On Clarinet Mouthpieces by Santy Runyon
from Woodwind World, 1960
Many firms are making mouthpieces… some good ones and some very poor ones. Thousands of different facings tend to confuse the player in making his selection. All of these many facings cannot be right. How to select the one that will best fit one’s needs is, and for the average player, a baffling problem. I hope this series of articles will be of some help.
The lay of the facing of the mouthpiece is, of course, 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 the tremendous flexibility of the human machine to make up for the slight variations in the different mouthpieces. In testing new models in our own shop, we try not to depend too much on the facing of the mouthpiece. We find that if the tone chamber is such that the lay has to be too perfect, the mouthpiece is not too practical for general playing conditions. In other words, if the mouthpiece plays regardless of what type lay we use, we are confident that we have a pretty good tone chamber in the mouthpiece.
It is one of the most difficult of tasks to describe minutely a complicated procedure and keep it both understandable and easy to read. In this first article, I will discuss the different types of facings on single reed mouthpieces, i.e., long, short, and medium lengths. I shall attempt to list what each type of facing does to the sound and to the “feel”, as far as the performer is concerned.
First, the long facing. A facing of this type favors the low notes and therefore makes the high notes harder to get. Its pitch is rather on the “wild” side, unless the performer exercises extreme control. A mouthpiece with this facing 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 bite in his attempt to clarify the timbre of his tone. In so doing, he overtaxes the muscles of his lip to the point that they become very sore. Ultimately, (thanks to the flexibility of the human machine), he might obtain excellent results. These same results, however, will come quicker and with far less effort if he uses a more moderate length of lay.
Let us now go to the other extreme, the short facing. The short opening, in one sense of the word, causes a shifting of responsibilities. It takes a load off the lip muscles and places more responsibility on the breath control. A very even stream of air is necessary if any control is to be expected. Players with little or no experience will find it next to impossible to keep from jumping up into the third register, because of the fact that a very short section of the reed actually vibrates. Playing a short staccato becomes a very risky business.
The main advantage of the short facing is that it makes the high notes easy to get. This is hardly worth it if you compare this with all of the bad points. I almost forgot to mention that the short lay plays louder, too. This is also not too much of an advantage, especially to saxophonists, when there are so many loud-playing mouthpieces on the market today.
Finally, we arrive at a compromise, the medium length of mouthpiece. This type is ideal for the vast majority of players; and because of its versatility, it is equally suitable and comfortable for all types of playing. It makes both high notes and low notes easy to control, and it makes a wider variety of reeds practical and usable.
So far, we have discussed only length of the curve and have said nothing about the type of curve being used. The best type is a section of perfect circle, not a combination of several different types of curves.
In the past six years, I have conducted a number of woodwind clinics in and around Beaumont, Texas. I find it not too different from the Illinois section in which I used to work. Band directors all over the country suggest the same strength reed for all their students, not taking into account the fact that different curves and tip openings require reeds of varying strength. Matching the reed to the mouthpiece is important. More about that later.