How to Choose a New Clarinet Mouthpiece
by Jenny Maclay
Date Posted: January 31, 2024
This article was originally published to www.jennyclarinet.com. We thank Jenny Maclay for her continued support, insightful blogs, and contribution to the clarinet community.
Welcome to the wonderful world of clarinet mouthpieces!
If you’re looking for a new clarinet mouthpiece, here’s everything you need to know:
How do you know when it’s time to replace a clarinet mouthpiece?
While mouthpieces can be played indefinitely (as long as they’re not broken), I recommend replacing your mouthpiece every 5-10 years, although this greatly depends on how much you play.
If you notice that your sound seems lackluster, you experience more resistance when you play, or reed selection is more difficult than normal, it could be the mouthpiece.
It’s always a good idea to have a back-up mouthpiece, so if you’re undecided about replacing mouthpieces now, you can always shop around for a back-up mouthpiece. As you try and compare different mouthpieces, this will help you see how your mouthpiece compares to new ones.
"It’s always a good idea to have a back-up mouthpiece." - Jenny Maclay
How to narrow down your mouthpiece options
The clarinet is blessed with a plethora of mouthpiece options, which is wonderful, albeit slightly overwhelming if you’re diving in for the first time.
Before you begin trying mouthpieces, familiarize yourself with the lingo:
This is the tiny space between the tip of the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece. This is typically measured in 1/100 millimeters, so the differences are not typically visible to the human eye.
The facing length is the part of the mouthpiece that’s not touching the reed where the reed can vibrate. This distance (or length) is measured in more general terms such as long, medium long, medium, or short.
How do tip openings and facing lengths affect the mouthpiece?
This is a loaded question, and many articles and even books have been written on the subject. Simply put, these dimensions will change the feel and sound of the mouthpiece, as well as what strength reed works best on the mouthpiece.
Think of it like this – these dimensions are a lot like styles of blue jeans. You have wide-cut, boot leg, skinny, and many more options. Is one better than the other? Certainly not, but finding the best jean is a personal choice and depends on many different factors. The same can be said about clarinet mouthpieces.
What brands are best?
Ah, another loaded question! You’ll quickly realize that discussing clarinet mouthpieces can be tricky since it’s such a personal choice. I recommend trying as many different brands and models to see which feels the best for you and helps you produce your best sound.
That being said, I do highly recommend Vandoren mouthpieces (and all their products, for that matter).
I’ve used their mouthpieces my entire clarinet career, and they present a wonderful range of options for clarinetists in all styles of music, from classical to jazz and everything in between. I use the Vandoren M13 mouthpiece, but again – I recommend trying at least a few to see and hear what works best for you.
Advice for testing clarinet mouthpieces
Have a variety of reed strengths available during trial.
As mentioned above, different mouthpieces work best with different strength reeds. Consult a mouthpiece comparison chart to see what reed strengths are recommended with each mouthpiece.
Be open to trying new things.
I’ve encountered several clarinetists wanting to try mouthpieces who tell me “I only play on closed mouthpieces/open mouthpieces/mouthpieces from before 1950/other limiting criteria.” As you try different mouthpieces, be open to different ideas – you’ll never know what you like until you try it!
Don’t focus on the specs.
I’ve witnessed several mouthpiece trials when clarinetists become obsessed with the tip opening or facing length. The numbers and specs are a useful reference, but ultimately, you should choose a mouthpiece based on the sound and feel. (See next point)
Find the right balance between sound and feel.
Sound and feel are the two of the biggest factors in selecting a new mouthpiece. A mouthpiece might sound amazing, but if it feels difficult to play or is too resistant, it probably isn’t your best choice.
Conversely, if a mouthpiece feels great but doesn’t have the sound quality you desire, it’s not a good fit for you. Make sure the mouthpiece you choose both feels great and sounds excellent.
To get a better idea of what you sound like, take recordings of each mouthpiece so you can listen back or send to friends, colleagues, or teachers for feedback.
Pro tip: Don’t tell them what mouthpiece is on each recording – humans are inherently biased, and brands/models/other identifying features can influence decisions.
I rename recordings to “Mouthpiece 1,” “Mouthpiece 2,” etc. before sending to friends so they can give an unbiased opinion.
Don’t get bogged down by the opinions of others.
Selecting a mouthpiece is a highly personal choice which depends on several personal factors such as sound concept, performance needs, and cohesion with other equipment.
Seek out advice when needed, but realize that no two players will sound alike, even if they use the same mouthpiece or other equipment.
I tell my students that mouthpieces are like ice cream – we all have our favorite flavors, and just because mine is different than yours doesn’t mean that one is better or worse than the other. (FWIW I think chocolate chip cookie dough is the best flavor.)
Should you get a refaced mouthpiece?
Refaced mouthpieces are those which have been adjusted and customized, oftentimes to suit the needs of a particular player.
Refaced mouthpieces can be excellent, but it’s always recommended to try them before buying. There are several mouthpiece makers and refacers who can work with you to reface your existing or new mouthpiece to customize for your musical needs.
Taking care of your new mouthpiece
- Protect it with patches. Avoid teeth marks by using mouthpiece patches to protect the mouthpiece while cushioning your teeth.
- Clean your mouthpiece regularly. Once every few weeks, I use a small amount of white vinegar mixed with water to get rid of any buildup before rinsing with room temperature water.
- Always use a mouthpiece cap when you aren’t playing. RIP to my first ever mouthpiece, which fell off my music stand and onto the hard floor to an untimely death.
About Jenny Maclay
Henri Selmer Paris and Vandoren Artist-Clinician Dr. Jenny Maclay enjoys a diverse career as a clarinet soloist, recitalist, orchestral player, chamber musician, pedagogue, and blogger. In 2021, she was the Visiting Instructor of Clarinet at Brandon University (Canada) and was Visiting Lecturer of Clarinet at Iowa State University in 2020. She is currently the Adjunct Instructor of Clarinet at Harper College. Online, she is known as Jenny Clarinet, where she created her eponymous popular blog. Learn more about Jenny here.