Understanding the Saxophone Mouthpiece

Finding the ideal sound for your saxophone is a quest taken by many young performers. By understanding the saxophone mouthpiece much ground can be...

Saxophone Mouthpiece

Finding the ideal sound for your saxophone is a quest taken by many young performers. By understanding the saxophone mouthpiece much ground can be made on this journey. However, there is not a "cure-all" artifact or "one mouthpiece to rule them all" in saxophone performance.

Our goal, as professionals who seek to continually grow and learn, is to first take the steps in the right direction in our decision making process. Think of it as if we are investing in our knowledge and experiences.

Many times you'll have saxophonists who have "Mouthpiece-itis." This is that person that changes a mouthpiece at every occasion. At the other end of the spectrum, you have exactly the opposite with the saxophonist who is afraid or unwilling to try anything new. The ultimate goal lies in the balance between these two viewpoints.

Influential Factors

The are factors that are unique to each saxophonist that prevent all from using an identical mouthpiece. These factors include:
  1. Differences in the musculature of a musician's face.
  2. Differences in the body structure of the musician's face.
  3. The shape and structure of a person's teeth.
  4. The thickness and size of the players lips.
All of the previously mentioned factors vary the saxophonist's overall tonal concept. As a result, what the player is capable of playing on any one specific mouthpiece is limited. Knowing the subtle nuances of your particular circumstance can help you clear up any confusion based on these physical principles. By extension, you will be able to select the correct mouthpiece for you and have an educated understanding of what to look out for in saxophone mouthpiece construction.

In The Beginning

In the beginning most standard saxophones are supplied with a stock mouthpiece. This type of mouthpiece will generally suffice until the beginning saxophonist is capable of demonstrating the basic skills required of most beginning band programs.

Typically these stock mouthpieces have a medium facing and chamber which is appropriate for beginning musicians. Obvious issues with saxophonist mouthpieces, at this stage in development, are generally discovered by a student's instructor or experienced saxophonist.

Young saxophonists should not intrinsically feel like they need to go out to the music store and buy a new mouthpiece. Money, time and an effort is often wasted unless specifics about a mouthpiece's make, and facing is provided. Otherwise a store is going to try to make a quick buck on less essential intricacies of a mouthpiece such as its wrapping, color and outside shape. 

The sad truth is that some young saxophone players seeking to upgrade their mouthpieces often do the opposite. Thus causing more harm than good. Sometimes certain well known sax celebrities may be seen playing on a certain mouthpiece that inspires motivated players. Unfortunately, they are also quick to find out that one mouthpiece of a celebrity may work great for them with their specialized embouchure characteristics but work out horrible for someone else's.

Saxophone Mouthpiece Material

Most saxophone mouthpieces are made out of a type of ebonite hard rubber. Ultimately the material a player uses for their mouthpiece is up to their preferences and how it makes them feel. Differing material has slightly different properties and results.

Despite the material used in saxophone mouthpieces, they should consist of the same dimensions, measurements and facing. Often how a saxophonist feels, in regards to their mouthpiece material, is psychological and there is often subtle to little observable differentiated tonal change.

Glass

Glass saxophone mouthpieces tend to be less common. Despite the popularity for these mouthpieces with clarinet players, the sax glass mouthpiece is larger and prone to chipping. As a result, chips in the facing of the mouthpiece eliminate the advantage of this type material comfort in one's playing.

Metal

I have experimented with metal saxophone mouthpieces which do hold the advantage of being a robust and easily tooled material. Since metal mouthpieces tend to be stronger than other materials the outside dimensions of the mouthpiece do not need to be as girthy. This is a desirable feature for tenor and baritone saxophonists who have a smaller mouth and naturally prefer the feel of a smaller mouthpiece.

Plastic

Generally one of the most economical and commonly used mouthpiece material is plastic. Plastic has a long history of use and over time has been improved to not crack. The reason that plastic, as a viable material, is considered by the masses because it has high reliability of strength, low cost to purchase and a positive characteristic sound component to it.

Ebonite

Ebonite, a type of rod rubber, is the most universally used material for saxophone mouthpieces. It is easily shaped, tooled and refaced. It is durable, under normal circumstances and does not typically get distorted if taken care of. Note, like other mouthpiece materials ebonite will chip or get damaged if the tip is dropped or not handled with care.

All Materials

All saxophone mouthpieces should be cleaned inside and out after every use. They can be easily cleaned with soap in lukewarm water however, never in hot water for chance of malformation. For quick, in-between rehearsal sessions saxophonists should wipe the inside and out with a soft cloth. 

Avoid creating a germy breeding ground in your mouthpiece by keeping it clean. In addition to dirty mouthpieces getting you sick, calcified sediment can also get in the inside chamber and inner workings of the saxophone. 

The Saxophone Design

It is very important to pay attention to the design of a saxophone mouthpiece. This is because it's shape and dimensions directly influence the effect on tone quality, pitch, volume, flexibility, equality of registers and your ease of playing. Knowing that these specific factors contribute to the mouthpiece's tonal production, you, as the saxophonist, can now start to craft a quality mouthpiece to your desirable specifications.

To start, know that the saxophone's tone quality begins within the inner chamber of the mouthpiece. The reed and mouthpiece work together to generate a vibrational mechanism. This vibration entering the dimensionally measured inner chamber sets up the relationship for the fundamental tone to resonate within its various partials. Ultimately, this affects the overall tonal quality of the sound being produced.
 

The Mouthpiece Facing

Now that we have established what happens within the inner chamber it is important to identify what contributes to creating an ideal vibrational effect as it enters the inner chamber. To start, lets come to a consensus that there is an average accepted measurement to the start of the mouthpiece (where the mouthpiece enters the mouth) referred to as "medium facing." This is an average measurement that has been determined through trial and error. Note, it is not a precise or even ideal measurement but rather a starting point where a saxophonist may proceed. With the end of the mouthpiece measurements in mind, we can identify the factors that manipulate it's performance.

  1. The Facing. The facing is the shaped curve of the mouthpiece that protrudes the flat "table" of the mouthpiece design. Depending on the extent of the facing, it determines the control a player has between the tip of the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece. This opening is called the "tip opening." The distance of this curve, between tip and the beginning of the curve, is known as the length of the facing
Sax Mouthpiece Facing Length
With a long facing length, saxophonists are prone to biting. This is due to the needed use of pressure to close the reed to the point it will vibrate. When a mouthpiece that is using a long facing length it requires a shorter bite and softer reed. As a result, this often weakens higher notes on the instrument.

With a short facing length there is less embouchure control and flexibility. Often the tone is thin and low notes tend to crack or break. There is typically less embouchure strain however, lacks the ability for wide range of dynamics. Due to the wide tip opening with a short facing length it makes soft playing difficult, there is a false sense of volume and a sub par tone quality.

If a saxophonist uses something other than a soft reed, powerful embouchure muscles are required to compensate for it. Since a short facing length narrow tip requires a harder reed and produces a thin tone in the upper register, the pitches tend to go sharp in pitch.

It is generally agreed upon by most professional saxophonists that the curve of the actual facing should be the consistency of a perfect circle. As a result of scientific findings and by hypothetical extension an undefined number of facings would result in the curvature that follows the axis of a perfect circle's arc.

2. The Baffle. The baffle is a part of the mouthpiece that is located just behind the reed. It is the surface area that the air, vibrated by the reed, strikes directly, and is therefore vitally crucial.



Saxophone Mouthpiece Baffle
Sourcehttps://www.syos.co/blog/gear/baffle-saxophone-mouthpiece

Generally, the closer the baffle is to the reed, the more powerful and bright the sound will be. In the case of a straight baffle, the sound will be dark and soft. In contrast a high step baffle will produce a metallic and aggressive tone. For a more balanced sound a circular baffle will provide more flexibility and give players the option to adjust based on the comfort of play and resistance to the mouthpiece preferences.

In addition, a high baffle, which leaves little space between the mouthpiece and reed, helps to reinforce the upper partials of the instrument. Subtle tone qualities include more of a buzz and edge to the sound. This sometimes is the cause of squeaks. In contrast, low baffle produces a dark sound that often doesn't carry the sound as far. As a result, there is considerably more resistance close to the tip of the reed and is difficult to blow.

3. The Tip Rail. The tip rail is the arc-shaped flat region at the tip of the saxophone mouthpiece. The tip rail is responsible for improving the response of a mouthpiece. Tip rails that are too wide make the mouthpiece unresponsive to articulation and resistant to blowing. However, are excellent for soft playing but incapable of projection. This aspect of design releases a more immaculate sound with no edgy qualities but allows for little flexibility. 

In contrast, a tip rail that is too thin is often prone to squeaking or chirps. Since a narrow rail offers little resistance and is difficult to control, the reed must fit perfectly. This design element is great for a more buzzy type of projection and is recommended to only be used by experienced saxophonists.

Diagram of Saxophone Tip Rails
sourcehttps://www.windycitywoodwinds.com/mouthpiece-i

4. The Chamber. The chamber is primary designed for the resonance of tone in the saxophone mouthpiece. Although the facing of the mouthpiece is of importance, the chamber can produce positive results with any reasonable facing.

source: The saxophone mouthpiece: Large or small chamber

Generally small chambers lead directly into the mouthpipe which will provide more volume and edge to the sound in contrast to a larger chambers. Chambers with straight side edges assist in the performance of higher partials as opposed to chambers with more curved side walls produce a mellower tone. It is also important to understand that the inner shapes of chambers can add a variety of tonal colors that are hard to generalize. 

Other Saxophone Mouthpiece Selection Considerations

The selection of the ideal saxophone mouthpiece will take time and patience. Consider starting with a  medium and a standard-based mouthpiece to start from. As your saxophone abilities improve you will start to prefer certain styles and sound characteristics of your instrument. Be sure to take the time to settle on these preferences of style and sound. 

Avoid trying to make the mouthpiece a quick solution to upgrade your saxophone performance game. Remember that creating bad habits as a result of poor choices take long periods of time remedy and can be costly to resolve. Self-taught students are prone to develop bad habits however, these can be minimized through moderation and starting on a "medium" type of mouthpiece.

Helpful Tips

  • A refaced mouthpiece will not change the tone quality to saxophone mouthpiece. Remember tone quality depends on the mouthpiece chamber and baffle.
  • The use of a rubber pad, or patch on the top of the mouthpiece eases the vibration through the teeth. It also opens the mouth more and makes the tone mellower.
  • Mouthpieces that are too high can be be carefully cut down with a fine file and repolished. However, it is always recommended to have a professional instrumental technician do this for you.
  • When you compare differing mouthpieces, be sure to tune them and note any intonation tendencies. Some mouthpieces are of different lengths and thus require a different placement on the cork.
  • Since saxophone mouthpiece construction is the same for the entire saxophone family it is easy to overlook the fact that some mouthpieces are different in size. As a result of this, you do not need to use the same facing and make of mouthpiece if you are doubling on other horns.
  • And finally, remember that saxophone mouthpieces will not compensate for poor air support or embouchure shape and control.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the seasoned saxophonist has the opportunity to wisely moderate and test saxophone mouthpieces that suit their tastes in style and sound. It is best to start this selection process by not trying to play on the ideal mouthpiece at first but rather a medium or an average rated one in order to grow into a mouthpiece that is better developed for you, the performer. It is important to take the time necessary to make well informed decisions, as well as be able to demonstrate proficiency on the mouthpiece and prove that the characteristics, based on your personalized specifications, meet your expectations. As a result of wise decision making, you will be able to select the best saxophone mouthpiece possible.

Sources

The baffle of the saxophone mouthpiece: Inside the saxophone. The baffle of the saxophone mouthpiece | Inside The Saxophone. (n.d.). Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://www.syos.co/blog/gear/baffle-saxophone-mouthpiece

The chamber of the saxophone mouthpiece: Inside the saxophone. The chamber of the saxophone mouthpiece | Inside The Saxophone. (n.d.). Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://www.syos.co/blog/gear/saxophone-mouthpiece-chamber?keyword=&utm_source=Googleads&utm_campaign=usadynamique&gclid=Cj0KCQjwzLCVBhD3ARIsAPKYTcQAH05aNKjO9Vt7NduyaqUD1SM5_QmRQlIl4YT0vfC5EVY3y-CTyy4aAkFnEALw_wcB

Mouthpiece information. Windy City Woodwinds. (n.d.). Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://www.windycitywoodwinds.com/mouthpiece-i

Teal, L. (2000). The art of saxophone playing. Summy-Birchard.



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