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 may be 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 more like 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 should 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 brilliant 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 phrasing 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.