A beginning instrumentalist needs good equipment. For young woodwind players that means instruments, mouthpieces, reeds, and probably a few other accessories. They aren’t cheap, and the array of options is bewildering. Where can students and their parents turn for solid recommendations?
The ideal situation is for the student to connect with a qualified, conscientious private instructor before making any purchases or signing any rental agreements. In my private teaching experience, this has happened exactly 0% of the time. It’s a nice dream.
For many young beginners, the best counsel they’ve got is the school band director. But what, exactly, do school band directors know about, say, clarinet mouthpieces? I have the greatest respect for school band directors. But I think that scenarios like this probably happen pretty often:
- A fine, talented, studious young man or woman, who plays, let’s say, the trombone, signs up for the woodwind methods class required for their music education degree.
- The brilliant and respected professor, who plays, let’s say, the flute, and who is doing his or her level best to teach several instruments in which he or she does not have any specific training, puts in phone calls to some colleagues and picks their brains for their best recommendations for clarinet mouthpieces. Several of them mention one particular model. The professor types up a class handout, listing that specific mouthpiece as an affordable and high-quality option, suitable to most beginners.
- The young aspiring music educator accepts the handout, studies it, successfully answers a test question about good student clarinet mouthpieces, and files the handout away for future reference.
- Ten years into the educator’s career, the mouthpiece company merges with another company. Decisions are made by non-clarinetists wearing expensive suits in a well-appointed conference room. The mouthpiece makers are laid off, and mouthpiece production moves to an overseas factory. The mouthpieces look much the same as before and bear the same brand name and model number, but the quality drops significantly, as does the manufacturing cost. The suit-wearing non-clarinetists get large bonuses.
- The educator, who has recommended this mouthpiece for ten years with great success, is not notified of this change. Nor is he or she made aware that a new company has started producing a mouthpiece that is better and cheaper than anything previously on the market. The new company promptly goes out of business.
- Twenty more years go by. The distinguished educator, grizzled, battle-scarred, and in demand as a clinician, addresses a group of admiring young band directors at a conference. During the question-and-answer session, one of them asks what clarinet mouthpieces to have his students buy. The aged educator nods sagely as the young band directors await, poised to take copious notes.
You can see the problem. My feeling is that there are a number of instruments, mouthpieces, and reeds that may once have been good recommendations, but which are no longer the best options. I expect them to continue to be top sellers.
It’s a problem that I haven’t yet solved for my own woodwind methods classes. I find myself making sort of broad generalizations about the characteristics of instruments, mouthpieces, and reeds would work well for beginners, and trying to avoid naming specific models. From the blank looks on my students’ faces, I can see that this is not enough information. I think that it’s a good idea for a beginner to stick to a pretty middle-of-the-road clarinet mouthpiece: not too open, not too closed; not too long a facing, not too short; and so forth. But even among trained clarinetists, who can flip through a retail catalog and make sense of all the names, numbers, and advertising claims?
The best semi-usable advice I’ve been able to give my students is to cultivate relationships with the best private teachers in their area, and pump them every now and then for up-to-date recommendations of what’s good among the current models. Realistically, I think many of my students will Google it and use a specific but unsubstantiated recommendation from some other professor’s syllabus, or take the recommendation of the commissioned salesperson at the local franchise of a chain music store.
I welcome your suggestions on training non-woodwind-playing future band directors to make reliable equipment recommendations.