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How to achieve a better tone without hours of practice...

Over the years I’ve worked to get a tone that I like. My aim is to play with a bright, bold and funky tone. A large part of this has been through practice and reflection over a lot of hours, and there’s no two ways around this. A brain can only do so much learning in a day (about two hours of real progress on a particular area) and the muscles in your jaw can only stand so much before they fatigue.

So there it is – practice makes perfect. You can’t get good without putting the fabled 10,000 hours in. Case closed…

… but actually here is more to it than that. I was lying before about it just being down to practice. There’s no way I could get the tone that I want for my style without my instrument and the choice of mouthpieces that are designed to help me create the sound I want to achieve.

All instruments are different. Whilst the player’s skill is definitely a limiting factor, so is the horn they’re playing. So what is the message here: am I recommending a second mortgage to get a legendary instrument? That’s not always realistic. Most beginner and intermediate players cannot afford the substantial investment to purchase a professional standard instrument, especially if they don’t know whether they’re going to stick with it long-term. However, the better the instrument you can afford, the better you will sound in the long run, and the easier it will be to make progress.

A message to school and university students

If you are serious about continuing music to a high standard and you are in full time education there is no better time to purchase a top-notch instrument. As a full time student you can benefit from numerous bursaries and grants (ask me for more information) plus VAT-free purchasing through school. You will never get a better discount after you leave full-time education. So if you love playing your instrument, then buy the best you can afford right now. It actually represents a saving because it may last you a lifetime, rather than upgrading later.

Once you have got your instrument, then it’s vital to review your mouthpiece. A lot of students think that the mouthpiece that comes with the instrument is all you would need, and that they are expensive to replace for what they are. This is a mistake!

If you have bought a new instrument, you will probably be really chuffed with the improvement from your old one and may not feel you need to splash out on a new mouthpiece. But for a little extra money (relatively!) you can bring your playing up to the next level of quality, which may have otherwise cost hundreds of pounds to get the next tier of instrument.

The mouthpiece is the most important part of the instrument because it is inside the mouthpiece that the sound is shaped. It is the internal geometry of the bore of the mouthpiece that changes the sound. Small changes in the size of the bore, chamber and tip opening dramatically alter the sound you can achieve and how the instrument feels when you play.

For example, a small chamber size produces a brighter and more free-blowing mouthpiece whereas a larger chamber size will produce a softer, darker sound. The sound you prefer is personal taste and depends on the types of music you want to play. The closer the baffle is to the reed, the more the sound will be powerful and bright. Generally a straight baffle will allow a darker, softer sound. A high step baffle will give an aggressive, powerful sound.

Different mouthpiece geometry works for different genres and styles and so it’s worth having a couple of mouthpieces. For classical playing, a low straight baffle coupled with a wide chamber gives a well-rounded sound. I play a Selmer C* classical mouthpiece and enjoy the smooth, full-bodied sound. Jazz saxophonists may opt for a higher baffle to give a more metallic sound. I play a Claude Lakey and more recently I have customised my own SYOS mouthpiece.

It is also true that choice of mouthpiece is an individual thing and each musician will be at ease with a particular tip opening – a mouthpiece less open or more open will be less suitable. SYOS describe it as “a bit like the size of your shoes”! It can be frustrating to find that perfect fit. There are a lot of mouthpieces out there and it is overwhelming and expensive. It is worth the time to do your research and get it right, as a well-chosen mouthpiece will make a huge difference to your sound and the enjoyment you get from playing your instrument.

I was fascinated when I heard that two acoustic researchers were now custom-making mouthpieces based on their client musicians’ expectations. Using theory of musical acoustics and simulations plus experiments involving psychoacoustics and statistics they found a mathematical link between the expected sound and the geometry of the mouthpiece to build. They created the company SYOS (Shape Your Own Sound) to produce custom made mouthpieces. I just had to find out more…

SYOS use an online questionnaire to explore what sound you want to achieve and then the sound shaper analyses your answers and determines the geometry of your new mouthpiece. The designer draws and makes the piece and it is 3D printed in the colour of your choice.

My new mouthpiece arrived in July for my birthday!

SYOS give a 30-day trial period to test the mouthpiece and decide if you would like any adjustments. They will send out a new mouthpiece until it meets expectation. Once you have a perfect fit you send any others back. I have got to say that my new mouthpiece is just what I asked for – bright and powerful and even on brand in orange. They got it right first time!

If you’re thinking about treating yourself to a better sound, talk to me and I’ll give you some advice about what might suit you best. Perhaps a custom mouthpiece is right for you, or perhaps something off the shelf. Whatever the case, do think about your mouthpiece when you want to change things up.

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