My first year running a music store taught me that I knew nothing about woodwinds. As a brass performance major, I didn’t even have the benefit of a woodwind techniques class. For many brass playing band directors entering the work force, even the woodwind techniques class will not really prepare them for one of the most important parts of teaching a student: making sure they are playing on the right equipment. While managing the music store, I had constant questions from parents and students about what mouthpiece, reed, and instrument they or their child should be using for their given level. Steer them in the wrong direction and you lose a student and customer. Steer them in the right direction and you gain a business partner for at least the next 4-8 years.
So how do you direct students to the right mouthpieces and reeds when you have spent your whole musical existence focusing on brass? Conceptually, there are actually quite a few similarities. We generally start all the beginners on the same size mouthpiece. We know from our own brass instrument experience that as you mature, the next mouthpiece needs to be more specialized to your needs. The same mouthpiece will not always work for every student. Take this concept and attach it to woodwind players, but add a reed and ligature into the equation.
This is immediately more complicated than brass instruments. Or is it? Similar to brass equipment, just because it is shaped like a mouthpiece doesn’t mean it was created to play music. If you are looking for the low-priced leader, though you may find quality products sometimes, what you are many times finding is a mouthpiece, reed, or ligature shaped object that will encourage your student to quit in less than a month. As a band director, have you done your due diligence in researching what brands and quality are available? The success of your job does in some part depend on how well you are able to grow your program. Bad equipment that sets a student up for failure is a leading cause of students dropping out of band. If they don’t sound right, if they can’t get the instrument to work, they will quit.
We all rely on the property that resonance is going to create sound. So look at your mouthpiece, reed, and ligature discussion not as a choice including three separate parts. It is the holy trinity of sound production. What combination is going to create the best sound or resonance for your student?
At a very basic level, you can start answering these questions by what you already know to be true about your brass mouthpiece. Specifically, let’s focus on the Cup and Throat relationship. Conceptually, it is a very similar relationship to the reed and mouthpiece discussion. The cup of your brass mouthpiece is the resonating chamber that will greatly affect the sound. The size of the throat in relation to the cup depth must be a complimentary relationship. Similarly, the tip opening and chamber of a woodwind mouthpiece also greatly affects your sound and response. Going further, pairing that mouthpiece with a reed of the correct strength is essential. While each woodwind mouthpiece has a general range of strengths that tend to work best for most people, this can change to a certain degree over time as the student progresses.
What about the ligature you ask? As a brass player, what struck me about the ligature was how similar it’s affects to the sound were as moving braces around on your instrument. If you move any brace on your brass instrument just half an inch, you can go from a brilliant projecting sound to a muffled stuffy sound. The type, size, and weight of that brace will also affect how your instrument will resonate. Or, if you had a silver finished horn, stripping the plating to the raw brass would drastically change the sound. Since the ligature is surrounding the first point of resonance on the woodwind instrument (reed and mouthpiece), the way in which it comes in contact with the reed in order to brace it against the mouthpiece, and what material it is made of, can greatly impact the response and tone qualities of the sound. If the ligature’s only function was to hold the reed on the mouthpiece, then why wouldn’t we be sending our students to the store to purchase a set of $5 shoe laces instead?
The following series will go into greater detail to help us brass players understand what the sizing of a woodwind mouthpiece means and how it affects our students, how the strength of the reed plays into this equation, and what types of ligatures are available to your students. Being a great leader for your students will encourage them to trust and respect you, but no matter how awesome you are, nothing will diminish your band attendance like students who feel like a failure at their instrument as a result the wrong equipment. It is the easiest fixed problem to your students’ issues, and your basic understanding of the right equipment could be the difference in keeping the next world famous musician in your program.