Our topic for today is the search for the perfect mouthpiece and the rise of mouthpiece porn: the gleaming, moodily lit photo, the famous artist endorsements, the promises of great tone, easy low notes, singing altissimo and perfect intonation in between....and, of course, the high price-tag. Why do we fall for it?
My sax teacher years ago gave me the best piece of wisdom on the subject: "When you try a new mouthpiece, you're playing the piece. After a week, you're back to playing you." I think what he was trying to say is that a sudden change emphasizes the differing qualities of the mouthpiece. It takes time for your embouchure to settle down and adapt to it and, in that time, your playing habits, (good and bad) reassert themselves...often with a vengeance. Do you close your throat and pinch going for high notes? That squeak and thin tone will be back. Do you have a poor ear for intonation? A $250 hand faced Zinner blank can play just as out of tune as a $30 plastic Yamaha 4C.
Now, these are the things I've found that make a genuine difference, regardless of the mouthpiece you choose:
First and most important, tonal concept. What are you trying to achieve? Who's your idol and can you hear the tone in your head? When a high school-aged kid comes for a jazz lesson, I ask "Who's your hero, who do you want to sound like?" If they say "I dunno", I know I'm in for a lousy school band tone, regardless of their horn and setup. If you can't hear it, no $3k horn will get it for you! Regardless of what style you play, listen to the greats. If you're channeling Buddy DeFranco or Sonny Rollins now, fine. You'll find your way to you, if you keep playing...but you have to have a tonal concept.
Second, a decent setup that's headed in the right direction. If you're playing a vintage Buescher TrueTone alto sax with a Rascher mouthpiece and you love Reggae...you're in trouble. Likewise, channeling Debussy on a Yanigasawa with a screaming Dukoff mouthpiece will probably fail to enchant! I'm offering extreme examples, but I've seen choices just as bad. What do you want to play? What setup do prominent players of that style use? But, don't fall into the trap of paying $500 for a vintage Big B Brilhart ligature because Charlie Parker used one - he also used a bent spoon and a rubber band as a substitute key - but find something, vintage or modern, that's headed in the right direction. I love off-brands, like Dolnet saxes and Penzel Mueller clarinets. Lots of bang for much less buck...and that goes double for used mouthpieces on ebay!
Third, pick a good mouthpiece...and stick with it! It takes time to explore and master a mouthpiece and consistent results come most easily from a consistent setup. If you're constantly changing parameters, your embouchure, lungs and ears won't settle in to get the best from your 'piece. And you needn't spend hundreds: old Selmer and Portnoy clarinet mouthpieces, for instance, sell used on eBay for $30-50 routinely...and they can be great mouthpieces. Try a few before breaking the piggy bank for the latest shiny Uber-mouthpiece!
Last, practice practice practice...but intelligently. No mouthpiece, however fancy and expensive, is a substitute for daily, thoughtful practice! Now, scales and etudes are a good start, but playing a scale from the root to the octave and back, out of time and without a tuner, won't teach you the horn or the key...2 bar scale patterns, in time, all over the horn, with a tuner, will. Long-tones are great for your chops...but so are overtone exercises and I'm surprised at the players I meet who aren't familiar with them. There is so much good info online to help you with your growth, whether you have a teacher or not - use it! YouTube videos covering everything from breathing to improv are yours for free...wish we'd had them back in the 80's...
I hope some of these ideas are helpful, whether you are a beginning or advancing player. Save your money, try the above, and let me know what you think!
I'm in love with vintage Leblanc clarinets and I don't care who knows it! The 1940's to the 1960's were a really sweet spot in Leblanc's history and I've been privileged to work on Symphonies, Dynamics, Noblets, Dynamiques, CBs, Classics and other even more obscure models that, properly restored, will give just about anything made today a run for its money...and for quite a bit less money, at that.
All were built of superior, tight grained, well seasoned grenadilla wood. All had solid nickel alloy (or silver-plated) keywork, phos-bronze springing, comfortable ergonomics, great intonation and a warm, centered tone. Most are available for $300 or less and I routinely sell them for about $700, fully restored with leather pads.
As old Buffets and Selmers continue to climb in price, and new ones top $4k, it might be a good idea to consider a vintage Leblanc for your musical needs. Anyone from student to pro could be satisfied for many years...
Last week, I overhauled my first Buescher True Tone clarinet and found myself with many questions. Its a wonderful horn - well built of tight grained grenadilla wood and wide, solid nickel alloy keys, with a .595" bore. It has a big, open tone and good intonation (at least with my dubious skills)...but...did Buescher build this thing? Online research turned up no serial number list that seemed to correlate (the serial # was in the 17,000's) but I did find a reference suggesting that it may've been built by Penzel Mueller on contract!
Oddly, the build and serial would seem to bear this out: the serial number, instead of being cross-ways on the back of the lower stack, was incised longways on the side. Penzel Mueller was the only company I know of that did this, and the serial would date a PM to the late 30's/early 40's. Keywork seems to bear this out this age range, as the throat Ab/A has an adjustment screw and the LH pinky keys are mounted on separate posts. Also, the wide, flat rings are very reminiscent of PM's of the period. Finally, .595" is a pretty big bore for the period, but most PM Artist clarinets (their pro model) that I've worked on from the period have measured .595".
Does anyone have information about True Tone clarinets that they'd like to share? This is such a good instrument that I plan to keep my eye out for one and would like to learn more in the meantime. It would be interesting and slightly ironic if Buescher, who made so many saxophones under so many names for others, had their better clarinets made by Penzel Mueller. But, given the quality of the latter's Artist model, I wouldn't be surprised at their choice...
I've worked on a lot of clarinets in the last 10 years, but admit to having a soft spot for the Full Boehm: the mechanism solves many technical issues, the tone tends to be fuller and darker (due to extra length and bore size), and, with the low Eb, they can do double duty for an A, thus saving that piddling $4k for another car! Finally, they were made as pro horns and are uniformly well constructed.
So, why are they so little used and rarely made? The only company I'm aware of that still offers a standard production model is Amati, which wouldn't be my first choice, given the historical instruments available.... Buffet, Selmer, Leblanc, Malerne, Penzel Mueller, Kohlert, Conn, even Rampone all made Full Boehms at one time, most of them excellent instruments.
Its hard to find a customer who has seen one, a tech who has worked on one, a fingering chart for one, or even a replacement case! What do you folks see as the pros and cons of these horns and do you have any idea why they are no longer readily available? Just asking....
I've finally finished overhauling my personal c.1949 Dolnet tenor sax! There were a couple small dents to remove, tone-holes to level, rods to true... I stripped the really worn and ugly lacquer from the body, guards and neck, steel-wooled it to a satin finish, polished for hours, and gave it a coat of wax.
The key's finish, however, looked much better than the body's, with a great oxidized/iridescent patina...so I washed them and left them alone. I think the contrast is interesting and emphasizes the age, but in an understated way. I finished it off with MusicMedic soft feel tan pads with flat metal resonators and it plays great from top to bottom! Considering I bought it for $500, I'm really happy with my 1st sax overhaul project and am looking forward to seeing how the finish is going to age over time...
Dolnet was a French company, maker of saxophones and clarinets, in business from approximately WWI to the late 1970's/early 80's. They weren't heavily imported to this country, but were popular with some Jazz musicians that went to France. Quality of build is good, especially the older examples, and the tenors have a big, gutsy tone like a Conn 10m, the altos more sweet and refined...but for about 1/8th the price of a comparable French Selmer! In fact, I've heard them referred to as "the poor man's Mark6" !
I can't attest to the veracity of that claim, but I own (or have owned) a silver soprano, a Low A baritone and numerous altos and tenors. They're lovely horns and I'd like to see them become more popular as more famous brands continue to skyrocket out of the price range of any but collectors...
A customer wrote to ask : "What's a good set up for jazz on the clarinet? I've changed my embouchure a lot but I'd like to have the best set up possible also, any advice would be great! Thanks!"
I'd like to have the best setup possible, too! So, here's my answer:
"Nice to hear from you! Well, that's a tough question...Its very individual. If you look at a list of famous players on any instrument (especially woodwind) the setups tend to be all over the place. Generally speaking, Jazz players generally use a more open tip and a lighter reed than classical, but a big part of the equation is having a 'jazz tone' in your head, and adjusting your timing, attack, phrasing, etc. to reflect a Jazz concept. Who do you listen to? Buddy DeFranco? Artie Shaw? Peanuts Hucko? Lots of listening and practicing with play-along tracks or jazzy friends will help the most...
Now that, being said, its harder to get a Jazz sound on a Vandoren M13 mpc with #4 reeds - that's a pretty closed, stuffy setup. I've used Bernard Portnoy mouthpieces on my horn (and with students) and had good results...either the BP02 or more open BP03 facing. These can generally be found on ebay for about $40 used. Also, an older Selmer HS** (2 stars, not one) gives a nice tone and is open enough to offer some flexibility. One of the most popular with both Jazz and Greek musicians is the VanDoren 5jb, but be prepared for a very open facing (which will effect intonation at first) and a very light reed! I loved the tone of the ones I tried, but my jaw got sore after about half an hour...
Also, don't forget reeds! I'd try a synthetic Fibracell 3.5 or 4, (which run a grade softer than comparable cane reeds) or, if you really prefer natural reeds, look at a non-classical cut from Alexander: they make some really nice reeds cut specifically for a Jazzy sound."
How's that for an answer? What is your Jazz mouthpiece of choice?
One of the clarinet makers I watch for these days is Thibouville Freres, a French company that seems to date from the 40's - 60's (based on case, design elements, etc). These restore to be some truly fine playing horns, with nice design features and a slightly larger than standard bore. I've sold them to Jazz players, Klezmer players and others of uncertain affiliation, always with happy results!
The nicest one I've ever seen was an 'Artist' model that I bought from Goodwill for about 75 dollars! It was a large bore pro horn with all tenons metal lined, a metal lined barrel, and 7 rings. After a full overhaul, it was a wonderful player with a fat, 'vintage' tone and good intonation, ideal for Jazz or Classical, depending on choice of mouthpiece.
I do notice, BTW, that mouthpiece seems to be a critical factor: a customer of mine who had purchased one last year (and reported being unimpressed) called me recently, raving about its tone and playability with a change of mouthpiece. Maybe that made all the difference, or maybe he's been practicing more, who knows ?
Thibouville Freres also made nice bass clarinets (under their own name and as stencils, I believe), and was responsible for building some or all of the McIntyre system instruments that I've seen.
Does anyone else have experience to report with this company's instruments and any idea why they aren't a whole lot more famous?
After years of refurbishing Penzel Mueller clarinets, I'm still amazed at the obscurity in which they linger! From a buying point of view, great: from a selling point of view, not so good. So, here's a little info to pique your interest in this unjustly forgotten brand.
The company was started by 2 German immigrants, Penzel and Mueller, in the early 1890's in Long Island City NY. They offered a variety of clarinets and flutes, as well as some saxes and brass which I suspect were made by someone else and stenciled with the PM logo. If someone can shed more light, please do! The company operated through the late 1950's (as best I can determine), before ceasing production.
Their clarinets (especially the Artist, Studio Recording, and Super Brilliante models) were top of the line horns, easily comparable to anything coming out of Europe during the period. Woody Herman played an Artist model, in fact. The tone was more 'American' than 'French' in concept - think Conn rather than Buffet - great for Jazz as well as concert music, free-blowing, more direct than sweet. Intonation is very good on most of the horns I've tried, and the key-work is comfortable unless you have very small hands: there's a bit of a spread, which is welcome for us large fingered folk!
A customer in Texas was kind enough to forward a model/price list from their 1955 catalog:
Super Brilliante $340
Artist, new model $265
Bel Canto $185
American Professional $165
Standard Model $129.50
The only one I've worked on that I don't see here is the 'Studio Recording' model, which was a pro horn that came with 3 barrels. Perhaps it had been discontinued by 1955? Anyway, I hope this is enough to get you to keep an eye out for one of the better PM's in good playing condition. Regardless of the style you play, I believe you'd enjoy it.
With the change of seasons, I thought it might be a good time for a vintage clarinet care post - I've been seeing a lot of dried out, neglected clarinets here in the shop!
An older wood clarinet is going to need more care than a new one for best performance, and quite a bit more than that student plastic horn you used to abuse, so let's get to it!
1 - Swab it after you play, but avoid inserts. You want to get the moisture out - not put it back in! Those fuzzy inserts absorb from the body and pads, with regular use, and then it goes...right back in the clarinet! Just swab from both ends and put it away.
2 - Bore oil is your friend. I'm amazed at the number of folks I meet that don't use it and the number of horns I receive that desperately need it! Buy a good quality brand that has some natural oils (not just petroleum distillates) and a fuzzy clarinet bore swab. Put a few drops on the swab and run it through all 4 pieces of the body until you see a light 'sheen' in there: don't soak it! If the horn is really dry, it may be necessary to repeat this a few times in the first week. Eventually, once a month or so will be enough to keep it looking healthy: this will protect it from cracks and warpage and extend the useful life of your instrument!
3 - Humidify. While you don't want a damp insert holding moisture right next to your pads, you do want a little humidity in there, especially during the winter or if you live in an arid part of the country. Take a tip from the old pros and put a couple pieces of orange rind in the bell: it will make the case smell nice and protect the bell in particular from the shrinkage that loosens rings and causes cracks.
4 - Oil the mechanism. A lot of the looseness in old clarinet keys is the result of un-lubricated dirt between the key and the post being rubbed back and forth, thousands of times, until metal gradually wears away. A good way to improve movement and arrest wear is to buy a little bottle of key oil (I like Hetman's) with a needle fitting and hit the contact points at each end of the key with a drop, about twice a year.
5 - Watch that thermal shock! Wooden clarinets don't like dry heat, direct sun, or sudden temperature changes. Don't leave it in a car on a hot day, or march with it, or set it near a heat source. No company guarantees their horns against cracking, and I can't either!
Ironically, your old clarinet will probably withstand the rigors of use better than a new one: its wood blanks were aged longer before cutting, and it has had years to stabilize since then. I see many clarinets 80+ years old that look and play great! If you take care of yours, someone might be playing it many years from now, as well....
I frequently receive questions about the difference between Albert and Boehm system - especially when I have a cheap Albert in C for sale and some poor soul doesn't really want to spend $2k+ for a Boehm! How hard is it to switch? How different are they?
OK, here's the historic progression: Simple system came first, and is basically an open hole clarinet that only had a couple of keys for accidentals. This illustration is a little late, but shows a 5 or 6 key instrument dating to the early 1800's. It would've been comfortable to play in 4 or 5 keys...anything beyond that would be challenging and a bit uneven in response and intonation....which explains why they used to come in sets!
As composers became more demanding of clarinetists, clarinet makers added more and more keys in an attempt to meet that demand: more accidentals, fingerings for either hand or to facilitate key changes further from the fundamental, etc. here's an 11 key horn dating from about 1860/70 that illustrates the progression...almost an Albert.
Here's an Albert system instrument from about WWI/1920. It has 14 keys, including a Low F# crossover (allowing F#/C# with either pinky) on the lower stack. There are 2 Eb's and front and side F's on the upper stack. You can play further from the fundamental with this system, have more choice of fingerings for challenging passages, and the intonation is more even.
Here's a vintage Oehler system (still used in Austria and Germany to this day) which is the logical end result of the Albert fingering, but on steroids: it can do pretty much what a Boehm can do, but the keywork has gotten pretty complex and heavy!
This all proved as challenging for the clarinet as parallel challenges were for the flute, and Theobald Boehm was kind enough to wipe the slate clean and re-design the system from scratch, creating an equally tempered instrument capable of being played (albeit with some whining) in any key. It was developed in the mid 19th century, Buffet started production in the 1880's, but it didn't fully catch on until the late 1920's, when Alberts started diminishing in popularity due to the demands of increasingly chromatic music (both Jazz and Classical).
Albert system is still alive and well, however - they are favored by Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Jewish Klezmer musicians, and even some New Orleans Jazz traditionalists trying to get 'that sound'. I get requests on a monthly basis and sell quite a few to customers worldwide... who are relieved that they don't have to spend E2500+ for one from Markneukirchen!
For the record, many of the notes and fingerings are the same and switching wouldn't present much challenge to the educated player, as long as s/he had big hands - the spacing of keys is a bit wider than Boehm...and Albert does have its advantages! Partly in expressiveness (certain slurs and decorations are easier with fewer keys), and partly in its tone.
Ironically, in the effort to make the Boehm instrument more perfectly in tune, louder, more focused (all the qualities that Buffet's R13 is famous for), the tone has become thinner, blander, less rich and subtle. For a classical section player, this may be ideal. For a Greek or Trad Jazz musician, its contraindicated! Alberts sound great, as a listen to YouTube videos by older jazz and folk musicians will illustrate. Personally, I'm glad it has hung around all this time and hope the wave of revivalism in modern music will assure its continued use...
The Licorice Shtick Blog is the creation of the Vintage Clarinet Doctor, a Winston Salem, NC based woodwind instrument repair shop specializing in vintage and antique clarinets, saxophones, and the occasional flute.