The mouthpiece is where the sound starts. It is vitally important to the quality and type of sound you will produce, as well as to the ease that sound is produced with. The mouthpiece works in combination directly with the reed, and also the ligature and of course the clarinet itself.
Reasons to change your clarinet mouthpiece
The first thing to understand is that every player has variations in the shape of their mouth. Lips, teeth, muscles, jaw structure and mouth cavity all play a part in this variation, and there is also the skill of each individual player to make the most of his or her particular combination. So itís not surprising that a mouthpiece that one player finds easy to play and can make a good sound on, another player finds difficult.
When you purchase a clarinet, it usually has a mouthpiece with it. These mouthpieces are usually designed to be playable for most people at a beginner or student level. Some of the mouthpieces supplied with student clarinets are actually very good, some are not so good, and some are made so poorly so as to be nothing but a hindrance to any player. The Yamaha student mouthpiece is particularly good as a default mouthpiece, and is considered by many teachers as one of the best performing and value for money student mouthpieces at the price (Usually choose a 4C or 5C model).
Most people will usually use the mouthpiece that came with the clarinet until either they become aware that it is either difficult to blow, or their teacher or another player advises them, or they use the original mouthpiece quite happily until they advance to a stage of playing that the original mouthpiece starts to show its limitations
Before choosing a clarinet mouthpiece
Before you go through the process of finding the right clarinet mouthpiece, make sure of a few things before you start. No matter how good a mouthpiece is, it canít cover for an underperforming instrument. So make sure that your instrument is playing at its best.
Some players have come to me for a new mouthpiece, and what was actually required was a small adjustment of their clarinet, which was duly done. Many players are quite amazed at the difference a small adjustment or seating/changing of a leaky pad can make.
Some players will be able to assess this themselves, for others, it is advisable to get your instrument checked by a good technician or at least an experienced player or teacher. It is worth saying at this point, that if you ask another player to play-check your clarinet, you need to be specific that you want to know if the clarinet is playing as it should do- not if they can play it or not. Many experienced players have the skill to play quite well on an underperforming instrument.
Suitability of Reeds
If you have been playing clarinet for quite a while, say 6 months or more and havenít tried a strength 2 or above, itís a good idea to try, as this in itself may help you to achieve a better sound. If you find it too hard, just go back to using the previous strength, you can try again in a few months and at some point you will likely find that you can play on it reasonably comfortably. Doing this should help you work up to the point where you reach your own personal limit, that is, you find the reed strength that gives you the best quality of sound and playability combination.
Itís also a good idea to try different brands and types of reed, they all work slightly differently and the previously mentioned idea of everyone being different comes into play again.
Itís important to understand that when you change your mouthpiece, it might also be necessary to change your reed type and strength. This is because some mouthpieces are designed for either a softer or harder reed. Some mouthpiece manufacturers will give suggestions as to what reed strength is suitable, but this needs to be taken as a comparative guide only, as each player will
be different. What is important here, is that when trying mouthpieces, if you know what reeds the manufacturer suggest, this should give you a clue as to what you personally might find suitable.
Especially when trying out mouthpieces, make sure that you put your reed on precisely- properly centered and the tip of the reed aligned properly with the mouthpiece tip. A reed that is skewed on the mouthpiece will perform badly.
The Clarinet Ligature
There is also the ligature, which also makes a difference to how the mouthpiece and reed set up works, but this tends to be the icing on the cake. (Although it can for some players make quite a big difference) The mouthpiece and reed combination are the fundamental things to get right first.
Choosing a Clarinet mouthpiece for early stages
If you have recently bought a clarinet and donít know if the mouthpiece is OK, get a clarinet teacher or experienced player to try it for you. (you might want to wash the mouthpiece first- or at least they might want you to). Even though everyone is different, most experienced players will be able to tell if the mouthpiece blows well or not. If you have dropped and chipped a student mouthpiece on the tip, it is not repairable, so just go and buy a good student mouthpiece like a Yamaha 4c or similar.
Choosing a Clarinet Mouthpiece for the advancing player
This is where it starts to get more interesting. A clarinet mouthpiece that merely works is unlikely to satisfy the advancing clarinettist. An advancing clarinet player is likely to want to produce a certain type of sound and although the clarinet itself is mainly responsible for this, the mouthpiece plays a big part. As well as producing the right sort of sound in all registers of the clarinet (from the lowest notes to the highest), the advancing clarinettist will also want other qualities including control of dynamics, ease of playing in all registers and good intonation (Intonation - the ability of an instrument to play in tune throughout its range).
Mouthpieces can be designed to produce a great range of different responses, volume, sound quality and dynamics. Dynamics refer to the range of sound that can be produced from soft to loud.
There are a number of design factors which effect the performance and sound quality of a clarinet mouthpiece. These include the facing curve, the tip opening, the side rails, the tip rail, the window, the bore and the chamber. All these factors work together to make the mouthpiece sound and play the way it does. The facing curve and tip opening of a mouthpiece are very usefull for players to understand as these two factors affect reed strength. Take a look at the diagram below:
On this drawing, you can see the tip opening which can be varied from very close to very open, and the facing curve which can also be varied in length, I have shown an example of a longer facing length using a dotted red line.
To get an idea of what is happening, take a wooden or plastic ruler, hold one end on a desk and now twang the other end so it vibrates. (most school children have done this to the annoyance of their teachers). Now do the same again but this time have more of the ruler on the desk so that there is only a short bit to vibrate. Notice what happens? When there is a longer bit of the ruler vibrating, it vibrates slower and wider. And vice versa for a short bit vibrating. What is really obvious, is that the longer section is more supple. This analogy only goes part way to describing what is happening, and there are differences with a reed on a mouthpiece, mainly that the reed must vibrate against the rails of the mouthpiece.
So, if the facing curve on a mouthpiece is short, it has the effect of making the reed work more stiffly. So you would choose a softer reed, and of course, this principal works visa versa.
If the tip opening is very open (wider), the reed has to bend further to vibrate against the rails, so a softer reed would again be needed, and again this works visa versa.
When you combine the two factors above, you will be able to get an idea of what reed to use (or try) with a particular combination, for example:
Tip: open, Facing Curve: short, Reeds: Soft
Tip: open, Facing Curve: long, Reeds: Medium
Tip: close, Facing Curve: short, Reeds: medium
Tip: close, Facing Curve; long, Reeds Hard
This is quite simplistic, but does demonstrate how the tip opening and facing curve work together and the effect on reed requirements. Tip openings actually come in a huge variety of sizes and facing curves in a variety of lengths. Now at this point, you might be thinking that if the above all work, why have all these combinations at all? Go back to the ruler on the desk, and listen to the sound the long and short lengths make. Very different isnít it? So it is with a reed vibrating on a mouthpiece. This means that these combinations will produce different sounds, (together with all the other factors).
What a mouthpiece is made from also affects the sound, with hard rubber being the traditional and popular choice. Hard rubber is quite dense and stiff so does not absorb energy like a soft plastic would. This property helps to make the mouthpiece responsive. Hard rubber also has the ability to be machined to very precise tolerances and retain its precision shape for years. After saying all that, Vandoren have in last few years introduced an advanced formula plastic mouthpiece called the AT45. It is likely that as plastics develop (and there are some amazing plastics in use now) other manufacturers will start to use them. The plastic (or compound) that Yamaha use on their student mouthpieces is also very high quality.
For this advancing or advanced clarinet player, the best way to select a clarinet mouthpiece is to try a few (or perhaps lots) of mouthpieces. Teachers and experienced players can help a lot with advice and can possibly narrow the choice down to just a few. Shops themselves can be enormously helpful as long as they are specialist enough.
In writing this article, I have tried to give an insight and suggest an approach, rather than go into full technical details which are covered in other sites and by manufacturers.