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Thoughts on Testing Mouthpieces

Updated: Feb 1

Over the last several years, I have tested many new mouthpieces with an open mind of potentially replacing or adding another piece of gear to my workflow. I also find it important to play on many mouthpieces just for the sheer fact of knowing what is out there. If a student is in need of a tweak in their setup, I would like to have a fundamental knowledge base that would allow me to make some informed recommendations to that particular student.

The most recent release of the year (as of the publishing of this post) is an exciting release from a new player in the saxophone space, Backun. The highly anticipated Vocalise TM1 and TM2 arrived on my doorstep on the day of it’s launch in early June 2022. These pieces are a close collaboration between award-winning saxophonist, Timothy McAllister, Richard Hawkins, and the Backun family. You can read more about the details of this mouthpiece on the Backun website — but it is safe to say I was eager to make some noise on these new pieces of equipment right away.

Before I get too deep in this post, I want to clarify, this is not going to be a review of the TM1 or TM2. They are both stunning mouthpieces. Rather this post is a sharing of my general thoughts surrounding testing out mouthpieces for the purpose of adding it to your workflow.

Without fail, when I test out a brand new mouthpiece I get several inquiries about my thoughts…

  • Do you like it?

  • Do you think you will perform on it?

  • How does it compare to your Selmer S90-180?

These are always difficult questions for me to answer right away because it takes TIME to settle into a piece of equipment. As a reference, when I bought my alto saxophone (Selmer Series III, Jubilee) it took me 6months of working with it before it started to feel like HOME. I knew I liked it, but it took sometime for me to get 100% comfortable with it.

It is somewhat similar with a mouthpiece. I have been playing on Selmer S90 mouthpieces for years - they have been my “workhorse”. Im used to the bite, the resistance, the sonority, the flexibility. Im also used to how my reeds respond to my mouthpiece and how to adjust the reed for my face and my mouthpiece…

So when I test out a mouthpiece I cannot make any snap decisions. Sure, I have first impressions - but I don’t put too much weight on it. Before making any type of decision on a mouthpiece I have the following rules:

  • Never make a decision after one day.

  • Break in a new box of reeds on the new mouthpiece

  • Keep an open mind to switch reed strength

  • Minimize switching back and forth between mouthpieces

Never Make A Decision After One Day

Again, we are not talking about first impressions here…we are talking decisions. Your first impression should let you know if the mouthpiece has potential for you. Beyond that, you need time to get comfortable. Have you ever played on a new mouthpiece that sounded and felt fantastic on day 1…then the next day you are getting different results? Many of us have been there. A lot of this can be due to the fact that you need to spend more time with the mouthpiece to create a level of muscle memory as to what the mouthpiece requires to produce an optimal sound.

Also, have you ever felt like you sounded incredible on a new mouthpiece on the first play only to feel as though your sound morphed back to how you normally sound a few days later? Many times a new mouthpiece requires you to use your air slightly differently, voice certain notes a little differently, or even taking in more or less mouthpiece in the mouth. If you approach the new mouthpiece exactly the same as your current mouthpiece you may not be getting an accurate snapshot of the new piece of gear. So, take some time to experiment and understand what the mouthpiece requires from you.

Break In Some New Reeds

Quite frankly your reeds are used to vibrating against your old mouthpiece. When you put that same reed on a brand new mouthpiece you may get enough information to have a decent first impression, but to really understand if the mouthpiece is for you new reeds are a must. Break in a new box of reeds on the new mouthpiece. Personally, I try to use these reeds exclusively on that mouthpiece - without switching back and forth. This is the best way I can truly get a full picture of what I am playing on.

Minimize Switching Back And Forth

This is a major point for me. It is very easy to constantly switch mouthpieces, reeds, etc every few minutes in efforts to compare while searching for that perfect sound. I find that when I do this too often, I can slowly lose sight of my foundation. Switching back and forth between mouthpieces also requires you to make minor adjustments with your face, air, reeds, etc. Instead try finding a time when you can afford to break in reads and play almost exclusively on the mouthpiece you are testing out. For me, thats when I see the best results. Just so you have an idea - for the TM2, I devoted 2 months to familiarizing myself exclusively with that mouthpiece before making any decisions (good or bad).

Keep An Open Mind To Switch Reed Strength

Here is another major consideration. The marriage between the reed and the mouthpiece are incredibly important in creating that ideal sound. I have come across musicians that are fixed on their reed strength no matter what mouthpiece is on the horn. Of course you want to have the right balance of resistance and free-blowing qualities when you are playing. However, I don’t tend to think of the strength of the reed alone to be defined as hard or soft. It is the strength of the reed in combination with the mouthpiece that can be defined as a hard or soft setup. In other words, with my former mouthpiece (Selmer S90-180) a 3.0 strength reed is too soft for my liking. However when I play on a D’Addario D155, a 3.0 feels like “home” for me. Your reed strength is just one element in the entire equation. Try not to focus on the number on the back of the reed…instead, focus on the sound and how it feels. I once tried out a mouthpiece that was INCREDIBLY resistant in all registers, and it wasn’t until I put on a 2.5 strength reed that the mouthpiece began to work for me!

Live by the old Duke Ellington quote “If it sounds good…it is good

Finding a new mouthpiece is not just an investment of your money, but we also should be prepared to invest our time.

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