Sax Stars Discuss the Pursuit of the Perfect Mouthpiece

September 24, 2010

Ralph Bowen, George Garzone, and Dave Glasser recently sat down with JAZZed to shoot the breeze about blowing through horns.
Bowen is a staple on the New York Jazz scene, has just released his sixth solo CD, and is associate professor of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. Garzone is a member of The Fringe jazz trio, has appeared on over 20 recordings, and is currently teaching at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory. Dave Glasser just released his fifth solo CD, and has been teaching at the New School Jazz program since 1996. All three are active clinicians.

JAZZed: The topic, mouthpieces. What’s your earliest experiences with them?

Ralph Bowen: My path is probably not too dissimilar from many. I started on a Selmer C Star, then later I moved to an Otto Link hard-rubber, and stayed with that for a while.

George Garzone: I came from a musical family, and I grew up playing Stan Getz [style] hard-rubber mouthpieces. I later switched to metal ones and used those for over 10 years.

Dave Glasser: I’m probably unusual in the sense that I never spent too much time on the mouthpiece [issue]. When I was 13 I had a teacher who suggested a Brillhart mouthpiece and I played that for a while. Another teacher suggested a Meyer 5 and basically I’ve played that since

JAZZed: And today?

Ralph: I am an endorsee of Vandoren, and exclusively play their mouthpieces and reeds and am really thrilled with them. I’ve settled into a few different Vandoren models for my different saxophones.

George: Jody Espina [of Jody Jazz] was one of my students, and I had him send me his hard rubber mouthpiece. I’ve been an endorser of his for six years now, and the JodyJazz HR is a really great mouthpiece.

Dave: I’ve tried a couple of other things, but I always end up going back to my Meyer 5. I’m from the old school: Get a mouthpiece, then a reed, and just work your sound. I think if you look at the history of jazz, most great players find something they like and stay with it.

JAZZed: What about tip openings?

George: I gave Jody [Jazz] my Otto Link 10, and he modeled the HR 10 on it. Until he met me he was only making 8 or 9s, and I pushed him to 10.

Dave: I had a number 6, which I used for years. Then in my older age, I’m getting tired of all that brightness, and now I’m using a Meyer 5 [again].

Ralph: I started at a six, and then went to a seven.

JAZZed: What’s your thoughts regarding the mouthpieces that come with beginner Saxes?

Dave: When you first put a reed on, there’s a lot of squeaking going on, so I don’t think it matters right away. Once the kid gets going and has been playing for a year, then maybe get a Meyer or a Vandoren, or if they are studying classical, Selmers are good, and have uniform consistency.

Ralph: When they have, say, a Selmer horn, they’re going to come with a good mouthpiece. I’m not familiar with what is being packaged with the Asian horns, but I know they can be sketchy.

George: When you’re a beginner, the instruments come with a stock mouthpiece, and I think it’s better to get the younger players started on good mouthpieces quickly. Something that is hard rubber, something that is easy to play… it’s more of a muscle thing, and it’s best to use something that easy to blow. You can go right to metal, but I think it’s easier for younger players to deal with hard rubber.

JAZZed: How soon should the educator start talking mouthpieces with a student?

George: Yamaha knows enough to put a hard metal mouthpiece on their beginner horns, and those basic mouthpieces are good. Then once the student gets going, then it’s time to discuss mouthpieces.

Dave: I got my Meyer in junior high and never thought once of trying a new one. Everybody’s oral cavity is different, and they have to figure it out. Everybody’s sound is going to be a little different.

Ralph: I think it should be dealt with immediately. I have played a lot of cheap mouthpieces over the years, and if it’s not designed and manufactured well, the student will get off on the wrong foot. When the student is having a problem, you want to work on correcting the problem, not wondering if it’s the equipment. Limit as many variables as possible. If the equipment is working, you can focus on the student. Good reed, good mouthpiece, good mouthpiece fit, and good instrument in good repair then you can start teaching! [laughs]

JAZZed: What is a good mouthpiece?

Dave: Rather then going with one out of the box with the new instrument, I think it’s better to go a step up from that. But then it’s a matter of when you become a better player and really know your instrument before going into a shop and playing 10 mouthpieces. If he or she isn’t a consistent player, if they aren’t able to get the reed to vibrate consistently, they won’t have the proper perspective on which mouthpiece is best for them.

Ralph: A good mouthpiece should be easy to play, respond quickly, have good intonation, and play through the range of the instrument well. Some are great in the low range but not so much in the high range, and you want one where you can play the full range easily.

George: It’s a matter of preference, a matter of the sound he or she wants everything about playing the sax comes into play.

Ralph: But sometimes you’ll try a mouthpiece and the first few blows if seems like it’s the best thing in the world, you’ll buy it, and then you’ll find out later it’s not what you thought it was.

The reed is important as well it’s all about the math between the mouthpiece and the reed.

JAZZed: Are manufacturers experimenting too much, not enough?

Dave: There’s value in experimenting. Crystal mouthpieces… I played one yesterday. I remember them being popular in the 1980s but they break.

Ralph: Manufacturers are always experimenting with different ideas and materials. But Vandoren, for example, is pretty set on the materials they use. They do have metal mouthpieces in the tenor line. There are some experimental materials other companies are trying.

George: It’s like people who get into making anything cars, boats… everyone gets into it. It just depends on who is into what and what is happening. I’ve played them all, and to me, to date, the Jody Jazz mouthpieces are the best. I went to Australia for two weeks, and then the sales of Jody’s mouthpieces shot up dramatically!

JAZZed: Are their any misconceptions about mouthpieces?

Dave: I think the misconception is that mouthpieces can make a big difference. Sometimes that may be true… but a mouthpiece can only do so much.

Ralph: One is that the more open mouthpiece equates to a bigger sound and more volume, and that’s not necessarily the case. By jazz standards, there are some, including me, who play with modest opening mouthpieces. It’s all a matter of what you feel comfortable with.

The younger players will sometimes blindly purchase an open mouthpiece thinking it’s the thing to do, that it’ll ultimately mean a bigger, louder sound. That’s not always true.

JAZZed: What is your advice to non-reed playing jazz educators?

George: Rubber mouthpieces are going to be better… and make sure they are playing long tones!

Ralph: Band directors who are non-reed players tend to look to professionals for advice.

What tends to happen is a young player hears someone they like, looks into what equipment that person uses [and follows suit]. During the normal course of events he or she buys that mouthpiece. It can work. But depending on how someone blows, a certain mouthpiece may or may not be right.

Dave: Have a sax player come in and work with the kids that’s much more helpful then just telling them to use a certain kind of mouthpiece.

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