How to Choose a Trumpet Mouthpiece
By Mark Van Cleave
Every trumpet player seems to have a shoe box hidden somewhere in the dark corner of their closet that contains all of the many attempts at finding the perfect mouthpiece. One that has a great sound, great projection, great range, great flexibility, and a rim that feels just right. Oh yeah, it also must PLAY ITSELF!
Is any of this really possible? Well... yes and no. Good equipment can certainly make playing more enjoyable, but it will never do it all for you. Most players problems with equipment start with a lack of real understanding about how to pick what will work for you. Getting that good fit is so important.
I always use shoes as my analogy. When buying shoes, it all starts with finding YOUR shoe size. The most important aspect of the mouthpiece that determines your basic fit or shoe size is the inside diameter of the cup.
So, what determines your shoe size? Many players assume that it is lip thickness. Not exactly true. What really determines the correct inner diameter fit for you is your EMBOUCHURE thickness. The embouchure thickness is the thickness of your lips when in the trumpet playing position. Many players have different ways of forming the embouchure and these variations can have an important impact upon the playing thickness of the chops. If you have thick lips, it is probable that your embouchure thickness will also tend to be thick ...but not necessarily. If a player with thick lips forms his embouchure by rolling the lips inward, the resulting playing thickness may actually be fairly thin. So... there are no hard and fast rules to finding the proper fit for you.
The upper lip (vibrating lip) should be inside the cup at all times. Another way of saying this is the resulting RING you see on your chops after playing should NOT be in the pink part of the lip tissue. This ring should go ABOVE the pink. How much above the pink? Really doesn't matter so much. The main thing is that it IS NOT IN THE PINK!
The reason your lips are a different color is because they have fewer layers of skin than your normal skin. This makes the lip tissue substantially less durable than regular skin. Another reason that you need to keep the ring out of the pink is because there are no muscles connected to the pink part of the lips. In order to play with control and strength, you must have some amount of regular skin tissue inside the mouthpiece in order to control your chops with muscles instead of just pressure.
The lower lip will need to be inside the cup as well, especially as you ascend into the upper register. Saying this, with thicker embouchures, the lower lip may not fit in the middle and lower registers. If this is the case, it is important to be able to adjust this lip in and out of the mouthpiece as needed. Sharp inner edges or bites of the mouthpiece rim can make it difficult to adjust the lower lip easily, so choosing a bit more rounded bite will aid in these types of adjustments.
Once you have found the proper cup diameter, this should not change no matter what depth or style of cup or rim shape you choose. This is your shoe size. Like a shoe size, if your feet are size 11, your golf shoes, running shoes, dress shoes, etc will ALL be size 11. This does not mean that you can only have ONE mouthpiece for all things... just as with shoes, you will find it beneficial to have equipment that is designed for the job at hand ...but they all will be in YOUR size!
Many people find out what mouthpiece a favorite player of theirs is playing and immediately run out and get one for themselves. This almost always ends in disappointment. Not because the mouthpiece is bad, but because the mouthpiece is not in YOUR size. Just because Michael Jordan wears size 14 shoes, does NOT mean that you will play better basketball if you wear size 14 shoes. You can get the same advantages if you wear the same style or model of shoe that MJ wears in YOUR size. Now this is apples and apples.
The cup depth is the distance between the top of the rim and the start if the throat. The shallower the mouthpiece, the quicker the response (due to the proximity of the throat to your vibrating lips) which can sometimes be more difficult to control (less room for error). Deeper cups have a slower response that some would say is easier to control.
There is also an acoustic aspect to the cups depth in regards to the overtones that are produced. Shallower mouthpieces have fewer low overtones in the mix which generally yields a brighter sound. Deeper cups have more of the low overtones which can yield a warmer/fatter sound.
There is also a mechanical aspect to the depth of a cup ...primarily with shallower pieces. It is easier to collapse into a shallow cup and hit bottom which effectively STOPS the lips from vibrating. The misconception is that shallower cups can be easier to play. Actually, you must have a much stronger embouchure to effectively play on a shallow mouthpiece in order to keep the chops from collapsing into it and shutting down. With deeper cups, even weak embouchures rarely hit bottom ...even when they collapse into the cup.
There are two basic reasons that determine your choice in cup depth ...the quickness of response and tone quality.
My procedure for choosing the correct mouthpiece is to start with the diameter first (shoe size). I will start with the largest diameter and then start reducing the size until you hear a distinctive change in the tone quality... this change occurs because you have just crossed the line past your size. Your chops are now being squeezed into the mouthpiece. Go back one size.
Next I go for the cup depth. I start with the deepest and start moving shallower. Again until the tone quality changes... once again, you have just crossed the line. Your chops are starting to hit bottom. Back up one depth and there you have it.
This is a pretty basic ball park approach to sizing things up. Don't forget to also consider the overall response and feel of the mouthpiece. This is somewhat more of an individual esthetic choice and is not quite as black and white as just size alone.
It is unfortunate that many players and teachers automatically go for the wide/deep cups to produce a big fat orchestral sound. It is interesting to know that some of the players that DEFINED the orchestral sound such as Harry Glanz played a Bach 6C through out his career in New York. and Adolph Herseth won his job in Chicago playing a Bach 7B. Herseth went to a larger cup later in his career in order to accommodate scar tissue that he had developed due to an automobile accident he had in the early 50's which severely injured his chops. Funny thing... Shortly after Herseth made the switch to a larger mouthpiece (for physical reasons), orchestral players in Boston and New York began to go larger as well. I can't help wonder what THEIR reasons were. hmmmmmmm