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Clarinet Mouthpieces

Clarinet Mouthpieces

In the case of the single reed instrument such as the clarinet the mouthpiece is usually separate to the instrument. The chief purpose of the mouthpiece is to provide an opening through which the instrument can be blown. Air enters the instrument via the mouthpiece (via the mouth) and one end of the air chamber vibrates via the combination of the air stream (formed by our own breath) and the clarinet reed.

Clarinet mouthpieces are "wedge-shaped" - the single reed is placed against the table of the mouthpiece in contact with the player's bottom lip. When blown, the reed vibrates,causing the air column inside the instrument to do likewise. The shape of the inside of the clarinet mouthpiece has a huge affect on the sound of the instrument. As a general rule, mouthpieces with a large rounded chamber sound very different to ones with a small or square chamber.

TIP OPENING: The distance between the tip of the mouthpiece and the tip of the reed.

FACING: The curved section that leaves the "table" and continues to the tip of the mouthpiece. The length of a facing is defined as the distance from the tip of the mouthpiece to the point where the reed and mouthpiece meet. See sax mouthpiece picture above.

The different elements of a mouthpiece (facing length, tip opening and chamber size) all have a different effect on the sound produced. Short facings on a mouthpiece tend to be linked with a wider tip opening (Jazz players sometimes use this combination) also with a softer reed - volume is increased with this arrangement. Long facings combined with narrower tip openings and harder reeds make pianoissimo playing easier but make volume less easy to obtain.

The clarinet mouthpiece chamber or interior space has more effect on the tone of the instrument. Eg the size of baffle and shape of the chamber will affect whether the tone is clean or buzzy, mellow or bright. But it should be stressed that all these characteristics will alter depending on the way the instrument is blown and the embouchure of the player. Playing style counts for a lot. You may buy a jazz mouthpiece (or one that is meant to sound right for a jazz musician) but that does not necessarily make you a jazz player....

Clarinet Mouthpieces - Vandoren, Yamaha, Selmer, David Hite, Pomarico

The clarinet mouthpiece is in many ways similar to the saxophone one. There are as many variations, perhaps, but somewhat fewer arguments about baffle, facing and tip opening, and the interior of the mouthpiece tends to the narrow with a square cross section visible through the throat. Unlike the saxophone mouthpiece, it has a cork ringed tenon at the base which fits into rather than over the barrel of the clarinet. The smallest clarinet is the Eb, then Bb and A (which can usually use the same mouthpieces as they are very similar in size), the alto and bass clarinet and even the contra-bass clarinet. Most students begin on the Bb (B flat) clarinet.

Clarinet Mouthpieces - The Choice

Clarinet Mouthpieces - The Choice

The Bb clarinet is probably the most versatile and prolific of the clarinet family, and a very good lead-in to other woodwinds, especially the saxophone - though the embouchure is significantly different, the fingering is very similar.

Excellent student/intermediate Bb clarinets include the Buffet B10 and B12, the Vito, and the award winning Jupiter JCL-631II. Not so many years ago these were the staples of the student market, along with a valuable trade in second-hand instruments (Boosey & Hawkes and Bundy), particularly through schools and music teachers. Now the choice is infinite. So many improbably cheap Chinese clarinets (variable quality, though some, arguably, are very good) make it possible for any child (or adult) to start learning on a reasonable instrument, while parents (or spouses) can be easy in the knowledge that if they haven't sired the next Benny Goodman or Acker Bilk, it is not a total financial catastrophe.

Instrument quality aside, there is a strong chance that the mouthpiece will not be up to the task. Generic mouthpieces may be unmarked (have no identifying facing/opening number), although most aim to sit around a "4" or "5" (taking Yamaha as a benchmark). Many such mouthpieces are manufactured from insubstantial, moulded plastic rather than hard, lathe and hand finished vulcanised rubber (ebonite), thus forgoing the longevity and precise specifications of many branded models. Mould production without proper quality control can lead to lop-sided end and side rails, as if the plastic didn't reach the mould extremeties, or perhaps an air bubble got in the way. This will almost certainly mean that the reed can't seat properly - one of several causes of the "squeak". A badly made mouthpiece may offer considerable resistance to being blown - gasping for breath at the end of each bar is a great hinderence - breath control is a vital part of the learning process. Timbre may be lacklustre, notes shrill, range limited and pitch imperfect (or just plain unpleasant) and the practice shy may become even shyer - making a nice noise is a great boost for any player, and a considerable plus for co-habiting family/pets.

Even a clarinet with a better quality mouthpiece will benefit from an upgrade. Student clarinet mouthpieces historically have a fairly narrow opening, as they are easier for a new player to control and play. This may be fine at the outset, enabling the teacher to assess the player's embouchure and individual needs, it may also be limiting in terms of volume, sonority and expression as a narrow tip opening restricts reed vibration.

According to Vandoren: "The mouthpiece is the motor of an instrument, which gives it its overall timbre and pitch. The quality of the mouthpiece is vital for it allows artists to display the full range of their expressiveness. Ulysse Delecluse, a clarinet teacher at the Conservatore de Paris from 1949 to 1978, was fond of saying that whatever the level of musicians, they could not afford to play with a second-rate mouthpiece." This is, of course, part of their sales blurb. But it is hard to overstate the importance of the mouthpiece.

Vandoren offer a vast range of mouthpieces of which the B45, B40 and 5RV (".... so popular for over half a century among professionals as well as beginners"). are just some of their (very) popular high quality student models. Selmer's C85 mouthpieces are also considered to be some of the best. They are not cheap - and both Vandoren and Selmer mouthpieces will require ligatures and caps in addition, but they can lead to dramatic improvements in timbre, pitch and ease of playing, which in turn could make the difference between happy, rewarding progress and miserable perseverance or desertion.

Yamaha or David Hite mouthpieces (the latter only comes in one standard opening) are probably the least confusing (and least expensive) for a relatively new player looking to upgrade, again, both need ligatures and caps.

The choice of mouthpieces for other members of the clarinet family is slightly more limited - fewer people play them and they are less well represented in bands and orchestras. Having said this most brands (eg. Yamaha, Vandoren, Selmer) do make mouthpieces for the Eb (E flat), alto and bass clarinets, though the choice of facing/tip opening may be reduced.

Ligatures and reeds are the other vital bits of the clarinet playing equation: for instance, the Rovner 1R and L5 Bb clarinet ligatures (fabric lig, cap included) will fit virtually every rubber Bb clarinet mouthpiece imaginable. They can also assist with playing, as they hold the reed more evenly and firmly than some metal ligatures, without dimming vibration. The reed needs to be selected in relation to the specification of the mouthpiece and the needs/ability/wishes of the player.

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