Interview originally published in Vol. 1 of Vandoren Magazine
In your view, how important is equipment?
M. MULE : With a mediocre instrument equipped with a bad mouthpiece and reed, you always end up by recognizing the musician who is playing. Of course, it is better to have good equipment which provides safety and comfort. In fact, things have developed and are continuing to develop.
In what way?
At the beginning, one played very "tensely," I would even go as far as to say with a certain muscular contraction. This resulted in fatigue which prevented one from playing for very long. This applied to all wind instruments, especially trumpets. Contacts with jazz musicians and attempts to obtain a pleasant tone led to playing with "suppleness." I used to advise my students to treat their mouthpiece as they would a stick of barley sugar. Being a conical instrument, the saxophone requires a lot of suppleness to obtain a low pianissimo and a strong high. More suppleness, perhaps, than in the case of the clarinet for instance.
This is why a good mouthpiece is vital, more so than a good reed. From what I hear, nowadays instrumentalists have some very good mouthpieces at their disposal because many of them have pleasant tones and do not seem to have problems with nuances. The choice is much wider now, and every musician can find a mouthpiece to suit his / her morphology. Furthermore, the use made of harmonics and other effects accentuates even more the need for suppleness. In my opinion, what is important is to retain a pleasant tone, and to achieve this by using reasonable tip openings.
How does the tip opening affect the tone?
A mouthpiece that is too wide leads to playing weak reeds and the tone then loses its quality, at least in the case of music as I perceive it. In my opinion, to look for power or easy sound emission, or any other performance, to the detriment of a pleasant tone is a step in the wrong direction.
And what about reeds?
To be perfectly honest, this is a problem which has never troubled me much. Perhaps it is because I have been spoiled by Vandoren which offered me the possibility of trying out the reeds. We used to have lengthy discussions about the reed, its quality, origin, etc. I feel it is mainly a question of pattern, in other words, the way the reed has been cut. On several occasions during my career, I tried several other brands but I always came back to Vandoren. I used to go to the factory and choose about two dozen of them. In this way, I didn't have to worry for a long time.
How should they be selected and handled?
As far as I am concerned, I used to choose the easy ones and then cut them a little to give them some strength. But I never scraped them. In my father's days, reeds were lightly rubbed with scouring rush, but when I saw certain instrumentalists using a penknife...! I really don't think you can make improvements that way.
Finally, the reed should be chosen to suit the place where it will be played and the piece of music to be interpreted. In any event, the reed is a permanent torment, although our fate is enviable compared to that of oboe players.
What in your view are the factors affecting the reaction of a reed? The temperature, the season and, above all, differences in humidity. We go back to the choice made to suit the place because the atmosphere in a recording studio is not the same as in a concert hall.
Do you believe in "breaking in" the reeds?
It is certainly a good idea. Playing them for a short time for several days in order to stabilize them before using them normally is definitely beneficial.