On Clarinet Mouthpieces Part II By Santy Runyon
The quality and efficiency of a reed man’s performance depend largely upon the type and condition of his equipment. One of the most important parts of this equipment is the mouthpiece.
Every clarinet player would like to have the ideal mouthpiece-faced particularly for him. Mouthpiece refacing experts who really know what they are doing are hard to find. They face the mouthpiece by laying a piece of fine sandpaper on a piece of flat precision ground glass and either draw or push the mouthpiece across the sandpaper. The certainly should know what they are doing.
In this article I would like to discuss the four basic types of mouthpiece curves and their effects on both the player and the sound he produces.
The mouthpiece is laid flat on a piece of sandpaper, tilted up to an approximate three-degree angle, and then pulled straight along the paper. Actually there is no curve at all, merely an angle something like this:
You will notice that at letter X there is an abrupt break away from flat table letter Z. In other words, the facing from letter X to letter Y is a straight line. Believe it or not, this mouthpiece plays. With the average reed, it has a “reedy” sound, but if a long and thorough search is made, a reed might be found that will clear up the tone so that a fairly decent sound will result. On this mouthpiece, however, the player will have trouble in finding a comfortable place to put his lips. It will play fairly well with the lips just about anyplace, but there does not seem to be any specific place to get the desired results.
The mouthpiece is tilted at the start (the same as in Type 1), but out near the tip, a small arc is accomplished by swinging the butt of the mouthpiece up slightly as the tip is approached. It looks something like this:
There is the same abrupt break that we observed in Type 1. Some mechanics hide this sharp angle from the naked eye by slightly blending together the two flat sections. Flat section Z is blended into flat section X-W by putting a very slight radius at X. This improves the appearance but does nothing to improve the tone quality or playability of the mouthpiece. From X to W, the reed vibrates nicely, but it has difficulty bending around the arc W-Y. In order to play pianissimo, it becomes necessary to select a reed with an extremely flexible tip. Such an unbalanced reed is very much inclined to “chirp” on staccato passages. In short, this type of curve gives a mouthpiece too much resistance, thereby making it hard to blow.
The mouthpiece is laid, table down, flat on the sandpaper. An arc is “lapped” on the side rails of the mouthpiece almost immediately. As the mouthpiece is pulled across the paper, the butt end is swung up by raising the heel of the hand simultaneously with the pulling motion.
With the arc already well under way, the mouthpiece is dragged in a rather flat manner towards the tip of the mouthpiece. This curve looks something like this:
This time there is a gradual curve at X, which permits the reed to start vibrating instantly. The reed is vibrating nicely, when suddenly it hits the flat section starting some place between X and Y-at W. (This flat section, however, does not usually start as far away from the tip of the mouthpiece as I have shown it in the drawing.) To get the best results, the reed should be able to continue on around a constant curve, but, as you see in Sketch 3, it is unable to do so.
Because it is trying to continue around the curve and said curve has discontinued curving, it slaps the tip rail of the mouthpiece hard and creates an “edge”, or “buzzy” tone (something like bacon and eggs frying). Some instrumentalists, for example, some saxophonists in sax sections composed of three tenors, desire this effect. For purity of tone, however, this is not the curve to use.
A section of a perfect circle-an arc, in other words. Not a flat and a curve, a curve and a flat, or any combination of compound curves. Just a plain but gradual, even curve.
This curve has the right amount of resistance. The tone starts readily. The reed vibrates in a smooth arc, forming the proper shut-off valve for the reed, thereby conserving the energy of the player and enabling him to sustain longer passages with less effort. It produces clarity of tone and evenness of scale throughout the entire range of the instrument. Type 4, when applied to sax mouthpieces, makes possible the clear, cool sound in vogue at the present time. In fact, any sound your ear dictates is easier to achieve with this facing.
This concludes our discussion of the four basic mouthpiece curves. There are many variations of them, as you can imagine. It would be an endless task to attempt to discuss them all; it would take a lifetime to test them all.
The subject of the next article will be the baffle of the mouthpiece, a most important section of a clarinet mouthpiece. Its importance is often underestimated by refacing experts, manufacturers, and players themselves.