Things beginning band directors say to clarinet sections

photo, byronv2
  • “Firm up those embouchures!” An efficient embouchure is relaxed, not tight (nor “firm” nor any other euphemism) and allows the reed to vibrate easily for a beautiful, seemingly effortless sound.
  • “You’re flat!” This is very, very often a voicing issue. It’s not helpful in the long run try to fix it with biting (or “lipping up”), overly resistant reeds, or needless equipment purchases.
  • “Next year, I’m making you all move up a reed strength.” Stiffer reeds won’t make you play better any more than larger shoes make you better at basketball. Use what fits
  • “You all need to switch to a ________ mouthpiece.” Sweeping gear recommendations aren’t useful. Often they are based on outdated or incomplete information, plus mouthpiece purchases in the beginner stage are often pricey lateral moves. Mouthpieces aren’t always made consistently, either, and having a student switch blindly to a bad specimen (even of a highly-regarded model) may actually make things worse. Generally, stock mouthpieces are fine for beginners, and advancing players would be wise to consult with a private teacher who can work with them individually on upgrades. And the finest professional clarinet sections in the world play on non-homogenous equipment and blend beautifully—having everybody play the same thing isn’t the key to matching tone or pitch.
  • “Get ready, because next month you’re going to learn how to cross the break, and it’s going to be hard.” Crossing the break is only as hard as you make it. If you are teaching good tone production and finger technique, crossing the break is a non-event, not even worth mentioning.
  • “Keep those chins flat and pointed.” “Wow, your chin sounds amazing,” said nobody. Focus on the real issue: forming a relaxed embouchure within the space of an open jaw, backed up with good voicing and breath support. You will know it’s working because of good response, characteristic tone, and stable intonation, not because everybody’s chins look a certain way.

Focus on the important and too-often-overlooked fundamentals for success in your clarinet section.

Review: D’Addario Reserve alto saxophone mouthpieces

If you have read my reviews of the D’Addario clarinet and jazz alto and tenor saxophone mouthpieces, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a big fan of their new classical alto saxophone mouthpiece, too. (As with the last several reviews, D’Addario sent me some mouthpieces at no cost, with the possibility but not the promise of a review.)

I’ve been hammering on one point with all the D’Addario mouthpieces, but it’s worth bringing up again because it’s an important innovation in how mouthpieces are made and bought. D’Addario’s manufacturing process (precisely milling mouthpieces from solid rod rubber) produces mouthpieces that are extremely consistent, much more so than other mass-produced professional mouthpieces, which are generally finished a little by hand. The old system is that you try out a bunch of mouthpieces that are the same make and model (by going into a store or putting a big deposit on your credit card), and pick out the one that plays best. The new system is that you order a D’Addario mouthpiece from your favorite retailer, and know that it plays just like all the others. This is a game-changing development in the sub-$200 mouthpiece market.

And, of course, like the other mouthpieces in D’Addario’s lineup, the new Reserve alto mouthpiece plays great.

I’ve been playing on a Vandoren Optimum AL3 for the last 8 or 9 years (and used an AL4 for a few years before that). What I like about the Optimum is that it’s very easy to play, with good response in all registers, good dynamic range, a lot of stability (so pitch and tone are very consistent, without much effort from the player), and tone that tends toward a warm, almost muted quality (in a good way). It’s a mouthpiece for a 21st-century classical saxophone player.

The D’Addario mouthpiece has these same qualities, with some subtle but important improvements. When I started playing on the AL4 I liked its richness of tone, but ultimately decided I needed to sacrifice that a little to embrace the AL3’s superior high register. The D’Addario Reserve does an impressive job of blending those qualities, and even improving upon both.

In particular, I have been impressed with scalar movement in the altissimo register, which on my Vandoren mouthpieces could be just a little lumpy as I crossed from one partial to another. The D’Addario mouthpieces make this feel really smooth, effortless, and secure.

I have been using mostly D’Addario Reserve reeds for classical saxophone playing, and with my Vandoren mouthpieces I sometimes wished I could get a reed strength between 2.5 and 3.0. I did hope that switching to the D’Addario mouthpiece would eliminate that need, but after trying them I still feel like a 2.5+ would be a useful option. (D’Addario does make some “plus” reeds, such as the Reserve alto saxophone 3.0+.) If I have one complaint about the Reserve mouthpiece, it’s that I don’t get quite the ease of low-register response I would like with the 3.0 reed. A 2.5 helps that but plays a little brighter than I want.

The Reserve mouthpiece comes in three flavors at the moment: D145 (1.45mm tip/medium facing), D150 (1.50mm tip/medium-long facing), and D155 (1.50mm tip/medium facing—yes, it is the same tip opening as the D150). The mouthpiece has what D’Addario touts as a “unique oval inner chamber.”

I’m really quite impressed with all three of the Reserve options, and not 100% settled yet on which will be my go-to. But I recently used the D150 (with a Reserve 3.0 reed) for a concerto performance with band that involved some double tonguing and plenty of altissimo. The D150/3.0 setup worked well for that situation—just the right amount of resistance to make the double-tonguing comfortable and easy, good security in the altissimo, and enough guts to be heard over the band without getting spread or edgy.

Here’s a quick comparison between the D’Addario Reserve D150 and the Vandoren Optimum AL3. I’m using the same ligature and reed in both clips.

D’Addario Reserve D150:

Vandoren Optimum AL3:

To my ear, the D’Addario has a richer, fuller, and more even sound, and also responds better to dynamic changes.

So far D’Addario is scoring 100% with me on their mouthpieces: each new mouthpiece they have released has replaced my former setups (clarinet, jazz alto, jazz tenor, and now classical alto). I look forward to whatever is next.

Review: D’Addario Select Jazz tenor saxophone mouthpieces

I’ve already done thorough reviews of the D’Addario clarinet mouthpieces (twice) and alto saxophone jazz mouthpieces, both of which immediately replaced the competing Vandoren products I was previously using. So, naturally I’ve been very anxious for the release of the hard rubber tenor saxophone jazz mouthpiece, and I got my hands on some samples earlier this week. (Full disclosure: D’Addario sent me the mouthpieces for free, but with no strings attached. This is my best attempt to give an unbiased review.)

I’m pleased to report that everything I like about the clarinet and alto mouthpieces is true of the tenor mouthpieces as well: these are well-made, utterly consistent, easy-to-play, affordable, versatile mouthpieces. Like the clarinet and alto pieces, the Select Jazz tenor mouthpiece is going to be my new mouthpiece for the foreseeable future.

I like to be as low-fuss as possible about my gear. This is a sub-$200 mouthpiece, fully machine-made to fine tolerances, by a major woodwind accessory company. That means if I break or lose mine, I can quickly and easily get another that plays virtually identically from just about any online or brick-and-mortar music store. (Soon; the tenor mouthpieces don’t seem to be in many stores yet.) Check out my previous reviews for more in-depth discussion about that—in short, the days of having to order a half-dozen and pick the best one are gone.

The Select Jazz tenor mouthpiece is currently available in a medium chamber and medium facing, with tip openings from 6 (2.54mm/.100”) to 9 (2.92mm/.115”). I’ve been wanting to move to a little smaller tip opening, and the 6 is just what I was looking for.

The tip openings differ in the ways you would expect. The 6 likes a medium- or medium-soft strength reed, and the 9 needs a medium-soft or soft. The smaller openings are very slightly mellower in tone, softer in volume, and oriented toward stability rather than flexibility, while the larger ones are brighter, louder, and more flexible/less stable, but the differences really are pretty minor. The 6 is my favorite, but I could use the 9 on a gig in a pinch. Choosing your tip opening will probably be more a matter of comfort zone than a question of differences in sound or application.

My previous mouthpiece was a slightly older model Vandoren V16 metal mouthpiece, the T75 (2.67mm/.105″, I think). It served me well for quite a few years, but recently I’ve been less satisfied with its difficult low notes and overall edginess. (After having it for a few years the gold plating started to get some discolored spots, and ultimately got some pitting on the table, so it may not be playing as well as it once did.) Playing hard rubber for jazz on tenor is actually new for me—I’ve played a string of metal mouthpieces since high school—but the transition to the Select Jazz has been seamless. Eyes closed, I don’t think I could tell the difference material-wise.

For tenor in particular I want a mouthpiece that can do lots of things—a sweeter, mellower sound for small-group cocktail gigs, a punchier, gutsier sound for amplified rock and blues, precise articulation and rock-steady intonation for studio playing. The Select Jazz has a nice middle-of-the-road quality that moves easily between straight-ahead jazz and funkier sounds. I find that at a scream I don’t get quite as much bite in the tone as I do with the V16, but I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of bottom end in the sound at maximum volume. In other words, the V16 gets bright and aggressive when I push it, but the Select Jazz just gets big and powerful. I’m liking the tradeoff.

The Select Jazz also wins hands down for ease of playing (against the V16, which I originally selected for its ease of playing). I could just about play a classical recital on the #6 if I had to—the articulation and response are easy from low B-flat up into the altissimo. Like the V16, it strikes a nice balance between stability and flexibility. It’s easy to play in tune, but there’s also plenty of room to bend the pitch around when I want to.

I’m not going to do a thorough play-test comparison this time, because I don’t think it’s really necessary. My V16 is an old model, in poor shape, and metal, so the comparison isn’t really fair and they are perhaps somewhat different animals anyway. But here’s a quick demo of the 6, moving through a few different styles. (It was supposed to be one uninterrupted take, but I ended up having to re-record the last segment standing a little farther from the mic.) First a snippet of Body and Soul, then a few bars of a Brecker tune that I can never remember the name of, then Night Train, then the horn break from Sir Duke.

I don’t see myself as a guy who gets snobby about brands, but D’Addario’s pro-line mouthpieces have hit the mark for me 100% so far. Looking forward to what’s next.

Review: D’Addario Select Jazz alto saxophone mouthpieces

I like mouthpieces that are easy to play, especially in terms of response and tuning. But I also really like something easy to replace; I don’t like the idea of a mouthpiece that is so expensive, variable, or rare that if I drop it I can’t just order a new one, have it in a few days, and expect it to play like the old one.

A few years back I did a fairly detailed review of the Rico Reserve clarinet mouthpieces (in two parts), and have been happily using the Reserves as my main clarinet mouthpieces ever since. The Reserves are, in particular, astonishingly consistent from specimen to specimen, presumably due to the very precise tooling that obviates the need for hand-finishing (which sounds cool but ultimately means a relatively high degree of variability).

The pro-line products formerly released under the Rico name are now D’Addario Woodwinds products, and they now include some alto saxophone mouthpieces, the Select Jazz series. I was pleased to hear from a contact at D’Addario Woodwinds who sent me some samples to try out.

My point of reference is the various Meyer-ish alto mouthpieces I have played for about the last 20 years, most recently the V16 series from Vandoren. I used the A6/medium chamber for a number of years, but more recently switched to the A6/small chamber, which gave me a little more bite in my sound that works well for me in louder situations (like big band lead playing, or blues gigs here in the Mississippi Delta) without having to strain as much.

The new D’Addario Select Jazz alto mouthpieces are currently available in three flavors, the D5M, the D6M, and the D7M. Larger numbers in the middle correspond to larger tip openings (details at D’Addario’s website). I got a couple of each to try. Each one says “medium chamber” on the box, so maybe D’Addario is considering other chamber sizes. At the moment street price seems to be a little higher than the V16s, but still basically in the same class.

If you read the second part of my Reserve mouthpiece review, then you won’t be surprised to see that the Select Jazz mouthpieces are extremely consistent. Check out the very even and symmetrical rails and tips.

L-R: two each of the D5M, D6M, and D7M. Click for higher resolution.
L-R: two each of the D5M, D6M, and D7M. Click for higher resolution.

As mentioned in a couple of other reviews, the Select Jazz mouthpieces have an unusually tight fit on the neck cork, and they chewed up my aging cork a bit. Cork grease!

The mouthpieces have individual serial numbers, like the Reserve clarinet mouthpieces. When I asked about this during my clarinet mouthpiece review, the Rico/D’Addario rep told me there might in the future be some way of registering your mouthpiece online, maybe to access some kind of members-only content. I haven’t seen anything happen along these lines, so maybe there’s a more logical explanation, like that the numbers are just for quality control.

Here is a sound clip of each of the six mouthpieces I received, plus my two V16 mouthpieces for comparison. For all the sound clips I used the same inexpensive fake-leather-type ligature, but different reeds, a D’Addario Select Jazz filed 3S and a filed 3M, depending on which worked best with each individual mouthpiece. The V16s and the Jazz Select D5Ms worked better with the 3M reed, and the Jazz Select D6Ms and D7Ms seemed to prefer the 3S reed.

D’Addario Select Jazz D5M, specimen #1

D’Addario Select Jazz D5M, specimen #2

D’Addario Select Jazz D6M, specimen #1

D’Addario Select Jazz D6M, specimen #2

D’Addario Select Jazz D7M, specimen #1

D’Addario Select Jazz D7M, specimen #2

My old Vandoren V16 A6M

My old Vandoren V16 A6S

 

The differences are minor at best, and really in a pinch I could make any of these eight mouthpieces work, but here are a few observations:

  • The Select Jazz mouthpieces have noticeably more stable intonation than the V16s, especially the D5M. This is a bigger deal than tone, which is more malleable and more subjective.
  • The Select Jazz mouthpieces are, again, very consistent. This is the killer feature of D’Addario’s mouthpieces. I found the two D5Ms to be virtually interchangeable in terms of tone, response, and tuning, and the two D7Ms too. One of the D6Ms (#2) has, to my ear, just a tiny bit of an edge that I find unpleasant. I suspect that this one is slightly “off,” but the difference between the two is still quite minor compared to the differential in hand-finished production mouthpieces.
  • I do still want something with some edge to it, and the V16 small chamber still feels like is has more of that than any of the seven others, but not by much. The Select Jazz mouthpieces seem to have a bigger core and body to the sound, plus a bit higher volume, so I’m thinking it may be an acceptable tradeoff as far as making my presence known among the electric guitars.
  • Overall, I find the Select Jazz to respond better both down low in the staff and up above it than the V16s do. I didn’t play any altissimo in the sound clips, but I find the Select Jazz to have a slight advantage in that register as well.
  • The D5M and, to a lesser extent, the D6M, seem to be the best fit for my style and needs. The D7M doesn’t work as well for me—it has the louder but more spread tone and less-stable intonation you might expect from a larger tip opening—but it’s still one of the best mouthpieces I’ve played in that category, and it’s really only slightly large, not nearly as extreme as the tip openings offered by some other makers.

I think the Select Jazz D5M is going to be my new mouthpiece. (I’m keeping a D6M in my case for now too until I can try them both on a loud blues gig, but so far the D5M has worked well for small-group jazz.) The combination of solid intonation, pretty-but-gutsy tone, budget-friendly price, and amazing consistency make this a solid, versatile, and practical option for a working saxophonist. They are great for educators, too—they are easy to recommend to students because they are so easy to play and because they are so reliable in quality (much less need to order a half-dozen on approval and hope there’s a “good” one in the bunch). A great all-around, no-nonsense alto jazz mouthpiece.

I look forward to more offerings from D’Addario Woodwinds, perhaps alto mouthpieces in other chamber sizes, or mouthpieces for other saxophones.

Review: Rico Reserve clarinet mouthpieces, part II

I mentioned in my recent review of the new Rico Reserve clarinet mouthpieces that Robert Polan, Rico Product Manager, was shipping me a few additional samples for comparison. I received three X5 mouthpieces this week, and I have been inspecting and playing them side-by-side with each other and with the one X5 from the original shipment.

As far as visual inspection, I think the best thing I can do is show you a photo of the tables. You can click for the high-resolution version (warning: it is large and may download slowly). Check out the tips and rails especially.

I’m certain that I have never seen a mouthpiece in this price class with this level of consistency. With the mouthpieces I’m accustomed to using, I would expect at least two out of four to have immediately-obvious asymmetry in the tips, and at least two to have rails of obviously different widths. The Reserves are visually much, much more symmetrical and even. If you look very closely at the high-resolution image of the Reserves, you can probably pick out a few imperfections—but it does require looking very closely. My sense is that Rico’s claims about precision and consistency are justified, at least so far as is relevant for relatively inexpensive mass-produced mouthpieces.

Do they play identically to each other? Not 100%, but probably at least 95%. Of the four, there are two that I find to be virtually interchangeable in terms of tone, and a third that feels just barely purer in tone (or less rich, if you prefer). The fourth feels like it has a slight brightness (or presence or “sparkle,” if you like) that sets it slightly apart from the others, but only slightly. I say that these mouthpieces “feel” purer or whatever because I wasn’t able to capture the differences convincingly on a recording, and I suspect that beyond the clarinetist’s personal space even another clarinetist would be hard-pressed to tell one mouthpiece from another. (I do think the differences might cause the clarinetist to play a little differently, and that might be audible.) And the differences between the mouthpieces are, to me, less noticeable than, say, the difference between my two best performance reeds.

Response (more important than tone in mouthpiece selection) is all but indistinguishable between all four mouthpieces. I could easily keep all four in my case, pull one out blindfolded, and perform on it without any worries about response or control. Any one of these four (six, really, counting the X0 and X10 from the original review) is at least as good as, and perhaps better than, the best cherry-picked examples of other mouthpieces in the same price class.

I can also use reeds interchangeably between all four mouthpieces without any issues. I usually recommend using different reeds for different mouthpieces (even of the same model), as the reeds tend to take on a slight imprint of the mouthpiece’s window, which can cause leakiness if the reed is used on a mouthpiece with a window of even slightly different dimensions. No significant concerns about that here.

My conclusion about these mouthpieces is that some clarinetists may find (as I did) that the Reserve is a better mouthpiece than others in its class; allowing for differences in taste, some may legitimately prefer to stick with what they’ve got. But the killer feature of the Reserve mouthpiece is its replaceability. With the Reserve series, I can get a fine mouthpiece without having to sift through a pile of them to find “the one.” If I break it, I can essentially grab the next one to roll off the production line and expect it to be very, very similar. I can recommend it to my students knowing that theirs will play like mine does. Those factors, to me, are what make these mouthpieces a really exciting development.

Review: Rico Reserve clarinet mouthpieces

I was pleased to hear from a representative of Rico about their new “Reserve” clarinet mouthpieces, which they seem to be promoting very heavily and which are generating some buzz (no pun intended) among curious clarinetists. She was kind enough to send me a few to check out for myself and to review here, and to put me in touch with Robert Polan, Rico Product Manager, who answered some of my questions during the process.

Initial observations and thoughts

The mouthpiece is currently available in three models. Rico sent me one of each:

  • X0 (which has a 1.00mm tip opening)
  • X5 (1.05mm)
  • X10 (1.10mm)

I’m a fan of connecting model numbers to actual relevant measurements, as Rico has done here, rather than assigning seemingly arbitrary codes (take note, Vandoren), though of course the tip opening is only one of many measurements that affect a mouthpiece’s playing characteristics. Dave Kessler speculates that we might see some larger tip openings from Rico in the future, but it does seem that Rico has boxed themselves in on any smaller openings with this naming scheme; naming the mouthpieces something like X100, X105, and X110 might make more sense if future offerings were to include a sub-1.00mm tip opening (X095, etc.). Mr. Polan responded noncommittally to my question about future offerings:

Since the product is so new, it’s too early to know which additional models clarinetists will want. We are carefully evaluating the response to these three models in order to determine what is next.

Mouthpiece diagrams on boxes

The boxes’ design includes some faux-technical-drawings of the mouthpieces—which I initially thought was a cool touch, showing the precise dimensions of the mouthpieces—but the drawings are actually identical on the different models’ boxes, so they are probably mostly decorative.

The mouthpieces themselves are etched with the text “Reserve Rico,” a six-digit serial number (the first three digits are zeroes at this point), the model number (such as “X5”) and additional numeral 2 (I don’t know what the 2 means, and I couldn’t seem to get a response to my question about it). It seems a little unusual to see a serial number on an inexpensive, mass-produced mouthpiece (the Reserves seem to be going for a street price of about $100). I asked Robert Polan about this, and his response was:

Adding a serial number was an important feature for us. We are planning to offer online tools and future promotions for Reserve mouthpiece owners who register their mouthpieces on a soon-to-be released “Owners Area” on our website. Again, more to come on this in the coming months.

Serial number

Model number, and mysterious “2”

The mouthpiece is also bedazzled with a painted-on dullish-silver “R” logo on top, which I expect will wear off quickly; I think it would be a classier (and more permanent) touch to etch the logo. I am pleased to see the other identifying information etched into the mouthpiece; my old Vandoren mouthpieces get difficult to tell apart once the painted model numbers wear off. The Reserves also have the usual latitudinal lines which can be used to gauge ligature position.

One of Rico’s big claims about the Reserve mouthpieces is the extreme precision with which they are made, using a process of milling, or carving, the mouthpieces out of solid material, rather than pouring liquid material into a mold. In fact, Rico touts “Zero handwork for maximum consistency” as a feature of these mouthpieces. This seems like a daring choice; in the past, I’ve always seen mouthpiece makers anxious to point out the hand-finishing of their mouthpieces. Rico’s implication seems to be that other mouthpiece makers use hand-finishing because their manufacturing tolerances aren’t exact enough without it, and that Rico has found a way to improve those tolerances to the point that they can eliminate the extra step, cut costs, and take potential human error out of the picture. Mr. Polan clarifies:

Using the CNC technology to fully machine the Reserve mouthpiece allows us to control consistency to a very high level, resulting in greater repeatability than with hand-finishing. This is especially true with high volume production. One of the smartest operations experts I know once put it to me this way: “When you ask a human being to perform a task repeatedly, he or she will get it right on average about 80% of the time.” While a mouthpiece craftsman like Lee Livengood can no doubt produce results that rival our machines, finishing hundreds of mouthpieces a day would make maintaining repeatability challenging for even the most skilled hand-finisher.  Considering that many competitors’ mouthpieces in the Reserve price range are finished by factory workers, most of whom do not even play clarinet, the attention to detail with the finishing steps is not the same as it is with someone like Lee Livengood, nor does it come close to matching the consistency we achieve with the Reserve mouthpiece.

[Ed. note: Lee Livengood is a clarinetist with the Utah Symphony, a mouthpiece maker, and a past president of the International Clarinet Association, and a technical consultant to Rico on the development of the Reserve mouthpieces.]

Rico claims that they can machine-mill mouthpieces to tolerances of 0.0005″. Kessler suggests that Rico is perhaps stretching the truth with this claim; when I mentioned this, Robert Polan responded:

Regarding the question about our machining tolerances, we are indeed holding tolerances as tight as .0005” in areas of the mouthpiece that require that precision. We do not claim to hold .0005” with every dimension; that would be both costly and unnecessary. But we are holding to that tolerance where it counts. Ultimately the player will judge any claims about tolerances and quality. We did our homework with the Reserve mouthpiece and we are confident it stands up to the most discerning players.

It’s fair to point out that I don’t really have a concept of what kind of tolerances are necessary for mouthpiece making, but, on close visual inspection, the precision of these mouthpieces does indeed appear very impressive. The rails and tips appear to my eye to be very, very symmetrical and even. This is something that I definitely haven’t seen in mass-produced mouthpieces before. Held in the right light, the tables reveal some visual evidence of the tooling process: some subtle lengthwise lines. However, the tables feel glassy-smooth to the touch.

I mentioned that it would be interesting to compare several of the same model and see if any variation could be spotted with the naked eye (my bet is: not much). Mr. Polan immediately offered to send me several more to compare, commenting:

We don’t claim that every mouthpiece we make is identical; offering identical measurements is impossible. We do, however, feel confident that there is a noticeable similarity between every mouthpiece we make, thanks to the control in our process.  As Richie Hawley put it when we had him test our consistency, the Reserve mouthpiece has a “comfortable and predictable similarity” from one to another.

Though demand for the mouthpieces has delayed getting the additional mouthpieces to me (I understand Rico is currently backordered by 5oo units), I think it speaks to Rico’s faith in their product that they are willing to offer samples up for side-by-side scrutiny. I will post a follow-up when the additional mouthpieces arrive. [Update: read the follow-up here.]

The proof is in the playing

But of course the real question on everyone’s mind: how do they play? I’ve been playing the Reserve mouthpieces over the last few weeks. Continue reading “Review: Rico Reserve clarinet mouthpieces”