Mouthpieces: An Important Consideration for Doublers

Although there have always been low brass players that “doubled” on multiple instruments, with employment opportunities becoming a little more scarce in recent years, often the only way one can make any significant money as a freelance performer is to play more than one instrument. After all, the more instruments about which one can say “yes, I can play that,” the more calls one can take. In fact, I first took up the bass trombone largely because I had moved to a new city with something of a “glut” of working tenor trombonists and a much smaller number of bass trombonists. For the entire the time I lived there, a majority of my freelance performing income came from the bass trombone.

Even in the teaching realm, doubling has come in handy. I am convinced that my euphonium playing was a significant factor in my winning my current position at Ole Miss as well as my previous one at ULM. I am certainly a more effective euphonium and tuba teacher because I am proficient at playing at least one member of the tuba family. While I value and enjoy my work as a performer, more than 90% of my income comes from teaching, so I am most concerned with doing those things that make me a better teacher. Even better, if I can benefit both my performing and teaching by doing something, I definitely want to pursue that. Doubling on multiple low brass instruments has made me more effective in every aspect of my career.

Maintaining a high level of performance skill on multiple instruments can be a tremendous challenge. There are fingerings to learn, intonation adjustments to master, and approaches to tone quality and airflow which must be tailored to each instrument—the last of these I discussed in cursory form in a previous post. All of these can be handily addressed with diligent practice, but another issue—mouthpiece choice—can have a tremendous impact upon one’s playing of multiple instruments—for good or for ill—regardless of how diligently one practices. It is thus important that each player find the approach and equipment that are right for him. Today I will discuss mouthpiece choices for doublers, focusing exclusively on those that move between various low brass instruments.

Cup Depth and Shape: An Area of Widespread Agreement

There are a couple of different “schools of thought” regarding how to choose mouthpieces for multiple doubling instruments; I will discuss these shortly. Before getting to that, let me briefly address an area of near-universal agreement among doublers, which is the effect of cup depth and shape on the sound of the instrument. In short, the cup and backbore of whatever mouthpiece is used must be tailored to the instrument being played. To play the alto trombone, a shallow cup is needed; the bass trombone needs a deep one. A medium-bore tenor trombone needs a medium-sized cup, while the euphonium requires a deeper cup than all but the bass trombone and often one that is more “funnel-shaped” than “bowl-shaped.” Contrabass tubas require usually require a deep mouthpiece cup, especially for symphonic playing, while the choice of bowl or funnel shape depends on the particular instrument and repertoire being played. Bass tubas, in my experience, work best with a mouthpiece that has a relatively shallow bowl. In all of these cases, the cup and backbore of a mouthpiece are chosen according to what best produces the desirable sound for each instrument.

What About Rims?

The choice of rims—or, more specifically, the inner diameter of those rims—is a subject of more debate, though. A sizeable number of players believes that not only the cup and backbore but also the rim diameter must be tailored to each instrument. This means that when playing alto trombone a narrower diameter is used, while larger ones are used for tenor trombone, then still larger for euphonium, then bass trombone, etc. In the past manufacturers nearly always paired certain cup depths with certain inner rim diameters, and players that advocate changing mouthpieces entirely for each instrument will say that manufacturers chose these pairings because they were most effective at yielding each instrument’s desired sound.

While advocates of this view “have a point” regarding the effectiveness of certain pairings, these pairings don’t always work for everyone. I, for example, have rather fleshy lips and thus have difficulty playing on a mouthpiece rim smaller than that of a Bach 4 (or equivalent). If the only available mouthpieces for playing the alto trombone were a 7C or 12C (or equivalent), then I would be unable to play that instrument. Consider also tuba players that double on euphonium only very occasionally. A few manufacturers make special euphonium mouthpieces with tuba rims to accommodate such players, so that they can play the euphonium effectively without entirely retraining their embouchures to work with the smaller diameter of a “standard” euphonium mouthpiece. Even players that agree in principle that changing rims for each instrument is best might find the amount of practice time necessary to approach multiple instruments in this way to be prohibitive. In all of these cases, the view that the inner rim diameter must be tailored to each instrument just like the cup and backbore serves to restrict the opportunities for doubling for some players.

In recent years, another view has started to gain ascendancy, especially with the advent of “screw-rim” mouthpieces manufactured by Doug Elliott and others. This view states that the cup and backbore are tailored to the instrument being played, while the rim is matched to the individual player. In this way, a player could conceivably play all of the trombones, or trombone and euphonium, or even euphonium and tuba all with one rim diameter while changing cups and backbores for each instrument. This approach has the advantage of allowing the musician to play multiple instruments without having to retrain the lip and facial musculature for a different rim for each instrument.

The disadvantages of the above approach are two. One is that when the “feel” of the mouthpiece on the lips is the same from one instrument to the next, sometimes one forgets to make the changes in approach to blowing and tone production that might be necessary to get the greatest effect from that instrument. For example, if one uses the same rim on the euphonium and the small-bore tenor trombone, one might forget to approach the latter instrument with the more compact and direct approach to blowing that this instrument requires compared more relaxed approach required by the euphonium. Another disadvantage is that sometimes there is only so far that a player can “go” with a single rim. This is perhaps especially true when moving from the tenor to the bass trombone—while one can produce a characteristic bass trombone sound using a tenor rim and a deep cup, the narrower diameter might not allow sufficient freedom for the player to move effectively in and out of the pedal register.

How Do You Approach Doubling and Mouthpieces?

My own approach is a hybrid of the two discussed above, though I favor the latter approach. The last “hypothetical” situation I just mentioned is actually my own. I have played most of my instruments with a Doug Elliott N105 rim for about twelve years. When I first started playing the bass trombone, I used my regular rim with a deeper, “bass trombone” cup for a couple of years with great success, at least in terms of tone production and quality of sound. However, when I decided to play the Concerto for Bass Trombone by Thom Ritter George (b. 1942) on my last doctoral recital at UNCG, I quickly discovered that a “real” bass trombone rim would be needed to provide the mobility needed for all of the quick and loud excursions into the pedal register. I now play the bass with an MW112 rim. This rim has a similar contour to the N105 rim I use on my other four instruments, so the change of diameter is not felt as acutely.

Otherwise, I am happily playing my other instruments with the single rim. The only one that is a little problematic is the alto trombone, as sometimes I think a narrower diameter might better facilitate the light and focused sound that instrument requires. However, given the “negatives” that using the narrower diameter would bring, I am content to live with a little bit of a challenge on that instrument. I am thankful for the innovations in mouthpiece design that have facilitated the approach to doubling with multiple instruments/mouthpieces that I and many others have adopted.

One More Thing…

Regardless of the approach to playing multiple instruments and mouthpieces that one adopts, I hope that it goes without saying that one must have a correct sound concept for each instrument that he plays, and something of an idea of how to achieve that sound (besides equipment choice). Choosing the mouthpiece that provides the best “interface” between player and instrument is vital, but will accomplish nothing unless the player has a clear “picture” of the sound he wishes to achieve. Make sure you know “where you’re going” before choosing tools to help you “get there!”

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About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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