Friday, February 18, 2011

New Mouthpieces!

This post is about my new trombone mouthpieces, so I understand that non-trombonists my not find this as interesting as some of my other posts. But this is something that has a huge impact on the job I do here, so I felt that it was worth writing about.

The mouthpiece is the part of a trombone (or any brass instrument) that is most tailored to an individual player. The size and shape of the rim, cup, and shank of a mouthpiece greatly affect the way it fits on the different sizes and shapes of a human face. This is especially critical to someone like me who frequently alternates between tenor trombone and bass trombone, which require noticeably different mouthpiece sizes. Many trombonists are always looking for the next development in mouthpiece design that will give them an "edge" on transforming the music-making process into something easier. (All too often, the most important factor is still the player, not the instrument.)

I've spent several years now playing the same two mouthpieces: a Greg Black/Joseph Alessi 2M for tenor, and a Yamaha Douglas Yeo for bass. (Both designed for established professionals: Alessi is the principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, and Yeo is the bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony.) I'd been doing well on both, but was starting to feel that I needed something a little different, especially with the Yeo, which is a very deep mouthpiece. I decided to get serious back in December when we played for the Slovakian President in very cold, windy weather. Playing on a metal mouthpiece in those conditions is quite uncomfortable so I decided to contact Doug Elliott, a freelance musician in the Washington, D.C. area who also makes his own line of low brass mouthpieces. Doug's designs include separate rims, cups, and shanks which can be screwed together, allowing for a huge variety in combinations and the ability to tailor a setup to one's preferences beyond what most other designs allow. One of the options he offers is the material that the rim is made of: silver-plated, which is the most common type, gold-plated, or Lexan (a type of clear plastic). I wanted to see about ordering tenor and bass mouthpieces similar to what I was using, but with Lexan rims to allow for more comfort playing in the sometimes extreme conditions in Afghanistan.

I contacted Doug through email, and over the course of a few messages we ironed out the combinations that would work best for what I was requesting. I finally placed my order shortly after I returned from FOB Lagman over Christmas. (For those who want to know, the parts I ordered were: TENOR: XTL105 rim, XTH cup, H8 shank; BASS: LBL113 rim, LBJ cup, J9 shank.) The rims for each match the size and feel of the mouthpieces I was used to, but both have slightly shallower cups. This makes it a bit easier to play in the upper register, but without compromising my flexibility in the lower register. And I can confirm, having had to play a few morning performances in ~40 degree F weather, that the Lexan rims make playing in the cold much, much easier. (I expect they will also prove advantageous when the summer heat comes along in a few months.) They arrived in the mail January 2. It took a few days to really get a good feel with the tenor mouthpiece; I liked the way it played immediately but there were a few things that took a while to "fit" with the way I was accustomed to playing. I'm happy to say that with some time to get acclimated with the new setup I feel very comfortable with just about all the material that I play regularly. The bass, however, didn't require the same adjustment--I loved the feel of it from the first note, and I have no reservations in saying it's the best bass mouthpiece I've ever used. (Note: this is in no way a criticism of the Alessi or Yeo mouthpieces; they are well-crafted and stood the test of time for several years; they just aren't as good a fit for me as the Elliott customized ones.) For those familiar with the bass trombone repertoire, I feel like I can easily switch between Das Rheingold's "spear motive" and Hary Janos's "Napoleon" section. (For those who don't know, one is REALLY low, and the other is REALLY high.) In fact, it's the first bass mouthpiece with which I feel I could play the tenor Bolero solo if I had to!

Some of you may be wondering, "doesn't the Army pay for your instruments?" Well, yes, and the trombones I use over here all belong to Uncle Sam; I didn't bring any of my own horns. And it's not uncommon for the unit to purchase new mouthpieces. However, purchasing anything through government channels in a combat deployment is not an easy process. (I know this because that's my office job with this unit.) I didn't want to order mouthpieces for winter playing and face the prospect that they might not arrive until July. So I felt no regret at purchasing them myself and having them in my possession within a week. I expect I'll be using them for years to come.

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