Roger Garrett’s Sabbatical

During the spring of 1998, I took a sabbatical leave.  My project, combined with an ASD Grant for funding, was to renew and refresh my teaching in the area of clarinet performance.  I focused my study and research in two areas, one being bass clarinet solo repertoire, and the other specific to the acoustical properties of clarinet and bass clarinet mouthpieces.  The latter will be dealt with here.

The study of mouthpiece design consumed an enormous amount of time, and the scope of what I studied led to very exciting results for both myself and my students.  I described the project objectives in my sabbatical leave application and ASD Grant proposal:

Clarinet Mouthpiece/Barrel/Instrument Design:

A large body of research is available which shows that an essential aspect of performance on a musical instrument stems from the quality of equipment used.  While this is true in the area of music performance in general, it is most clearly outlined with regard to instrumental performers. For example, even most non-musicians understand there is a difference between a Stradivarius Violin and a modern reproduction of the same, but many do not understand that the bow of the violin can make a Stradivarius violin sound like a student-grade instrument.  In the area of winds, a primary region of apparatus that impacts upon the performer is called the "setup" or mouthpiece/barrel/leadpipe/reed combination. Specifically, these are the parts of the instrument that are closest to the performer's face as he blows through the instrument.  In the case of the clarinet, the mouthpiece, barrel, ligature and reed play an essential role in determining the kind of tone, volume, pitch, and amplitude that can be produced by a given performer. 

During my studio teaching at Illinois Wesleyan University, I have encountered a wide variety of pedagogical problems associated with poor mouthpiece design.  While I have the skill to help the students with reed, and ligature problems, I have had very limited understanding of the exact dimensions of particular materials of the mouthpiece, barrel, and clarinet and their physical impact upon the comfort a performer feels when playing an instrument.  Most of what I do when I work with bad setups is a "trial and error" approach with the mouthpiece.  There are better, more efficient ways to help students.

Through work with Richard Hawkins (Clarinetist and Mouthpiece Specialist at the Interlochen Arts Academy) and discussions with Clark Fobes (San Francisco Mouthpiece Designer/Maker, and Clarinetist in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra), I plan to apprentice in the area of measuring, refacing, and adjusting commercial grade mouthpieces for a variety of performance genre. 

Specifically, I will be measuring the curve of the mouthpiece away from the reed, the length of the lay of the mouthpiece (the table the reed sits on), the length and taper of the mouthpiece window, the bore size (front and back), baffle (interior curve and depth of the tip of the mouthpiece) and the wall thickness of over 20 standard commercial mouthpieces.  My proposal is to develop the ability to file, sand, and reface all areas mentioned to conform to models of professional players provided for me by the specialists mentioned.  A detailed knowledge of how those measurements affect acoustical properties of the clarinet will assist me in helping students to determine how their physical approach to the instrument can be helped by adapting their equipment (or new equipment) to their current setups.

At the conclusion of my sabbatical, I decided to continue my work with mouthpieces and mouthpiece design.  Following the advice of several mouthpiece makers, I contacted two mouthpiece blank manufactureres: J.J. Babbitt Company, Incorporated in Elkhart, IN, and Zinner Incorporated in Germany.  I ordered several styles of Bb Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, and Soprano Eb Clarinet mouthpiece blanks.  These are mouthpieces that look finished but require substantial work to establish a playable facing and interior baffle, and interior bores needed to be reamed with the correct tools.  After deciding on a particular taper and hiring a machinist to create several reamers for this application, I applied the skills I had learned during the sabbatical to the unfinished blanks, and the results were significant.  When my students arrived in the fall of 1998 they were able to be fitted with mouthpieces that were specific to their individual playing characteristics at a fraction of the cost of a typical custom mouthpiece.

Nearly ten years after studying mouthpiece design and applying it to my own teaching and personal playing, I now produce custom made mouthpieces for clarinetists all over the world. My clarinet mouthpieces and bass clarinet mouthpieces are played by professional performers who are members of or have performed wit the NewYork Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the National Symphony, the Oregon Symphony, the Columbia Symphony, the Mexico City Symphony Orchestra, The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and all three branches of the professional service bands - Marine Band, Army Band, and Navy Band.  Beyond these professional ensembles, university professors, college students, high school students, and elementary students all over the United States are using the mouthpieces I make.

Why is producing custom-made clarinet and bass clarinet mouthpieces considered scholarly work, and how is it an important part of the teaching process?  On clarinet, the first and most important aspect of playing is sound production (tone quality).  Along with tone quality is the ability of the student to manipulate the reed in such a way as to articulate, play at soft volumes, and achieve tonal response with as little effort as possible.  While it is up to the student to develop these skills, development can be slowed or misdirected if the proper equipment is not used.  

The most critical consideration in terms of equipment is the setup, also known as the reed, ligature, mouthpiece, and barrel configuration.  Of these items, the most important is the mouthpiece.  It is the resonating chamber and can be the single difference between success and failure.  The best reed with the best clarinet will make no difference when used with a poor or average mouthpiece.  The mouthpieces that are provided with most instruments when purchased are very poorly designed and made of poor materials.  Even the individual commercially produced brand name mouthpieces are mass produced and contain glaring errors in their measurements.

Mouthpiece making and refacing has had a direct and significant impact on both the effectiveness of my teaching and on the way in which students learn.  The approach I have used for the last several years has been to work with a first year clarinet student for a month or two with the mouthpiece they bring to school.  I usually have to resurface and rebore their mouthpieces until we are able to reach a point where we can decide which direction their playing is going.  During this time, I help them fix negative habits in their conceptual and mechanical approach to playing.  After a month or two, if the student is progressing properly, he/she will begin to notice that it is not possible to continue developing in their sound production and voicing on the instrument with their current setup.  Because each student is unique, i.e. he/sh has his/her own unique aural cavity, tooth and jaw size, tongue size, lip size, and ability to blow and voice air, we address the possibility that there is a limitation in the design of the mouthpiece the student is using.   It is at this point that the research and work I have done with mouthpiece design comes into play.  

Through  design and creation of a mouthpiece specific to each student, I can provide a learning experience that is more immediate and successful than if the student were to sit in a music store and try to locate a mouthpiece that would be suitable.  In that scenario, most students simply select what sounds best to them but feels the same as their old setup.   In my studio, much as an eye doctor would treat a patient, I analyze students playing, diagnose their specific and unique approach, and then I  provide several sample mouthpieces for them to try.  These mouthpiece samples represent both commercial and custom made mouthpieces by known brand and makers.

Through careful application of instruction as students try the mouthpieces, we eventually find one or two mouthpieces that work best.  I then give the mouthpiece to the students to try for a week and they apply the playing concepts we have been discussing during their ensemble rehearsals.  Following feedback about how the mouthpiece worked during rehearsals and  practice sessions, I have a fairly good idea about what the students need.  At this point I create new mouthpieces with similar but improved.  I make the mouthpieces from the appropriate blank that I feel will work best for the students at that time in their development.  If the students likes the new setup, they may purchase the finished mouthpiece from me for the cost of the blank.  In the case of Eb clarinet mouthpieces, I often have the students order the blank from a commercial source and then I make the mouthpiece for the students.  I do not charge IWU students for such a benefit.  This is one of the reasons they come to study with me. As the students develop further, I can adjust the mouthpiece to suit their needs.  Usually students remain on the same mouthpiece, but occasionally students will advance to a point where they need an entirely new setup.  At that stage we begin again.

The fact that so many college students, university professors and seasoned professional clarinetists are playing on and/or recommending these mouthpieces to their own students should be evidence enough that the research is accurate.  Music stores all over the USA carry the mouthpieces.  They are being used in Australia, Sweden, Canada, and England, and the most well-known international catalog in the United States (The Woodwind and The Brasswind in South Bend, IN) continues to sell out of the mouthpieces each month.  This strong endorsement by the clarinet student and professional community is really satisfying - I feel that I am helping make a difference. 

During the past several years, there have been more opportunities for which I have been invited to give lectures and demonstrations for mouthpiece design all across the nation.  At these clinics I lecture about the acoustical properties of the mouthpiece, I reface and rework mouthpieces owned by students who attend the lectures (much as I do with my IWU students), and I share important information about how mouthpiece design can aid in the development of playing skills.  I am available for such clinics if contacted.

Mouthpiece information that the normal "User" might find helpful:

The clarinet mouthpiece is essentially an interface between the musician and the reed/instrument.
The way a reed functions on the mouthpiece can be affected of course by the musician (air, embouchure, etc.), but the mouthpiece not only has a strong impact on how the reed functions, it can affect the way a clarinetist forms embouchure, uses, air, articulates, and voices.  Many students play incorrectly because of the problems their mouthpiece causes when they take enough mouthpiece and use the right amount of air!  Squeaks, chirps, squeals, etc. are often the fault of a mouthpiece that is simply a poor design made with a poor blank.

We know that the material of the clarinet affects the way the performer senses sound and response.  But that it has less of an impact in how the audience perceives such qualities.  Not so with the mouthpiece!  Not only does the clarinetist feel and hear a difference between crystal, plastic, metal, wood, or hard rubber mouthpieces, the audience notices differences as well. Therefore, the material a mouthpiece is made from can be considered to have a fundamental influence over the most important aspects of playing: 1) tonal quality; 2) response; and, more elusively, 3) how well the mouthpiece “grabs” or “holds”  the sound.   Additionally, we know that the design of the mouthpiece requires a proper coordination between bore size/taper, tip opening, curve length, window opening, and interior chamber sizes.  Each principal part of the design structure must function in tandem with the other in order for the mouthpiece to be effective.

Most mouthpieces are made of either hard rubber, plastic, or crystal.  Some manufactures of mouthpiece blanks are creating wood blanks as well; wood mouthpieces have been around for as long as the clarinet has been in existence.  However, wood moves and changes with climate and humidity conditions.  Therefore, the most popular material for professional clarinetists has been hard rubber.  While plastic mouthpieces are very popular, the material is more reflective and provides for less absorption of the sound than rubber or wood.  As a result, mouthpieces made from plastics tend to have higher partials in the sound; translated, this means they can sound more edgy, “brighter,” or more “nasal” both to the audience and to the performer.  A good plastic blank, properly faced, can be an excellent choice for a beginning or intermediate student.  Plastic
mouthpieces are also much less expensive than their hard rubber counterparts. 

A material that has been around for many years and was highly popularized in the 1960s by a mouthpiece maker named Obrien is crystal.  Many confuse crystal and glass because rhe fundamental makeup of glass and crystal is the same – quartz sand time, soda and potash. Any percentage of lead added to the glass allows it to be called crystal.  To be considered “full lead crystal” the basic mixture must have at least 24-percent lead content (note: exceeding 33-percent lead content causes crystal to become brittle). With so many advances in technology, there are other substances added to glass mixtures, which will achieve the same result as lead oxides. Thus, most all glass today is called “crystal” which implies quality and clarity.  Mouthpieces made from crystal can create a more resistant feel that some liken to a “dark” sound, although it is more likely that the cooling of crystal allows for some changes in interior design that lead to an actual resistance or back pressure.  A major concern with using crystal mouthpieces is that they are so easily chipped or broken.

Without a doubt, the most popular and widely used material for clarinet mouthpieces is hard rubber.  Hard rubber is often called Ebonite, Steel Ebonite, and Vulcanite. This material is much more stable in terms of its reaction to weather and climate changes, is reflective but also absorbs sound well.   And, like many materials, hard rubber is as varied as its combined compounds.  The vulcanisation of natural rubber with sulphur was discovered by Charles Goodyear in the USA about 1839 and was patented in the USA in June of that year.The material is most commonly black in color and has been used to make many common items ranging from jewelry and fountain pens to musical instruments and parts for musical instruments. Vulcanite was originally based on natural rubber but since the 1930s has been based wholly or partly on various synthetic rubbers.

After 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates for manufacture of hard rubber required much less sulphur in the compound than was used in the mid-20th Century. Thus, the mouthpieces made by Goldbeck, Kaspar and Chedeville made use of blanks that were made from what many consider to be a much higher quality of hard rubber.   One of the primary manufacturers of mouthpieces in the USA, J.J. Babbitt Company, Inc. located in Elkhart, IN, reports that the rubber used to make their mouthpieces varies greatly from year to year, depending upon the source of materials. 

The German mouthpiece maker Hans Zinner creates blanks that he claims is much closer to the hard rubber compound/mix used by Chedeville.  One need only draw a Zinner blank across sandpaper to see that the color is more mustard/yellow than the J.J. Babbitt Blanks.  However, as important as materials are in the manufacturing process of the blank, equally important is the design of the blank.

When we talk about the design of the blank, we are really referring to three areas of structure known as the table/facing, bore (throat, exit, and taper), and the chamber.  The Bore of the mouthpiece begins at the throat and ends at the point of exit where the mouthpiece interfaces with the barrel.  Ideally, the bore should match the barrel bore exactly, but this is not absolutely critical.  The taper is very important because it not only affects the tonal characteristic of the mouthpiece, it also greatly affects pitch.  Bore size can be altered on existing mouthpieces with specially made reamers.  The Kaspars were known to ream mouthpiece bores by hand with several reamers - some to adjust the throat, some to adjust the throat through the body, and another to blend the body to the exit bore.  Other mouthpiece makers such as Clark Fobes and myself use reamers for specific models of mouthpieces. 

The Chamber of the mouthpiece includes the baffle, the sidewalls, the throat, and the window size.  The baffle plays a very important role in terms of the type of sound and the general center of pitch generated by the mouthpiece.  A flatter/straighter baffle from the base of the tip rail to the throat will result in more response, more focus, greater projection, and higher partials in the sound.  A deeper, more curved baffle away from the tip rail will allow for a creamier, less focused, rounder sound, albeit with a loss of response.   The window size helps determine the volume of air that moves between the reed and the chamber of the clarinet.  Window size can affect pitch to a small degree, but most importantly, it can have a dramatic effect upon the color and size of sound.  The larger the window, the reedier and larger the sound.  Too large, and the mouthpiece sacrifices control.  Too small, and the mouthpiece loses depth. 

If the mouthpiece is the interface between the musician and the clarinet, we might also think of the throat as the interface between the reed/table/baffle and the bore/clarinet.  It is usually the narrowest point between the top and bottom of the mouthpiece, and its size can greatly influence the way a mouthpiece feels via air pressure.  Too small and we feel too much back pressure.  Too large, and we lack control of air.   Because the throat is usually determined by the mold that the mouthpiece was created in, the choice of blank must be made based on dimensions available from the mouthpiece blank manufacturer.  For example, J.J. Babbitt offers several Bb clarinet blanks: 13b, 13b-new, 15b, 183, and a few others.  Each blank has a different size throat/chamber, and the side wall angels for each blank are slightly different.  Zinner blanks have a much wider variance for side wall angles, and the angle of the walls greatly influences the interaction between the player and the bore of the mouthpiece.  Therefore, each mouthpiece maker chooses blanks with chamber characteristics that best fits his or her needs.  In my mouthpiece work I try to identify which blank best suits a given student.  I have learned that every student is different in terms of their physical approach to the clarinet, and a mouthpiece that works well with one student might not work at all with another.  There are lots of variables that influence choice.

Finally, the table and facing are critical to tone, response, and volume.  The table can be concave or flat.  The facing refers to the front of the mouthpiece where the reed sits.  All of the flat parts of the front of the mouthpiece are part of the facing.  The facing includes the table, the curve (the point at which the mouthpiece begins to depart from the reed - measured to the tip), and the tip opening (the distance between the tip of the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece, usually measured in millimeters).  There are an infinite number of facings and variations, but standard measurements are fairly consistent within the mouthpiece industry.  Symmetrical facings are those in which each side of the mouthpiece (side rails) curve away at the same rate and are identical.  Asymmetrical facings are those in which one rail curves away at a greater rate than the other side.  There are different ideas for how asymmetrical mouthpieces affect the sound, and there are an equal number of recipes for specific facings!  For example, one mouthpiece maker has stated, “If a facing is not balanced, the mouthpiece is effectively detuned and loses resonance. A facing that is balanced is more likely to respond reliably, sound clear and project easily.”  It seems clear that this particular maker does not support the notion of the asymmetrical facing.  On the other hand, Jim Pyne, a pioneer in the research associated with asymmetrical facings, employs such a facing on many of his models.  Several others use both symmetrical and asymmetrical facings in their work, myself included.  There so many fine players performing and teaching who prefer the sound of mouthpieces with asymmetrical facings that such a facing cannot be eliminated as a lesser quality mouthpiece. 

Beyond the choice of symmetry, the length of the curve and the tip opening impact on literally every other aspect of the mouthpiece design.  A perfectly flat table with a beautifully tapered bore will be wasted on a mouthpiece that does not have a good balance between the tip opening and the specific curve that a mouthpiece maker puts on the facing.   Therefore, it is imperative that the facing be correct in terms of the specific curve and the specific tip opening used.  A “close” facing usually means that the tip opening is small and that the curve is short. Conversely, an “open” mouthpiece usually means that the tip opening is large and that the curve is long.  For example, a mouthpiece I own made by Richard Hawkins has a tip opening of .94 millimeters and a short curve.  Normally I would view this mouthpiece as one with a close facing.  However, the table is concave; this means that the tip opening actually simulates one that is closer to 1.08 millimeters, or a medium facing.  Because the curve is short, I think of this particular mouthpiece as a “medium close” facing.  On the other hand, I own a couple of matched Jim Pyne Clarion mouthpieces, both with an “M” facing.  The tip opening is 1.20 millimeters (open) and the length of the curve is long.  However, this is a flat table mouthpiece with an asymmetrical facing.  I view this mouthpiece as a more “open” mouthpiece. 

Obviously, the choice of a mouthpiece is a very personal one, and the mouthpiece that ultimately works the best is one that will best fit the needs of the student.  Over time, I hope to have more information on this website that will be more helpful in terms of measurements (tip openings, curves, and bore sizes).  In the meantime, if there is an interest in contacting me for further information, please feel free to email me at:

rgarrett@iwu.edu

For more information about my mouthpieces, please click here.......

 

 
 
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