Imagine purchasing a Lamborghini coupe and fitting it with incorrectly-sized, discount tires. Suddenly a high performance automobile is stymied by a set of lackluster treads making inefficient contact with the asphalt below the primo vehicle. Why would anyone do this?
When purchasing a mouthpiece for a tuba, or any brass instrument for that matter, pricing should never be the driving consideration. A mouthpiece’s shape, size, and construction materials impact the tone quality produced by the instrument.
Inasmuch, mouthpiece selection should always be in conversation with the musician’s needs and the characteristics of the instrument that will be yoked to the mouthpiece.
Performance setting is also an important facet of mouthpiece selection as the marching band field and concert hall demand different results from the mouthpiece.
In terms of cup shape and depth, most modern mouthpieces trace their roots back to the Bach 18 and the Conn Helleberg designs.
The Bach design is recognized by its wide, contoured rim, shallow, bowl-shaped cup, and relatively long shank reaching down toward the backend of the mouthpiece.
The Conn Helleberg designs feature a thin, sharp rim, and a deep, funnel-shaped cup that often shortens the shank length of the mouthpiece.
In terms of the advantages associated with these two standard shapes, bowl designs tend to be well-suited for passages containing rapid movement between notes, while funnel designs seem best suited for adagio-type passages that require long, mellow note production.
Tuba mouthpiece size is usually best expressed with a number of measures instead of one all-encompassing metric. Rim size, for example, relates to embouchure flexibility and endurance.
Generally, a wider rim affords the musician a more open embouchure and heightened endurance, while the narrow rim, and the resulting tighter embouchure, offers the musician more flexibility between notes. Cup depth relates directly to sound characteristics.
A shallow-depth cup often means intensified flexibility and brilliance in the high register, while a deep cup allows richer and darker tone production in the lower register. One should not overlook the throat diameter of the mouthpiece either. In general, a larger throat size produces louder notes while a smaller throat produces “cleaner” notes.
Finally, a note about backbore diameter. Backbore diameter, when properly coupled with the other measurables listed above, can enhance the overall tone characteristics produced by the other features of the particular mouthpiece.
Mouthpieces are manufactured in a variety of materials. A standard design calls for solid brass construction with silver-plate on the rim and cup of the mouthpiece.
Because many brass amalgams contain a substantial lead component, the silver plating protects the musician from the toxicity of the lead and also provides some germicide benefit.
For the cost, brass with silver plate creates crisp, clear sound at a good price. On the higher end of the cost continuum, gold-plate mouthpieces offer a tremendous combination of comfort, sound production, and ease of maintenance for the musician.
Given the soft finish of gold plating, a tubist’s embouchure is treated to a slightly more comfortable finish than the silver-plate options. In terms of sound production, gold-plate mouthpieces tend to contribute to the production of a broader and darker sound than the silver-plate mouthpieces. On the downside, the gold models are significantly more expensive than mouthpieces crafted with other materials.
A word about plastic mouthpieces. Lexan mouthpieces are currently in vogue as inexpensive alternatives to traditional mouthpieces. In marching bands especially, plastic mouthpieces are praised for offering musicians a variety of color options with durable construction.
Lauded for their rapid warmup ability and clear, expansive tone production, plastic mouthpieces are highly favored in high school and college settings. However, professional musicians insist that Lexan-crafted mouthpieces significantly degrade tone quality and other sound characteristics, and should never be used in concert hall settings.
For the beginning tubist, size is probably the most important mouthpiece consideration. While some sixth graders may have the lung capacity to produce suitable notes in all registers, they do not have the embouchure to do so.
The Blessing 18, Conn Helleberg 7B, and Miraphone TU21 are fine examples of mouthpieces that gently shape the embouchure while providing enough wind resistance to train the tubist’s airflow.
|The Blessing 18 mouthpiece|
|Check Price on Amazon.com||Conn Helleberg 7B mouthpiece|
|Miraphone TU21 mouthpiece|
When pushed, many music educators will say that cone-shaped mouthpieces are better for novices than bowl designs. In general, plastic mouthpieces are not a suitable selection for the beginning tubist.
With proficiency, the intermediate musician may select a larger mouthpiece with advanced construction and materials.
Given the bowl mouthpiece’s superior ability to move through a rapid progression of notes when compared to Helleberg/cone designs, an intermediate tubist would be wise to select a bowl-shaped model when purchasing a second mouthpiece.
If the budget allows, a gold-plate finish will compound the tonal quality of the bowl mouthpiece. Excellent intermediate options include the Bach Megatone series, the Laskey 28G, and gold-plate numbers in the Perantucci 70 series.
Kellyberg plastic models (Kelly Mouthpieces) are good possibilities for the intermediate performer seeking maximum volume for the outdoor venue.
|Check Price on Amazon.com||Vincent Megatone Tuba Mouthpiece|
|Check Price on Amazon.com||Kelly 25 mouthpiece|
Professional musicians tend to select their mouthpieces based on their performance contexts. The orchestra instrumentalist, for example, will chose bowl mouthpieces because of their fluidity and precession when the score calls for a dynamic tuba contribution.
The professional playing a horn in an outdoor context – i.e. drum cops performer – will often seek a mouthpiece with a deep bowl because of volume considerations.
Over time, most professionals amass six or more mouthpiece options giving them a treasure-trove to choose from when considering performance settings and literature demands.
Top professional models include the Bach Dynatone Gold, Gidding and Webster’s Dynamo series, the Marcinkiewicz Pro-Line, and for outdoor use, the Marcinkiewicz N6W.
In reality, mouthpiece selection is as important as instrument selection. A huge instrument with a skimpy mouthpiece is counterproductive coupling. Similarly, a hefty, gold-plate, deep bowl mouthpiece fitted on a dinged 3/4 instrument will frustrate the beginner band student.
What to do? Get to know your performance context, your playing style, and your instrument’s tonal characteristics before handing a cashier hundreds of dollars for the “sexy” mouthpiece on a 30% off sale.
Make the impending marriage of instrument, musician, and mouthpiece work by planning, asking questions, and taking time to complete a deliberate selection processes.