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Clarinet Mouthpieces And The Young Student
by Michael A. Lomax

Many years ago, some wellmeaning but ill-informed educator put forth the notion that the ideal clarinet mouthpiece on which to start a young student was the Vandoren B45. It would be interesting to know if this individual was, in fact, a professional clarinetist or not, but I suspect we will never know the answer to that question. It does seem ironic that to my knowledge there is not a single clarinetist playing in a major orchestra in the United States today who is using a Vandoren B45 mouthpiece! There are some playing Vandoren mouthpieces, but a different model than the B45. There is a reason for this. The Vandoren B45 mouthpiece is one of the most open facings that the Vandoren factory produces. As most American clarinetists understand, this style of mouthpiece, open facing with a softer reed, makes it more difficult for the musician to produce the centered, compact, dark, and warm sound that is the goal of most American orchestral clarinetists.

The problem is not with the Vandoren Company. They are the leading manufacturer of professional quality woodwind mouthpieces in the world. The problem is simply that the Vandoren B45 mouthpiece is not the ideal choice for the young student for several reasons. First, the young student needs a mouthpiece/reed combination that will provide as much stability of pitch and center to the sound as possible due to the lack of a fully developed embouchure. Secondly, it would seem logical that as teachers, we would want the young student to use equipment from the very beginning that would best enable them to achieve those tonal qualities sought after by most American band and orchestra clarinetists.

The more open facing of the B45 mouthpiece, with the necessary softer reed needed to play the more open facing, creates a very flexible, and for the young student, hard to control situation. Many times this leads to the development of bad habits, such as “biting,” which left uncorrected will seriously hamper future progress.

If the teacher wants to have the young student play a Vandoren mouthpiece, a much better choice would be such models as the 5RV, the 5RV Lyre, or even possibly the M15 or M30. These are all mouthpieces with a closer tip opening that can use a stronger reed, give the young student a much greater stability of pitch and tonal focus, and promote good playing habits early on.

The path I would set forth is one that has been traveled by the vast majority of educators and professional clarinetists in this country for the past 70 to 100 years. This approach uses a mouthpiece with a closer tip opening and a stronger reed to match. The resulting combination gives both the professional and the young student alike the stability of pitch, good embouchure formation, and a warm rich sound that has been called the “American School of Clarinet Playing.”

Besides the fine Vandoren mouthpieces mentioned above, there are many other good choices available for the young student. If the mouthpiece is well crafted and has the proper balance of a medium length facing curve and a tip opening, ranging from approximately 1 mm to 1.10 mm, the student should be well served. Also, while most professional musicians as well as most mouthpiece makers agree that hard rubber or ebonite has superior acoustical properties for clarinet tone, the material is not nearly as critical as the dimensions of the mouthpiece with regards to the young student. An inexpensive plastic or plastic rubber blend mouthpiece that is crafted with a well designed interior and facing will produce superior results for the young student, over a hard rubber professional quality mouthpiece that lacks the proper design. Most of the major mouthpiece craftsmen include such student mouthpieces among their models. Most makers would agree that young students also need some time to learn how to properly care for an expensive mouthpiece and that the first few years are filled with a multitude of opportunities for accidents. This is a further argument for starting the student on a relatively inexpensive but well crafted student mouthpiece of the proper design.

In conclusion, helping the young student make the right choice regarding the equipment needed for his or her musical study is one of our most important responsibilities as teachers and music industry professionals. The hope of this writer is that this brief overview concerning one very important part of that equipment, the clarinet mouthpiece, has been helpful to those entrusted with this task.

Author’s Note: The author would welcome any comments or questions concerning the above article and can be reached at mike@lomaxclassic.com.