Period mouthpieces - some thoughts

Unforgivable behaviour

I was told a very bad joke many years ago. Curiously enough it was told to me by a baroque oboe player who I would have thought would know better.

It is a quiet night in a quiet bar. There are four men sitting at the bar.

The first man turns to the second and asks: 
"Kind sir, may I ask if you happen to know your IQ level?"
The second replies"
"Why yes, you may ask, and I may tell you that I have an IQ level of 178. May I enquire the same of your good self?"
The former replies:
"Aha, I thought as much. Yes, I myself have an IQ level of 174. Would you care to join me in a discussion of the finer points of Schopenhauer and his thoughts on The Upanishads as we while away the hours?".
"By all means..."
The two other men observe this dialogue. One turns to the other
"How about you? Any idea what your IQ level is?"
"Yeah, scraping somewhere in the 80s, you?"
"Yup, similar. Want to talk about mouthpieces?"

 I think all the scraping of those reeds had got to this chap.


Funnily enough, in many circles, talking about mouthpieces is considered unforgivable behaviour. Either it's seen as really way too geeky. Or its seen as conversation matter only to be fallen back on when you've run out of anything else to speak about. Or, occasionally, it's seen as a little intrusive - that to ask about someones mouthpiece is almost like asking something rather too personal - perhaps it's seen as a judgemental to ask?

Many people come to play the natural horn, and period horns in general, from a background of playing the modern French horn. As a result many people find it useful to use the same mouthpiece for both instruments. Our lips are very sensitive to small changes in dimensions of mouthpieces and it's common for players to find it more comfortable to have, at least, the same rim on their lips as they change from one instrument to another and therefore often stay on the same mouthpiece.

To my mind, whilst I understand this rationale, I think that taking this approach ultimately undermines playing the natural horn. The mouthpiece is integral to the way an instrument operates - to use a modern mouthpiece feels akin to a violinist getting a baroque violin, with equal tension gut strings, and then using a modern bow. Why bother to use a natural horn and stick a modern mouthpiece in it?

Of course, there are different strokes for different folks - ultimately people want to get different things out of their natural horn playing. And indeed some natural horn makers are building instruments today which are designed specifically to be as close to the experience of playing the modern horn - so to use a period style mouthpiece with these instruments would be redundant.

To my mind using period mouthpieces have helped me gain more flexibility and nuance in my natural horn playing. Certain things like being able to bend notes (top As for example) seem to be easier, and I find that I can use a wider range of articulation.

Period mouthpieces tend to be more tiring at first due to them being generally smaller than most modern players are used to and due to their thinner, flatter rims. The illustration further below of the measurements of Gebr. Alexander mouthpieces in 2007 has 24.5 mm as the minimum diameter for the outer rim whilst many period mouthpieces are around 22 mm. Also period mouthpieces tend to feel less "notchy" than modern mouthpieces, everything seems a bit "wider" which is has advantages (more flexibility) and disadvantages (more tiring, more hard work).

Illustration taken from Reginald Morley-Pegge The French Horn: Some Notes on the Evolution of the Instrument and of its Technique (London, Ernst Benn Limited, 1960, p.102)

In general the difference is that period mouthpieces are more funnel shaped whilst modern mouthpieces have more of a "neck" and can be more cup shaped.

Illustration of modern mouthpieces taken from Gebr. Alexander 2007 Catalogue 

For further information on how mouthpieces and how they work I would recommend John and Phyllis Stork's Understanding the mouthpiece (Vuarmaren, Bim, 1989). Whilst written from the point of view of trumpet mouthpieces it contains a lot of valuable information about the variables and parameters of mouthpiece design.