For trumpeters, the mouthpiece is a very personal and critical piece of equipment. When I studied at the Juilliard School, one of my teacher’s most common sayings was, “A mouthpiece is like shoes, you have to find one that fits you.” (William Vacchiano). Since my father was in the shoe business, this hit home really fast. Having been raised and trained in a shoe business where my father designed custom shoes to fit individual feet, I knew that no two people were exactly the same when it came to a correct fit.

Trumpeters tend to gravitate toward several common mouthpiece designs (and variations thereof). There are so many variables that I have often felt that it would be nice if serious students and professionals were enabled to try a large number of mouthpieces to ascertain what is best for them. Even more confusing, great performers often promote designs that work for them without consideration to the fact that everyone has different shaped lips, embouchure configuration, dental formation, jaw alignment, etc. A true “custom” mouthpiece would be one that fits the player for which the mouthpiece is designed, and no other.

I have gone through a number of transitions in my approach to playing the trumpet. During these transitions, I designed mouthpieces that met my performance standards and supported what I wanted to produce musically. Interestingly, I now play mouthpieces that are fairly traditional and I am also able to change mouthpieces, if necessary, to match the performance environment and players that are in that environment. I also change mouthpieces to meet the desired sound and style for the period of music that I am playing. From my perspective, I am happy that I had the ability to design “transition” mouthpieces and I feel certain that they helped me move forward in my musical development.

It is important to understand that the player must be on a course to improve their approach to playing and not just looking for a mouthpiece that acts as a

“crutch.” Early in my career I had a difficult time switching back and forth from smaller piccolo trumpet mouthpieces to standard, robust mouthpieces designed for symphonic and classic solo music. At that time, I just thought it was due to my lips and did not realize that my approach to playing was not efficient, and, in fact, my embouchure and aperture were simply incorrect. I usually (and with some success) played my piccolo trumpet music first on a recital/concert program and then played my larger mouthpieces as the program progressed. To further complicate matters, my embouchure looked perfect to my teachers so they never questioned this. Now, because I corrected my playing problems, I am able to switch back and forth with ease. During the course of my studies and experimentations, I played a lot of different mouthpiece sizes that assisted my progress. I think the point here is that players should study with a teacher that really understands mouthpieces in order to progress forward. If we look at finding a really fine mouthpiece as an adventure that could last a number of years, I think we learn more and will ultimately be more successful.

Ideally, we want to avoid a mouthpiece that might hinder our progress. One of the most disastrous mouthpieces on the market is the Bach 3C. I have worked in a number of regions in the USA where band directors insisted that all of their trumpeters play this mouthpiece (especially in marching bands). William Vacchiano told me that this mouthpiece was designed for one performer (by Vincent Bach) to play lead trumpet in a jazz ensemble. For this purpose, and even for some performers to play the piccolo trumpet, this mouthpiece has desirable characteristics. It has a much more shallow cup than a Bach 5C, 2C, 1 ½ C or 1C etc. To play a Bb or C trumpet in-tune in a wind ensemble or an orchestra, this mouthpiece does not work for 99 out of 100 players. I have also seen young trumpeters run into some serious problems when switching to this mouthpiece thinking it might be an improvement over a 5C, 7C etc. First, it makes no sense to force a whole trumpet section to play the same mouthpiece. Would we make all of the members of a band wear the same size marching shoes? Of course not. Second, this mouthpiece is not desirable in concert band/wind ensemble/orchestra sections simply because it does not produce the desired sound and intonation. For most players, they will be flat in the lower register of the trumpet and sharp in the high register on this mouthpiece. I remember one student that played extremely well that refused to change from the Bach 3C to a better mouthpiece. Toward of the end of his studies with me he played in master class with Phil Smith and Phil told him that he would sound better and play better in tune if he selected another mouthpiece. In a lesson shortly after that class, he asked me “Should I change mouthpieces?” My reply was basically, “Well, what did Phil say?” (what I had been telling him for several years). Why argue with the Master?

I am a big fan of the Vincent Bach product, but if you study the line of mouthpieces, there is not a consistency or rational in the sizing. This is because Bach designed each mouthpiece to fit an individual player and then put a size on it. Many of the mouthpieces in the 5-8 range are close to the same size rim diameter. For example, a Bach straight 8 feels much larger than a Bach 7C. In my opinion, out of this confusion comes a great benefit (once you understand the sizing) because there are so many different rim contours and cup shapes from which to select. Other manufacturers generally make the same rim configuration for each line of mouthpieces and the cup depths are standard and consistent.

From my perspective, experimenting with mouthpieces has no benefit unless I am also addressing my weaknesses as a player and playing studies/exercises/etudes that are designed to improve my embouchure/aperture/blow and approach to playing. During transitions, I am able to direct students toward mouthpieces that will assist them with sound and intonation. I also learned from William Vacchiano that certain mouthpieces used over a short term in the practice room can improve sound, intonation, and endurance, with the understanding that we usually move back to a more standard mouthpiece when it is time to perform in public.

Another interesting anomaly is that I have often changed a student’s mouthpiece in a lesson that improved their sound and intonation immediately. The next week, they sound just as bad on the new mouthpiece as they did on the previous mouthpiece. This demonstrates that sound and intonation have to be developed in the “mind’s ear” to really make progress. If we don’t hear sound and intonation, the mouthpiece really doesn’t help much.

There are an infinite number of ways to design a trumpet mouthpiece. This can be frustrating and confusing to serious musicians. This includes rim shape, contour, diameter; cup shape and depth; throat (hole) size and contour; and the design of the backbore. When we experiment, we often can ruin a good mouthpiece by making a change that is not desirable. This can get costly. Often, a successful custom design is difficult to copy by reputable custom mouthpiece businesses. Asymmetrical designs are nearly impossible to copy.

Some really fine performers do not feel comfortable changing rim sizes, so they design screw-rim mouthpieces to change cup size, throat, and backbore while still using the same rim. Other performers seem to be able to change rim/cup sizes at will to match the trumpet that they have in their hands and to assist with high-range considerations or quality of sound.

To further complicate the matter, sometimes we need to play the mouthpiece for several days (even weeks) to see what kind of progress we can make. This is because it can take the lips some time to start vibrating properly with a new rim surface/contour and cup depth.

So, how do we find the right trumpet mouthpiece? First, I think it is important to try a lot of mouthpieces. Have a good musician listen to you to help judge sound and intonation. Be willing to play it a while to see what progress you can make. Second, don’t get consumed with range (high notes). A high range mouthpiece will have drawbacks for standard playing in orchestras, bands, and chamber music. If you are aspiring to play lead in a jazz band or high notes on the marching field, use one mouthpiece for that purpose but practice and play other music on another mouthpiece that encourages good intonation and sound. Finally, be curious and adventurous. Invest in a number of mouthpiece designs and see what they do for your playing. If a mouthpiece doesn’t work for you, you can always sell it to someone else. Match mouthpieces to the instrument you are playing, including your piccolo trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn, and all keys of trumpets. We have to develop our ears by listening to sound and intonation, so learn to listen to the sound and intonation of each individual mouthpiece. I am constantly buying/selling/trading mouthpieces and there has not been a point in my career for the last 30 years where I did not own at least 60-80 mouthpieces. This is a great assistance in the teaching studio and I also have the flexibility to match mouthpieces to my horns and the style of music that I am performing.