice might be easily narrowed to the one which will provide the overall best results. Listed below are some well know clarinet mouthpiece companies or individuals with links to their websites.
Vandoren - The M15 is a mouthpiece with a particularly clear and well focused tone quality.
The CF+ (17mm, 1.00)
Cicero 13 (16mm, 1.04) which is based on the Kaspar design
"Debut" mouthpiece which is a fine inexpensive student model
Bradford Behn - Custom mouthpieces constructed from materials and concepts contained in the Henri Chedeville mouthpieces.
It is not easy to ascertain what the optimum material of future mouthpieces will be, but certainly we also have to consider metal. To date, the industry has produced some amazing results for saxophone, and on special order, some for the clarinet. No matter which material is used for mouthpiece construction, it must have a good reasonable facing and correct inner dimensions. Whether it will sound good will depend on the skill of the player.
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