Sorry Tuba players - it's nothing personal. In the realm of mouthpiece choice, your favorite tuba player will not be able to help you out, as Nick Hudson learned early on. Read on to find this and the rest of Nick's advice to players looking to find their perfect match in a mouthpiece.
On occasion, my Wife has had reason to inform me that I’m a person averse to change. Apparently, it takes me considerable time to get used to something new, something different, something out of my daily routine. Thinking about putting this article together, I hold my hands up and admit I may have to agree with her, just this once.
Let me explain: I started playing the trombone when I was eight years old – a mere forty-eight years ago! As an eight-year-old growing up in the Young People’s band in the Salvation Army, I had no idea about mouthpiece intricacies; rim widths, cups, shanks, backbores, barrels etc. and still, to a certain extent, don’t. I was a kind of person that followed the flow, I played something that "if it’s good for such and such, it’s good enough for me."
I remember, rather painfully, when I joined Fodens Band on Principal trombone in 1984 there were a number of fine brass students from the RNCM in the ranks. These were players I looked up to and admired. Eager to become part their 'club' I was always inquisitive as to what gear the trombone students were using at college. Unfortunately, I came a bit of a cropper here, due to some mischievous tomfoolery by a certain tuba player in the band, and student at The Northern. Frequently badgered by my incessant questioning for up-to-date gear information, this unnamed tuba player told me, “Every tenor player at college is on a Bach 3G”. Please remember, I was about thirteen at this point, playing a lovely old Elkhart Conn 8h, my Father’s instrument, which I still use to this day. Rather naively, I purchased said mouthpiece and got to work. To say the ensuing months were an absolute nightmare is a considerable understatement. The thing was so big I nearly fell in! After a few months of pain and struggle I finally gave up on the 3G – much to the hilarity of certain RNCM students – and opted for the 5G. Lesson learned, never trust a tuba player, this particular yarn of his was far from true!
Since 1984 the Bach 5G has been my only mouthpiece. So, why after thirty-eight years of playing, make a change? Like many players, I’m always in search of a quick fix. Just check my home DIY skills, I follow the same mantra. I’m fifty-six, I have a full-time teaching position and have scarce time to practice as much as I would like. If I can slot in an hour of intense practice a day, I’ve been lucky. This means I can’t spend as much time working on areas of playing that need improvement sufficiently enough to make the required difference. So, rightly or wrongly, I’ve opted for a quick fix.
For those of you interested, the reason for my personal mouthpiece change is based around my lower register and tone quality. Anything lower than a low A resembles the dulcet tones of a leaky gas pipe. Yes, I hear you all say, “You need to spend more time in the wood shed opening things up.” My answer? I simply don’t have time. So, to cut my waffling short and get to my findings gained from this life-changing experience, I
humbly offer the following snippets of advice:
But how should one really choose a mouthpiece? Start here.
- Why do you want to change mouthpiece?
My personal reasons were to open up the lower end of my range and improve tone to try and get closer to my idea of a perfect trombone sound. It’s important you have a genuine reason to want to change. Don’t follow the crowd, like I did in '84. Record yourself, listen closely to what you sound like. Have a firm idea of what you want to sound like. Personally, I adore the sound of the 1970’s British School of trombone tone; John Iveson, Dave Purser, Roger Brenner, Denis Wick...for me, this is the sound scape that I persistently try to emulate. Listen to any Philip Jones Brass Ensemble recording and you will immediately hear what I mean. The sound is warm, pure, never harsh, and beautifully controlled.
Do you need to improve your upper range? Projection? Flexibility? Low range? Tone quality? Tone balance in your ensemble? Any of these reasons are valid for a change, IF YOU HAVE GIVEN ENOUGH TIME AND EFFORT INTO IMPROVING THEM ON YOUR CURRENT MOUTHPIECE. The reason I emphasize this is that so many people rely on the mouthpiece to improve certain aspects of their playing when, in actual fact, all that was needed was a good few hours practice on their current mouthpiece to get the same results. Yes, I hear you cry, “that’s what you should have done!” Again, if personal practice time is an issue, go for a quick fix.
"Trust your own judgement, does it feel good, does it do the things you want it to do when you opted for a change. Don’t follow the crowd, make the decision yourself with regards to feel and physical outcomes."
- Nick Hudson, Denis Wick Artist
- Don’t get too bogged down with dimensions. Go for feel and ease.
By this I mean don’t go too much into the minutiae of sizes. To this day I can’t tell you the dimensions or sizes of my old Bach 5G or a Wick 5ABL. I have been extremely fortunate in being able to try a number of mouthpieces manufactured by Vincent Bach, Doug Elliot, Michael Rath, Greg Black and Denis Wick. Most manufacturers are happy to let you try their mouthpieces before purchase. Take advantages of this. Trust your own judgement, does it feel good, does it do the things you want it to do when you opted for a change. Don’t follow the crowd, make the decision yourself with regards to feel and physical outcomes.
- Give it time.
If one thing really irks me, it’s players who pick instruments/mouthpieces off a trade stand, play a few notes and quickly return the product to the stand proclaiming it is substandard - or words to that effect! These are players that have tested an instrument, for a matter of seconds, with a different mouthpiece, a different acoustic, not warmed up etc. etc. and come to their conclusion.
Any change in equipment should be given plenty of time for it, and you, to settle in. Dependent on home practice and playing times, this can take months. Get as much approval time as you can from the dealer/shop. This is a big decision that can affect many aspects of your playing, and consequently your conclusions shouldn’t be made too swiftly.
"Something that feels nice, easy and just right in your practice studio isn’t always the right option."
- Nick Hudson, Denis Wick Artist
- Make sure you trial the mouthpiece in your ensemble.
Mouthpieces can play tricks on you. They can give you a false impression of tone colour and projection. By this I mean that opting for a mouthpiece that feels great in the practice room may not necessarily sound great in a concert hall or within an ensemble. Take time to ask your section colleagues how it sounds, how does it blend, have they noticed a change? Ask reliable and knowledgeable colleagues in the audience as to how it projected. Did it make you stand out? If so, think about the importance of section blending and unanimity of tone colour.
Something that feels nice, easy and just right in your practice studio isn’t always the right option.
- Be prepared to put in a little bit of work.
After following these few bits of advice, you will no doubt have to spend a little time running yourself and the new mouthpiece in. I finally opted for a mouthpiece that initially didn’t feel easy, it was stamina sapping to be quite honest. However, I love the noise it gives me; it’s not harsh in ensembles, it projects well without being bright and it’s as close as to my personal idea of the 1970’s British School of playing I persistently try to emulate. I’ve had to spend many hours of simple long tones with cresc and dims in the entire register to try and build the stamina needed to get the results I want. If you want something bad enough, it’s worth a little bit of extra graft.
Best of luck.
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