The perfect clarinet mouthpiece. The ultimate test?

January 4, 2015

As is the case with all clarinetists, indeed, all instrumentalists, we go through “mouthpiece phases”. We learn , early on, the clarinet mouthpiece is a crucial part of the process of learning music, playing the clarinet.simply everything, including auditioning, and getting a job.
There are certain graduate schools or , even undergraduate schools, wherein a new student can be subjected to a kind of bizarre musical test concerning the mouthpiece he or she is playing.
I have had many questions concerning a kind of “hazing” that goes on in some schools. One has to play a certain type and/or brand of mouthpiece.

Questions like, “when are you going to get a real mouthpiece, not the piece of junk that you are playing”? This usually means a period of a considerable outlay of money spent for trying vitually every mouthpiece made, and sometimes even paying thousands of dollars, with no direction in which to go, outside of continuing to repeat the unanswered question, “which mouthpiece to play?” Whom do you ask? and , how do you differentiate?

We all know of or become familiar with all of the makers, Kaspar, Chedeville, whose work can cost hundreds of dollars, and the price remains the same, regardless of how many times the mouthpiece has been changed. There are even many who refaced or even created “copies’ of these pieces and resell them for even more money.

In the undergraduate area, it becomes, “when are you going to get a real clarinet”? And, many of us have gone through that absurdity at an even more ridiculous outlay of funds, or their parents have.

But, in the final analysis, if we go down these many routes, how do we choose? I have seen the ads, the recommendations, which are all finally just commercials for the instruments and the mouthpieces. And, while there are many honest educated musicians and mouthpiece makers,(or craftsmen, as they call themselves) there are just as many who are not, Or who obtain a really good blank, let us say, a Zinner, from Germany, and simply put their own name on the blank and call it their own, at the usual inflated price.

The younger player can hardly go through this without considerable amounts of energy, worry , and angst.

There is a famous story about Phillip Farcas, for many years the first horn of the Chicago Symphony. They had just performed Til Eulenspiegel, by Richard Strauss. Farcas had played the many horn solos with brilliance.
A young student came and asked him,”How did you play so beautifully”? Farcas hesitated momentarily, looked up and said, “Oh My! I’ve forgotten on which mouthpiece I played!”
This is a slightly different story, not about the struggles of a student, but about one of the finest horn players who had already achieved greatness. he would play many mouthpiece, just for the fun of trying. He had achieved his discipline. Many are still searching.

More than fifty years ago, I was a young clarinetist, out of work, and hungry.
I had been Principal with the Milwaukee Symphony, at first, quite happily. then , becoming dejected with the repertoire, the conductor, and quality, finally leaving in order to pursue more advanced education. For a while, thing were fairly bleak and I received word of a Rockefeller Grant for new music, headed by Lukas Foss and Allan SApp, at the University of Buffalo. I, and about 20 others became Creative Associates, engaged to perform new music and to create the kind of ferment that might lead to more performance of New Music.
This was really a fine group of musicians, players, composers, wildly imaginative, and we were given free reign to do anything we wanted. Somehow, I became the spokesperson for the group.

And, we played any and everything. One of the first concerts included “The Shepherd on the Rock” by Schubert, on an entire concert of 19th century lieder. The official concerts by the group were performed both at the Albright-Knox gallery in Buffalo, then repeated at Carnegie Recital Hall. Yes,it was quite exciting, and I was very fortunate.

One of the faculty members of the University, with whom I played billiards, gave me the name of a young person , living in New YORK city, and we arranged to meet after one of the first concerts at Carnegie Recital Hall.

We became friendly and continued to see one another when time permitted.

As the first year ended quite successfully, I agreed to return the next semester.
During the interim , I spent some time in New York , and my friend became a better friend.

One hot summers day, we decided to go to the city, find a practice room and play some sonatas together. We started to play the Brahms F Minor Sonata opus 120.
As most of you are familiar with the work, you know that the second movement is usually played much more slowly than the first, myself preferring to play it in four beats to the measure, even though it is written in 2/4 time.

This is one of this composers best works, beautifully written for both players, a melody repeated , with accompaniment in the piano. As the clarinet starts the melody, the piano answers one beat later, a simple note played in the bass of the piano, one beat after the entrance of the clarinet.

The pianist waited a milisecond before entering , and I was shocked literally, by the entrance. The note became an accent by delay, an agogic accent , if you will, and it was both perfect and exquisite. I have and had played this work with many pianists, and this delayed accent was rendered with a maturity, I had never experienced, I was literally shocked, as it was so beautiful. It remains unforgettable in my mind.

And so, a kind of trust began at that very point, based  on that moment.

An accumulation of this trust was continued, and after a little time, we became as one, and we have been together for almost 50 years. We have four grown children , all almost that age.

In continuing to pursue my education I was enrolled in a graduate program in Massachusetts, where our children were born, four boys.(one, in New Hampshire)

During a session, I was given 6 mouthpieces to try. I asked the price and was told 6 dollars a piece. This was well within my budget, and I bought the whole bag.

When I finally had the time to examine them, I found six crystal mouthpieces, all labelled GG. They were made by the Pomarico Brothers in Argentina and had the label GG, because the fellow who sold them was GuiGui Efrain, (the late Guigui),as we later became friendly at Boston University. He was an excellent player, who played everything on a full-boehm Buffet clarinet, in one single piece, something I had never seen .

But, back to the mouthpieces. As we know, one of the brothers moved to Italy and and started the Pomarico mouthpiece company, still very much with us.

Getting to the particular point of this writing,”the Perfect Clarinet mouthpiece’ and how we choose such a thing, we cannot rely upon ourselves. We must seek the advice of someone whom we can trust. Not, some student, or perhaps not even ones teacher, but a trusted confidant.To trust someone with ones very sound is not an easy endeavor.

I was trying each mouthpiece, finding them all quite stuffy and unresponsive, when I got to the third.

From the next room, I heard, “what’s that”? I asked , what do you mean? The answer came back through the wall, “that mouthpiece”, my best friend responded. I tried them all again, and as I got to the third, I would always hear, “that one”.

This musical trust, starting with the Brahms has remained , and it is an important part of us.We are blessed.

As we play , we get much of the sound through bone conduction,and of course, our ears, but we do not hear the sound from an audience standpoint,or even the reaction to the sound from another set of ears not bothered by gauging the response, and playing.

This other set of ears, the most sensitive I have ever experienced, pointed me in the direction of that particular mouthpiece. At first, I found it still stuffy and rather difficult in choosing reeds. AS i got used to the mouthpiece, I became more and more convinced of its beauty, and it began to affect my playing in every way, legato, all articulation, and of course sound, which on crystal is accepted by many as being a preferred material.

There was a lot of new music going on which I found less and less difficult, and the audience responded with me in a very positive manner.

Then suddenly, during the intermission of a chamber music concert, one of the second violinists came to offer me “felicitations”. His raincoat got caught on my clarinet, pulling it off the chair, onto the floor, the mouthpiece shattered.
My home was close by and I went and got another, my spare crystal, with the same reed, and everything went perfectly well.

But the next morning, as I practiced I found anomalies in the response, sound, and everything I had learned to love.

For the last thirty years I have searched for a response and an ease of that crystal, never ever finding one, and have played mostly Van Doren , since then, and the mouthpieces of Richard Hawkins. For a while I had one of Gino Cioffis crystal, sent it to Richard, who refaced it for me, beautifully, but it still wasn’t the one.
Or maybe it is age, or anyones guess. But I did own and love this crystal pomarico, and suggest to anyone, try one, but if you love amd own it, take very good care.

Now, I play a Smith, refaced by Richard Hawkins

take care of yourself and stay well.