There has probably been more written about mouthpieces than any other aspect of tuba, or any brass instrument for that matter. I was never very much a mouthpiece person, I have friends and colleagues who have tried almost every mouthpiece that exists and can tell you everything about each one of them; they know the cup size, the rim size, the rim thickness, the choke size, every idiosyncrasy of the back bore and the exact weight. Further, they can give you a detailed verbal description how each of these aspects affect the way an instrument plays.
That’s a pretty dense paragraph and at first read it may appear to be sarcastic, it absolutely isn’t meant to be; I deeply admire those mouthpiece sages, I’m even a little jealous of them. I would like to know the secret formulae to match the perfect mouthpiece for a specific tuba or a specific player; instead all I have is my ears to depend on for forming an opinion.
Testing and listening to various mouthpieces, especially with a group, can be a very educational experience, it enables us to listen into the sound as though with a microscope; the fact is, a mouthpiece is very much like a lens, but instead of focusing light it focuses sound.
As light of an image passes through a lens it will project a picture on a surface. For example, the image of a light fixture on the ceiling of a room is easily recognizable, but with a very high quality lens the image is recognizable, including the dirt, dust and dead flies in the light fixture. A mouthpiece is very similar, it can take a sound and focus it, or if it’s a very high quality mouthpiece it will focus the sound including the extemporaneous noises, the dirt, that exists in the tone. The lesser-focused mouthpiece can mask the extemporaneous noises in the sound and give the player or listener a seemingly beautiful tone. However, with the clearly focused, highly refined mouthpiece, we frequently find that it sounds bigger and more solid, plus the fact that the clearer sound is much easier to manage regarding intonation.
Of course, not everyone will like the highly focused sound but as a therapeutic device it can be very useful in exposing the extemporaneous noises that might be part of our tone. When we can hear our unmasked sound with all its distortions, hisses, snaps, crackles and pops, we will quickly make the micro-adjustments necessary to minimize those noises and when the sound is “cleaned”, the tone produced on the lesser-focused mouthpieces will be probably be more beautiful.
Mouthpieces, like instruments, have a proclivity to change with fashion, very similar to the way skirt lengths raise and fall in women’s fashion. When observing the ultra heavy mouthpieces that seem to be so in fashion today, I can’t avoid remembering the early sixties when the players of the Chicago Symphony, the brass section that was looked up to as the standard of reference at the time, led a trend to skeletonize their mouthpieces. The external surface of these skeletonized mouthpieces followed the internal contours at minimum thickness and, of course, were very light. Arnold Jacobs himself led another fad of using an adjustable cup mouthpiece; within a few years he abandoned the adjustable cup and returned to more standard equipment.
It’s our nature to experiment, and the one thing we can depend on is that there will always be this tendency. History tells us that we can expect more changes in mouthpiece design, that astute players will try these changes and after some period will either adapt or reject them; this is how we learn, this is how we grow.
Tokyo, Japan, New Years Eve, 2006
Tyoko, Japan, November 3, 2012