Friday, December 29, 2017

How Many Brass Mouthpieces Do You Need?

Last summer I was sorting through a box of brass instrument mouthpieces, placing them on a table as I unpacked them. My mother happening to come by asked me, “How many mouthpieces do you need, anyway?”

Of course, there is no limit to the number of mouthpieces I need, but what struck me about her question was that although they may appear similar, there are worlds of differences between mouthpieces that make ownership of many of them not an idle whim, but a vital necessity.

Unpacking these brass mouthpieces was like visiting old friends.
I like to play old brass instruments, especially the cornet and the alto horn, and each mouthpiece has its own qualities and merits. The difference they can make in the playability and sound of each instrument is almost unbelievable. This is in addition to their different appearances and historical associations.

The mouthpieces they make today can be very high quality, but they are very inappropriate to use with old instruments. This is especially true for cornet mouthpieces, which used to be conical in shape, and gave a more mellow sound. Today’s cornet mouthpieces are really miniature trumpet mouthpieces, featuring a cup-shaped interior, and give even antique cornets a more brilliant, trumpet-like sound, which is at odds with old cornet music, which, while capable of brilliance, revels in its moonbeams-and-roses, Victorian atmosphere.

The late 19th and early 20th century were the golden era of brass instruments, when every town had its own brass band, and cornet and trombone soloists such as Jules Levy, Herbert L. Clarke, and Arthur Pryor were all household names. Many old mouthpieces feature the names of premium manufacturers, and were modeled after the preferences of the famous brass soloists of years gone by.

When you obtain an old brass instrument, you must gather as many historical mouthpieces as possible, and see which ones fit the instrument, your anatomy (embouchure), and personal playing style. Here are a few particular ones from my collection:

This tuba mouthpiece is very special to me, as it belonged to my grandfather, a professional tuba player and music store owner in Canton, Ohio. It was custom made to his specifications by the famous maker Vincent Bach, and has my grandfather’s initials, E.G. for Edward Gottlieb, stamped on it.

Here are two very early ivory mouthpieces made for bass instruments such as serpents and ophicleides.   

An example in the V&A of a serpent, an early bass instrument and predecessor of the ophicleide and tuba, and often played with ivory mouthpieces like the above.

Three trombone mouthpieces from different eras. At left is a modern Vincent Bach, in the middle an anonymous Victorian example, and on the right an early 20th century Lyon and Healy, a fine maker, with its more sleek “moderne” shape.

Two trombone mouthpieces endorsed by famous players. At left is a Conn Pryor model. Arthur Pryor was possibly the greatest trombone player in history. On the right is an Innes model, also by Conn, named for Frederick Neil Innes.

Arthur Pryor was a trombone player whose virtuosity was stunning, and whose playing was often captured on early records. He also wrote many of the more difficult trombone solos still played today.

Frederick Neil Innes was another trombone soloist of the golden era, who likewise wrote solo compositions still popular with all brass players.

Here are two alto-range mouthpieces. First, a mellophone mouthpiece by Conn—all brass instruments and mouthpieces by Conn are first-rate. Next to it is a cheap, modern alto mouthpiece by Herco (even the name sounds unpleasant!). There really should be a law forbidding Conn and Herco to be photographed together. Herco is a terrible mouthpiece, uncomfortable to play and inferior-sounding. These are often given to new students, who understandably give up after a short while, thinking that the fault is theirs. There really is no excuse for poor quality mouthpieces like Herco or Jupiter when so many fine ones are being made—or just lying around. They deserve C.S. Lewis’s description as mouthpieces “that the lip loves not.”

A modern but fine quality French horn mouthpiece by Rudy Muck, which I found at a house sale just last summer.

Three early trumpet mouthpieces, by Hill, anonymous, and Cousenon, the latter a fine French maker.

More modern trumpet mouthpieces by Holton (always a great name), Vincent Bach (again), and H.N. White, a maker of professional quality instruments in Cleveland, Ohio.

Finally, we get to the all-important category of cornet and bugle mouthpieces. Here are two very early examples.

Classic early cornet mouthpieces by Pepper, Besson (another important French maker), McMillin (another quality Cleveland maker), and Charles Triebert. Charles was the brother of Frederic Triebert, the maker most important in developing the modern oboe (my main instrument). The Charles Triebert company continued into the 20th century, and appears to be a mass maker of many types of band instruments.

A variety of good cornet mouthpieces. First, a modern Vincent Bach (naturally!),  followed by a fine and classic Frank Holton. Next is a H.N. White cornet mouthpiece (White was McMillin’s foreman, and apparently took over his operations.) Finally, a Conn Wonder, an instrument and mouthpiece that seems to find special favor with musicians.

A top view shows the differences between old and newer cornet mouthpieces. Notice the shallow, cup-like depression in the Bach mouthpiece on the left, in addition to its general massiveness, compared to the deep, conical interior of the older and lighter Holton model on the right. The shape of the interior is probably the single-most important factor in the basic sound of the instrument.

A spectacular find, “The only genuine Levy Model” made by Lyon and Healy. Jules Levy was the greatest cornetist of the late 19th century.  

Jules Levy was habitually known as “The World’s Greatest Cornetist.” Although he did make a few fine records in the early 1900’s, he was by then a little past his prime, but these records are still treasured. In addition to his brilliant playing, he was known for his beautiful phrasing, and famous opera singers would attend his concerts to hear him play and learn from him.

Along with the mouthpieces themselves, one has to look out for the small tuning bits or shanks, which could correct the pitch of an instrument in an era of multiple pitch standards, or even make it play in another key, while acting as a liaison between mouthpiece and instrument.

A special tribute to my very favorite: an anonymous 19th century alto horn mouthpiece. It might not look like much, but it plays great, and is very comfortable. I brought this to Taiwan to play with an old Conn alto horn from the 1920’s, but unfortunately brass instruments are too penetrating to play in an apartment (I don’t hate my neighbors that much!).

At this point, the different silhouettes of the mouthpieces will convey more meaning, as well as show the size range for the several types of instruments. This just represents one box worth, and is hardly a treatise on mouthpieces, but I hope that some of their basic differences and qualities have been illustrated.

How does one acquire so many examples? When I was in college, I used to stop in at older-looking music stores and ask if they had any old mouthpieces lying around. They usually came up with a box of miscellaneous parts and junk from the back room from which I could choose; some real treasures turned up this way.

If you play a wind or brass instrument, did you have a special mouthpiece that made all the difference when playing it? What about brass instruments in general—do you have a particular favorite? Although I most often play the alto horn, my real favorite is the old-fashioned cornet, especially when played by the likes of Jules Levy, Herbert Clarke, or Bohumir Kryl on early records. 

You are supposed to blow horns to usher in the New Year. I hope that this post will get everyone in the mood, and that all my readers have a happy, healthy and prosperous 2018!


All mouthpieces and photos of same property of the author.
Photos of Pryor, Levy and the Serpent via Wikipedia.
Photo of Innes located here.


  1. Well, well, well. Who knew you had a hidden interest/talent? And who knew would be in music written for brass instruments? We all have some hidden talents, I suppose - mine is ballet.

    1. Hello Hels, "Interest" is a better description than "talent." Although I started out with woodwinds, in college I fell in love with brass instruments. In my last house in Ohio, I lived far enough from my neighbors that I could indulge my brass playing to my heart's content without disturbing them!

      About the ballet, can you perform, or do you mostly enjoy watching it? --Jim

  2. Dearest Jim,
    Oh my, can't believe you posted about mouthpieces... Also discovered that you too have German blood by your Grandfather Edward Gottlieb!
    Funny as just last week I found while filing some older family scans, a Youtube video of my Great-uncle who had been honored for his 75th anniversary with the Royal Brass Band of my home town. He was at all functions, directing it, repairing and yes, working with those old mouth pieces as well. There even was no official medal for his 75th anniversary as it was the 1st and only in the Dutch history. It made me feel proud and curious. Discussing it with my Dad on Christmas day I told him that we all inherited our musical interest from Dad's Maternal side. Definitely Dad told me and he got really animated to talk about it.
    So you got quite a lovely collection spanning all sorts of mouthpieces from the era my Great-uncle used to work with. He lived to be 94 and was sharp till the very end.
    Pieter also played a brass instrument in the military, an S-Trumpet and briefly a Trombone.
    My best friend's husband, daughter and son played all in such a brass band and only the son is still active. Daughter played saxophone and her brother still does.
    We had on Tuesday evening before Christmas the Georgia Big Band perform at our local Theatre so there was a lot of brass on my mind...
    Sending you hugs for a good ending of this year and a Happy New Year in good health!
    Mariette & Pieter

  3. Hello Mariette, How interesting to hear of your uncle's important association with the Royal Brass Band. Europe is famous for its brass bands, and they have a different flavor in each region and use different instruments. Can you give us the link of the video?

    Bands are a lot of fun to play in. I played in the band at college, but instead of a brass instrument I played the contrabass clarinet, too big to march with so I played in the concert band.

    When I drive through Ohio many little towns have a bandstand on the town square, and some of them feature occasional band concerts.

    By the way, the Gottliebs were from Hungary, so I understand, and went to York, Pennsylvania in the 1800's, so I am not too sure about the German connection; it may be quite distant.

    Thank you for your New Year wishes and I return them to you and Pieter.

    1. Dearest Jim,
      Well, the name Gottlieb is guaranteed German and going back in history the borders of the German speaking countries have been shifting with several wars going on. In Hungary we both could speak often German while visiting during a congress in the mid 80s.
      Okay, as for your question about my Great-uncle's video. This video shows my Great-uncle being serenaded by the small band, wishing the Koninklijke Harmonie (Royal Band) of Horst my home town. He is wearing his uniform and holds his arms crossed, while moving his feet to the music.
      On the side you will find several links with St. Davidsfeest (St. Davids feast) and also with Loek Kleeven or Koninklijke Harmonie van Horst:
      Hope this is helpful!

    2. Hello Mariette, I just listened to the serenade, and enjoyed it all the more knowing that it was your great-uncle who was being honored. Thanks for providing the extra links, because my sidebar videos apparently are not the same as yours. I also listened to the Pomp and Circumstance March played by Koninklijke Harmonie van Horst, and will go back to check out some of their other numbers.

      I know the name Gottlieb is German; my family just does not come from there directly. I often come across the name, as in one of my favorite composers, Johann Gottlieb Graun, and wonder if we could be distantly related. --Jim

    3. Well dearest Jim, just see those things in perspective and try putting that part of Europe on the map of the U.S.A. and you discover that we talk about a few states; distance wise. War has torn apart families and displaced people in other regions over the ages. There are many reasons for finding a certain family name outside its 'core' region of origin. Even famine at times made people move away...
      But I'm glad that you managed to hear some of the Koninklijke Harmonie of Horst! Indeed, in your region the sidebar videos appear different. It also depends on your searches and interests. But you got the name and can do a search within YouTube.
      Guess we all have to live with many, many questions in regard to our ancestors and it will remain a puzzle for the biggest part. I've always dreamt about going back in time e.g. 500 years and meet my ancestors.
      But who knows that the genes of music are connected 🎼 Mariette

  4. How much I would love to hear you play, my dear friend Jim. It is an outstanding post on the subject of horns and mouthpieces. Worth reading two or three times to get all the good bits. I'd hate to take a quiz on all the information you are teaching us, but love to hearing someone like you explain all the great details.

    I must say, you write so well. Really draws me in when reading your post. You paint perfect pictures with your words, and the photos makes the experience exceptional. As I read your post I started to hear my own favorite horn serenade in my head--made famous by Perez Prado (King of Mambo) 1955, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, top of the charts for weeks and weeks.

    1. Hello Linda, Thanks for reminding me of that classic, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White. Thanks to Youtube, I just listened to the original version you recommend by Perez Prado, very Latin in style, and also a more lush 1960's version by Al Hirt.

      Don't worry--there won't be any quiz. Sometimes rather than take a hobby for granted, I like to examine the points that make up its interest and quality for me, and that often seems to involve observing the fine distinctions between the examples that I can collect. --Jim

    2. Mrs D: My father had a record by Perez Prado called 'Patricia'. You have brought back a far distant memory for me. I had forgotten all about it! I just found it on Spotify and now I'm hearing it for the first time in 60 years.

  5. Firstly, I wish you a very peaceful and prosperous New Year Jim.
    I knew nothing about mouthpieces for brass instruments - until now! Also on Spotify, I have found a crackly 1903 cornet recording of The Last Rose of Summer by Julian Levy. I just read that, as a boy, he started with just a mouthpiece because his family could not afford an instrument.
    CLICK HERE for Bazza’s recondite Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

    1. Hello Bazza, I wish you a wonderful New Year also. I should have mentioned that Jules Levy was British born, although he later lived in America. I was going to add some Youtube links, but their selection of early brass music could use some beefing up. Moreover, I thought that I would cover the subject more thoroughly when I get around to writing about early brass players on records (naturally another collection of mine). I may try to upload some of mine to Youtube or another online media site. --Jim

  6. Hello Jim - I too was interested in the name Gottlieb and assumed it to be German - according to wiki the name means "God's Love". Is that a photo of your grandfather in the background wearing a panama hat?
    I envy you your musicianship having learnt to play the piano without any great success.
    What a wonderful and varied collection of mouthpieces you have, and I hope that you will use one of them to usher in the New Year with just a very quick blast so as not to upset the neighbours too much.
    Wishing you a very Happy New Year 2018, and thank you for all of the wonderful comments that you have left for me over the years. Each and everyone of them is very much appreciated.

    1. Hello Rosemary, You have sharp eyes to spot that background photo. That actually is my great-grandfather, the tuba player's father-in-law. I miss both of them!

      I only have two mouthpieces in Taiwan--oddly enough the best and the worst, the Jupiter and the Victorian alto. Perhaps I'll take a tip from Bazza's comment about Jules Levy and just use blow on the mouthpiece.

      Happy New year to you, too. It is I who need to thank you for all your posts that have provided so much entertainment and knowledge.

  7. Dear Jim! You are a splendid mouthpiece for....well, you know. Like everything on this earth, it seems, the more you dig into it, the more interesting it becomes. In this world of mass-produced stuff, it's kind of special to know the attention to detail once given to something as seemingly simple as a mouthpiece. Well done.

    1. Hello Barbara, It seems that every day we find more instances of the saying, "if everyone doesn't want it, no one gets it." However, although I am interested in older instruments, there are modern boutique makers who make specialized mouthpieces suited to current instruments and playing practice. Just expect to pay through the nose! --Jim

  8. Happy New Year Jim! This was just fascinating because my husband plays the clarinet. He has two instruments that he's owned for 45+ years and one from high school. His favorite mouthpieces are crystal and again, several are decades old. His most frequent complaint is finding the right reeds. Although professionally trained (masters from New England Conservatory), he went to business school to make a living. In retirement, he plays in a community concert band, sits on a music school board and wrote a book about managing in the performing arts. Our cats run under the bed when he practices his clarinet, but they are Philistines.
    KL Gaylin

    1. Hello KL Gaylin, Happy New Year to you, too. My grandfather also studied music at the New England Conservatory. Yes, clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces are every bit as exacting as brass ones. As I mentioned in a comment above, I played contrabass clarinet in the band at college, and I also fool around with soprano clarinets, so I learned something about single-reed mouthpieces (I have a good one that makes even cheap clarinets tolerable to play!). From the oboe I learned about reed trimming, so I recommend getting your husband a good reed knife so he can learn to adjust reeds to his own requirements. --Jim

  9. Hello dear your Blog is very nice for this now I follow you as a fixed reader!(#51) Do you want to return the subscription? The gfc bar, in my blog, is on the RIGHT scrolling the Blog a lot! I'll wait for you if you like it thanks

    1. Hello grazia cantalupo, I am glad if you enjoy my blog and want to follow it. I am working on some articles that I hope you wioll find worthwhile. --Jim

  10. Hello Jim,

    What a wonderful collection you have on your hands (lips)! I must admit to having never seen an entire collection of these mouthpieces and at first, I thought they were hose nozzles.

    I do like the way the brass has hung around on the ivory mouthpieces turning them green. They almost look as though they were made of glazed earthenware.

    Happy New Year to you and I think you should post a clip of you playing so we can all marvel at your talents.

    1. Hello CD, It is a lot of fun buying a new mouthpiece and hoping that it will turn out to be The One. After a while, you can intuit some of their characteristics just by looking at them, but the only real test is trying them on an instrument.

      You are right, the ivory mouthpieces do look like old ceramic in the photos, but in your hand they are light, and the ivory cross-hatch patterns can be seen clearly. Usually it is the bass mouthpieces that are ivory or sometimes wood. They were reputed to give a softer tone, but I am guessing that these were often played outdoors and that large metal mouthpieces would not warm up quickly enough. --Jim

    I know NOTHING about MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS but I enjoyed this VERY MUCH!
    I will KEEP MY EYES PEELED as I wonder the FLEA MARKETS!!!!!!!

    1. Hello Contessa, Happy New Year to you, too! I love the look of all things musical, even the instruments I can't play. I'll bet that now you will see some of these mouthpieces that had always been hiding in the background. What I wonder is how so many of these became separated from their instruments, since brass instruments are usually carried and stored in their cases. --Jim

  12. You have excellently made up your world with the brass instruments.

    1. Hello rtc, When my college band started playing some of the old brass solos, that piqued my interest, and soon I was collecting old cornet records and learning to play a bit with old, unused instruments that were in the band room.

      Thank you for your kind greetings--yes, pretty soon it is time to get ready for Chinese New Year! --Jim

  13. Hello Jim. Thanks for your comment. I imagine you have the same feeling as I. You would understand this point concerning about the Chinese literary tradition more than I. Nature is eternal while human is mortal.閣中帝子今何在 檻外長江空自流

    1. Hello rtc, While nature all by itself is divine, it can be even more fascinating when it is covering up traces of the former presence of people. Your quote vividly reminded me of the last few photos in the post I did on Painesville, with the Grand River flowing by the last traces of the old Mill:



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