Treatise on the Clarinet Mouthpiece

1. Introduction



 During my modest, but very long life of clarinettist, I studied the physics of the clarinet mouthpiece, trying to get as close as possible to the perfection of its facing, that is according to many experts, a very difficult but essential problem. As all the musicians I received a (good) foundation at school, especially thanks to my teacher Bianco Bianchini, an expert of the clarinet mouthpiece. However, most of my knowledge came later from professional experience, because it is rare for a clarinettist to continue the same method as when he was a student. I am certainly not the first to write on the subject, but I hope to add something useful to those who want to read me, because I am convinced that all the clarinettists need to know the physics of the mouthpiece, whether they intend to adjust it or not.  Musical publishing houses are well-equipped with manuals and studies for clarinet written by great authors, especially for refining technique and virtuosity, but no one has ever treated the delicate problem of the mouthpiece specifically.

“To play well you need a good clarinet, a superlative mouthpiece and good reeds” my teacher used to say. It might appear obvious, because from the mouthpiece produces the sound and it is the factory of the clarinet voice: if the voice is beautiful, the clarinettist is esteemed, if the sound is unpleasant, it becomes a boring fife that no technical ability can ever improve. It is clear that I intend to talk about the classic orchestra clarinet, of which the famous Klosé described the voice as “sweet, clear, mellow and soft”. At the same time, no one should feel obligated to adjust mouthpieces after reading (and studying) what I am about to expose. Indeed, when professionals or amateurs of the clarinet learn to know this accessory, they will find it easier even to choose a brand-new mouthpiece in a store.

During my nearly fifty years career, I had the opportunity to meet many clarinet professors, some very famous, each having a different idea about the mouthpiece. Some of them did not even believe in the manual adjustment of the mouthpiece, convinced that only the manufacturer is able to make it by machine. It is my opinion however, that this is only true by chance and to support the reasons why I wrote this treatise, I shall tell two episodes of my career. The first happened in 1949, when I was a member of the Slovensko Narodno Gledališče in Ljubljana, a renowned lyric orchestra at that time. The same city had also another excellent orchestra of a hundred elements, the Slovenska Filharmonija, and one day, I took the opportunity to watch in a large hall their rehearsal of Mozart’s Concerto in A major for Clarinet and Orchestra. The soloist was an Englishman who lived up to the piece but whistled at least ten times during the Rondo. Someone asked him during the interval, why he had whistled and very calm, he replied that it was due to the high temperature and dry air of the hall, adding as if to support his claims, that his teacher was a famous concert pianist. This I cannot accept: although more difficult, the piano teacher ought to teach his own instrument, not the clarinet unless he studied it thoroughly. The second episode took place in 1942, while I was touring Germany during the war as part of a big ensemble of about twenty musicians, as well as two male and two female singers. One day, almost unexpectedly, we crossed the border and reached Paris, which at that time was under German occupation. Intrigued, I went to listen to some recitals at the conservatory and was surprised at finding that most of the young clarinettists whistled repeatedly.

On both occasions, hard rubber mouthpieces were used, that are more likely to cause whistles, nevertheless, I used this type of mouthpiece myself for many years without ever whistling. I have to say that it is a shame to allow people to play with faulty instruments and it should be up to the teacher to recommend students quality instruments, and even convince their parents to invest in their future career, which has the same dignity of other professions. A student admitted to college is celebrated, while those who enter the conservatory are often mocked. Although students are penniless almost everywhere, music students are so especially and even when talented, they are not appreciated, sometimes by their very own parents. On the contrary, they should be helped, so they can provide a turnover within the theatre orchestras that are facing difficulty finding good musicians. Although working in an orchestra is different from forty years ago, and cinema, radio and television have subtracted work from operetta and variety orchestras and musical bands, it is still an excellent professional career, especially for oboe, bassoon and horn, for which quality musicians are difficult to find.

It is certainly important that a student has an inclination for music and enjoys good health to undertake a study that is very challenging and lasts many years. It does not matter whether he decides to switch from trumpet to bassoon, or from piano to clarinet (for the neighbours’ happiness) because even at college one may change subject. Besides music, the conservatory teaches subjects of general culture and languages, but I insist that our instrument should be taught by a clarinettist. Robert Stark was the only one who was a pianist, organist and founder of a clarinet school.


Oboes and bassoons are in a more difficult situation than clarinets because they need to match a double reed, consisting of two reeds tied together. Thus, if oboe and bassoon teachers can teach students how to adjust the reeds, why shouldn’t clarinet teachers teach students how to adjust mouthpieces? It is nonsense to assume that to adjust a mouthpiece means to ruin it forever. We are not facing the coarse work of a carpenter, because every intervention removes only a few hundredth of a millimetre, a tenth or two at most. Only few mouthpieces can be used straight from the factory, most of which whistle, do not vibrate or are completely unusable. Moreover, unexpected situations always arise in the orchestra, for example, the mouthpiece may break especially if made of crystal, the room may require a different volume of sound, a director may remark that our sound is faint, or a new oboe, the instrument traditionally setting the tone in the orchestra, may have a different tuning than its predecessor. Rather than obsessing with it, however, it may be better to choose a new mouthpiece that sounds acceptable, getting used to it and being satisfied with the results. In any case, one must not change mouthpieces frequently while in the orchestra.

Almost all orchestras nowadays, are equipped with an electric diapason and the radio has studios with a fixed tuning and constant temperature. However, the temperature of the rooms in which one happens to play varies and it may be very difficult to tune in. As a rule, if the room is colder, the clarinet tune raises by one tone, if the room is hotter, it drops by half a tone, bow instruments undergo the same displacement, while trumpets and horns adapt better to the cold. The clarinet produces each note through a different hole, so that intonation becomes a mess, when it is cold, and a note must come out through the lower joint. On the other hand, trumpets and horns are kept warm because all notes are produced through the bell. Therefore, even if one is able to adjust mouthpieces, it is always better to have at least two interchangeable mouthpieces both for work or for study. One of the two, should be tuned higher, to compensate in case we are too low in tune. It is enough to own a good clarinet and find a couple of well-adjusted mouthpieces, because the fewer changes one makes, the easier it is to have and maintain a beautiful sound.

It is also important not to arrive late to the rehearsals and indeed, it is better to arrive half an hour earlier than the director for tuning, as also stated by the National Contract of Orchestral Musicians. One works with greater peace of mind having had the time to warm up the clarinet, because it matches better with the other instruments and condensation takes its course along the chamber, without stopping in the holes. All orchestras of a certain level should have a rehearsal room that is spacious, neither humid nor draughty that may cause interference, and maintained at a constant temperature of not less than 20 C, better at 22 C. If the room temperature drops to a few degrees, it is impossible to get in tune, especially with the other wind instruments and bows. Moreover, bulky instruments usually kept on site, such as low tuba, double bass, etc. cannot be kept in the cold for too long.

Over fifty years, I have adjusted hundreds of clarinet mouthpieces, taking pride in making them sound good and never throwing any of them away. Although in the search for perfection I still encounter something new, the main problems to be addressed are always three: the intonation of the instrument, the reeds and the mouthpiece, which is the subject of the present research. I hope that my efforts will be able to instil more confidence in those with enough musicality and willpower to become professional clarinettists.


2. The Clarinet


The clarinet is the youngest wind instrument in the orchestra. Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, had not yet included it in his compositions, either because it wasn’t sufficiently perfected, or because of its characteristics, too different from other instruments. The C clarinet was the first to be used in the orchestra but lacked volume. When the clarinet in B-flat was then created, it allowed to perform almost the entire lyric repertoire, with a few exceptions such as Andrea Chénier. At the same time, it only produces half-tones, difficult to perform, because where string instruments play with four sharps, the clarinet has six.

The clarinet in A-flat, introduced in the orchestra about two hundred fifty years ago, is more efficient especially in the symphonic repertoire. Mozart was among the first to include it in his scores, for example in the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A major (K 622). Later, when the A, B-flat and C clarinets reached their full extension, they were used regularly in all scores by composers such as Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Verdi, who dignified the clarinet in La traviata and in La forza del destino.

Incidentally, the other wind instruments are flutes and piccolo, oboes and English horn, bass clarinet, bassoons and double bassoon, the four horns and the hunting horn. Continuous study and refinement are needed not only to cooperate with them, but also to sustain their competition, always with great patience. The oboe has the most beautiful colour of all, its thin voice is perceived better and affects more than that of the clarinet. During a recording, microphones must be positioned closer to the clarinets, so it is necessary to adjust the mouthpiece with special care. The treble notes of the flute sometimes do not match with the clarinet and the same happens with the horn, while the bassoon matches well. No instrument has a better sound than the English horn, which may be the most difficult instrument to play in the orchestra. It is a member of the oboe family, corresponding to the bass in the clarinet family and often collaborating with them.

We saw earlier that the clarinet was born in C so that the positions took the name of the corresponding notes in the violin key. All over the world, clarinet scores are written in violin key, as did Stark, Klosé, Jeanjean, Périer, Lefèvre, etc. in their studies, who added indications such as, Study in A major with three sharps. Everyone knows that the effect is G major, but the clarinet was born that way, so much so that among clarinettists one can also call them "notes of the clarinet". In an Italian orchestra, on the contrary, one must call them "effect notes", otherwise one might appear to be anti-musical, although abroad no director speaks of effect notes, but only of those written in the score. Italians like to go around houses.

It is often said that the violin is the most difficult instrument to play, but let’s not say that the clarinet is easy. It is true that among the reed instruments, the clarinet has easier emission, so that clarinet students progress faster than oboe and bassoon students. At the same time, they stop during the third year, when they begin to study transposition, which they will need throughout their career. Some do not consider transposition important, whereas it requires great commitment, only slightly less than it is for trumpets and horns, which are also transposing instruments and must be able to read in all seven keys. Because of transposition, the clarinet faces tonalities with six or seven sharps, as in La gazza ladra, and produces only half-tones that are more difficult to perform and less in tune. For example, Semiramide is not difficult because one did not study transposition, but because the sharps prevent a perfect execution with a B-flat clarinet.

When a student decides to undertake a professional career in the orchestra, B-flat and A clarinets are both required, although some consider enough a B-flat clarinet alone. While this might be true for the lyric repertoire, it isn’t at all for the symphonic repertoire. The A clarinet is easier and more efficient than the B-flat, because it plays full tones, mostly produced through large, rather than half keys. Clarinettists in orchestras around the world use both clarinets and sometimes they add a C clarinet, needed for the Russian repertoire. There is no reason to wonder, since even Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are performed with the small E-flat trumpet, that is more suitable for playing acute notes and has the shrill timbre intended by the author.

As for the A clarinet, it is an instrument of great resources always required abroad for its wider and sweeter voice. I think it's harder to buy than in B-flat, because it takes more patience and money. An important manufacturer told me that it has strange inner measures and I found that it must be played frequently, otherwise it gives the impression of being out of tune even when it isn’t. The small E-flat clarinet is mainly used in bands, but a few orchestral parts that have been added in time. It deserves special attention in the high notes, as in Ravel’s famous ballet Daphnis et Chloé, in which it has a formidable part, although I witnessed amateur players succeeding discreetly even on instruments borrowed at the last minute.

Although a first clarinet owns both instruments, he is usually so busy that he cannot play neither the E-flat clarinet nor the bass, because they both require special dedication. It is not possible to switch instruments quickly, because one ends up not being able to play either. Wagner used the bass clarinet prominently in all his works, but it must be played softly, without pushing too much and if by misfortune the cushions are not tight, it will not be possible to make it sound, no matter how well-adjusted the mouthpiece is. I have often seen new bass clarinets equipped with a well-executed mouthpiece, perhaps because it is rather an expensive instrument and the producer might risk having it returned if it did not work properly, which also applies to the baritone and tenor saxophones.

The bass clarinet mouthpiece doesn’t need to be adjusted and usually works fine as soon as one gets used to it. However, should it be necessary to intervene, difficulties arise due to the characteristics of the mouthpiece, such as a range of notes is unsafe or prone to whistles while others are almost impossible to play. The bass clarinet mouthpiece should not be too open, otherwise it would lack the sweetness that is its peculiarity. Further, I recommend not to base its facing on the proportion between bass clarinet and clarinet mouthpieces, otherwise the curvature would become too long and the opening too wide. The bass clarinet facing should be slightly longer than that of the clarinet and the tip opening roughly equal to that of the clarinet or slightly wider. As window and bore are large, and the reed is somewhat larger, it will yield enough vibrations even without opening the mouthpiece further.

A tuned instrument is the result of the perfection of the instrument chamber combined with that of the mouthpiece. Therefore, if one intends to experiment on the mouthpiece, one must first be sure that the instrument works fine, and the keys shut properly, otherwise it is impossible to understand whether the defect in a note or area of notes depends on the mouthpiece or the instrument. Before playing, one should also consider the condition of his body and that of the instrument: he should not be tired, the lips should not be swollen, the clarinet pads must not leak, and enough new reeds must be at his disposal. Old reeds should not be used, even if still good, because if they played on another mouthpiece, they already took its shape and might whistle when mounted on a different mouthpiece. It is therefore good practice to purchase new reeds every time one has the chance.



 3. The Reed


The bamboo canes of which the reeds usually found on the market are made, are not like other woods with compact pores, but have long fibres that start from the heel up to the tip. These fibres vibrate and sustain the sound, but if they encounter an imperfection in the table of the mouthpiece, they produce a whistle. Our profession is hard enough and counting upon good reeds would be a great help. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to buy reeds, because one cannot anticipate whether they work, especially because of the imperfections of the material, since during the production only a small part at both ends of the cane is discarded. The ageing of the cane is important too, that it should not be too green nor too dry. Thus, in a box of twenty, sometimes only one or two reeds vibrate. For a long time in my youth, I used reeds made for hobby by Prof. Ambrogio Lelli, an excellent teacher at the Ferrara Conservatory, and I also used reeds by Barré, Rabut, Fournier. In practice, the best reeds have always been French and the leading producer in the world is Vandoren of Paris.

 Finding the right reed is difficult. If one mounts a reed on a mouthpiece with irregular facing, it produces whistles on end. The reed must vibrate well, and the flow of breath must proceed smoothly, offering enough freedom of action. Difficult passages will become even more difficult if one were to make an extra effort of emission due to a bad reed, a defective mouthpiece, leaky instrument or swollen lips. Further, mounting shoddy reeds leaves less possibility for research, because one cannot determine if the defect comes from the reed or the mouthpiece. Conversely, if the mouthpiece is well-adjusted, it will be easier to find reeds that play, because they have adapted properly to the facing. It takes a lot of patience: if one fails at the first attempt, one should suspend and resume after a certain time with other reeds, lips rested and the right mood. The mouthpiece that one was tempted to throw into the bin the day before, might turn out to a gem. However, once it is understood that the whistle is caused more often by the mouthpiece than by a reed, or by the wrong position of the lips or a finger, one will overcome more easily the fear of intervening on a mouthpiece for the first time.



4. The Mouthpiece


Possibilities are so many that it is not easy to evaluate whether one is buying a good or bad mouthpiece. It may be the best available in that store, but still may not work. One should not pay too much attention to aesthetics, as I had ugly mouthpieces that worked fine and beautiful ones that didn’t, nor can I say that a mouthpiece works well if it is perfect, as I had mouthpieces that did not whistle despite having a faulty facing. The process of adjusting a mouthpiece involves guesswork about the usual problems: the overall makeup of the mouthpiece and the outcome of the facing. If the mouthpiece could be machined one would have a precise reference point at the letter D. However, it is difficult to use a machine tool to make a mouthpiece work, as is the case for brand-new mouthpieces, eight out of ten of which don’t work. The classic mouthpiece must be made by hand.

Since I was a boy, I was aware of precision machine tools and one of my first experiments was to adjust a saxophone metal mouthpiece using a diamond grinder. Although the mouthpiece wasn’t good, at least it worked, but when I tested it as soon as I arrived home, it had stopped playing completely, despite later attempts. Although precision machine tools are continuously adjustable, making a mouthpiece to play well is too complex a process and the following episode will confirm it. During the last war, the Germans called a general mobilization to work and sent everyone to work in factories. Overnight, there wasn’t any job left and although I remained free, I had to go to work in a porcelain factory which also had a high precision department. As I spoke German, it was easy to make friends with the grinding machine specialist. Using the micrometric adjustment of the grinder, he had the task of rectifying small pistons that were made of a special alloy and were used in the oil pumps of aircraft engines. He was an expert and the only one to perform that operation by the night, because the vibrations coming from the other machines during the day would have affected his work. In one night, he worked about 60 pieces and considered himself satisfied with 40 good pieces, because sometimes he only got 40 scraps.

Buying a mouthpiece is a business that deserves special consideration. One should bring at the shop one’s own clarinet to test the mouthpiece and not be contented with viewing one or two mouthpieces, because others may have already picked the best in stock. If it were not possible to examine eight or ten mouthpieces, better postpone the purchase. Neither should one go to the shop accompanied by friends, but alone and in the early morning, without letting oneself be misled by other people's advice and relying only on one’s own skills.

During the test in the store, the greatest attention should be paid to twelfth intervals and especially to their highest note, from which one can hear any defect of the instrument. The note must be heard clearly without making any special effort with the lips. If one does not trust his own ears, one can ask to be accompanied by a person used to such tests, for example a timpani player or a piano tuner. When I was young, everyone asked the famous timpani player Leone Bompani, who was able to hear the imperceptible. One should check carefully the notes produced through the lower joint of the clarinet. If they are too low in tune, some clarinettist fixes them by enlarging a few holes, but it is a gamble that might ruin the instrument. Better contact the manufacturer instead, who will enlarge the upper joint up to the registry key and, if needed, the barrel. Finally, one should check the chalumeau notes that are the most difficult to tune. The B flat on the line may be so ugly to seem consumptive and one can try to change the registry key to improve it. At the same time, if the instrument, the mouthpiece and the reed are fine, the chalumeau notes are the clarinet most characteristic and interesting notes. For example, the violins too seem to screech, but everything is assimilated into the complex of the orchestra. [1]

Difficult passages involving high notes are not very frequent, so that one could go almost unnoticed playing the lower eighth. In some cases, however, it is out of question, for example, in the Minuet of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, [2] closed by the solo clarinet with a high G, or in a piece by Respighi, in which the clarinet rushes to a high A. Besides, one risks being criticized by his colleagues in the orchestra. In addition to the mouthpiece, which must produce the high notes with ease, one must also take care of himself, if one knows that in a few days he will perform a solo piece with high. High notes are important even if one doesn’t need to play them, for example, if one must perform high F, it is necessary to feel safe playing the next higher note, in this case a G. In other occasions, the worry is not the high note of itself, but how one gets there. An example is the clarinet solo in Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bald Mountain, in which the last two upper eighth notes are risky to play even if they are not too high. [3] Many good performers have miserably stumbled playing that interval from E on the space to high C, because the last note is produced only through the registry key and the instrument must be held in the balance, and La traviata is another example. [4]

Sometimes the mouthpiece sends the instrument out of tune, other times the clarinet is simply unfit for the mouthpiece. There is a lot of difference between instruments from different manufacturers, especially regarding the intonation, so that when I changed clarinet, I often had to change the mouthpiece as well. In general, Italian clarinets are high in tune in the chalumeau and low notes, while tend to be low in tune in the high notes. In French clarinets, on the other hand, the chalumeau notes are less high in tune, high notes are more in tune, but the low register is almost too low. Selmer clarinets had the most beautiful acute notes of all clarinets and to play them one had to raise the upper lip. I use the past tense, because Selmer clarinets haven’t been on the market for many years.



5. The Types of Mouthpiece


The material of which a mouthpiece is made is important, but not decisive. If the facing is well-adjusted, my teacher used to say, Bakelite, bone, ivory or even terracotta will sound equally well. Below, I will only deal with the three types of mouthpieces that I used during my profession, giving particular attention to the crystal mouthpiece. [5]


5.1 Wood

The wooden mouthpiece gives excellent results and has all the qualities of the clarinet, as it is made of the same material. In my opinion, it has the most beautiful voice, having the sweetness, volume and timbre typical of the clarinet, which was created with this mouthpiece, although it is used by bass clarinettists and many saxophonists too. It is common opinion that the facing of this mouthpiece will alter through use and depending on the seasons. Personally, I never encountered this phenomenon, but another: if the mouthpiece is thin, in time the table might give way when tightening the ligature. The mouthpiece must therefore be rather thick and bellied, made of well-seasoned wood. Of the two main types of ebony of which it is made, granadilla and Japanese, it seems that the first has greater resonance. Of course, one should have care to dry the mouthpiece with a cloth when he finishes playing, because wood absorbs the water and may deform.

Unfortunately, wooden mouthpieces are not widely commercialized, perhaps because they are relatively cheap, since they are produced in small quantities from clarinet scraps and sold in pair with new clarinets. On the other hand, when I visited the Selmer factory in Paris, they told me that their new metal clarinet needed a wooden mouthpiece. If someone was going to play with this type of mouthpiece, they should buy it beautiful, though more expensive, because even beauty has here its value. In general, during my working life, it was very difficult to meet a clarinet player who used wooden mouthpieces. Almost everyone preferred crystal or hard rubber mouthpieces, even in Russia, and for light music, even mouthpieces made of Bakelite, bone or metal. In Italy especially, ebony mouthpieces are seldom used, perhaps because many clarinettists adopt a single lip embouchure and the teeth may produce a mark or even a hole in the wood, unlike in crystal or hard rubber.

In my opinion, as long as one is accustomed from young, it is not a fault to adopt the single lip embouchure, especially if one has a short upper lip and cannot tuck it under the teeth. Although the French school does not allow this embouchure, other clarinet schools teach it to children, unlike ours that prefers the French system. A few years ago, I was interested in this embouchure and I discussed it with several clarinettists. One day, a teacher from Rome wrote to me a letter, explaining that the single lip embouchure leaves the reed freer to vibrate. To me, however, it seems just a matter of habit, because although at the beginning the voice is almost shrivelled, soon no one notices any difference.

The shape of the facing is like that of hard rubber mouthpieces, but different from that of crystal mouthpieces. Working on wood has no particular problem but, as I already said, the mouthpiece must be rather sturdy and bellied, never thin. I think it is better to make a slightly longer facing curvature than in the rubber mouthpiece although, of course, one must test the practical outcome of the work, the timbre produced and other details. It is good to leave the tip rail rather thick, to obtain a more homogeneous voice and make it more resistant to any impact. As wood is more tender than the rubber, wood mouthpieces are also easy to work on the inside, for example when it is necessary to flare the baffle or to enlarge the bore. For the same reason, however, one must be careful not to overwork the mouthpiece, because going beyond the point means to lower the tone and make the mouthpiece useless. The opening ranges from 1 to 1.5 mm, but a curved and longer opening may reach around 2 mm, because the more a mouthpiece is open at the tip and more the facing curve must be long, otherwise it is difficult to find suitable reeds and the few, produce a dry and sour sound.

5.2 Rubber

The hard rubber mouthpiece is actually made of a compound of rubber and wood dust called ebonite. Some argue that it is completely stable, but my teacher confided to me that his rubber mouthpiece was deformed, after he had left it in a sunny spot during a walk in Bologna. Since it produces good sound in all registers, hard rubber mouthpieces are used for both light and classical music, especially in Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom and the United States where, for example, Benny Goodman used them every time I saw him play. Sometimes considered only appropriate for a band, I often used it in the orchestra and as much as it sounds shriller than the wood mouthpiece, when it is well-adjusted, one gets out of it the sound of the clarinet par excellence.

Adjusting hard rubber mouthpieces requires an expert technician, a careful choice of reed and a meticulous care of the instrument, as even a leaking pad would cause trouble. When a reed works well one should not remove it every day. Although it may not be advisable from a hygienic point of view, the Germans tie the reed to the mouthpiece with black string and leave it in place for months, cleaning it with a special brush. The German school teaches preparing two or even three mouthpieces all alike and with a reed mounted. After a few months, if a mouthpiece does not work anymore, they replace it completely, not only the reed as we do, a bit like oboes do. One gradually prepares a stock of three or four mouthpieces ready for any eventuality: bumps, a room with a different acoustics, a smaller ensemble with different volume, etc. In this case too, the personal ingenuity of the player will distinguish him from the others.

Even when the facing is well-made, compared to crystal mouthpieces, hard rubber ones whistle more easily and require more practice to get used to, one month against one week. This is due to the material itself and to the fact that in order to be able to play with hard rubber mouthpieces without whistling, one needs to adopt special measures that reveal who truly knows the mouthpiece and how to adjust it.

Should it be necessary to adjust a new rubber mouthpiece, it would be lucky if the opening allowed at least to play, to understand where one needs to intervene. If after several tests, the reed should start to whistle, one tries a better one, but new, because used reeds receive a certain impression and no longer adapt to another mouthpiece. If the opening is so closed that one cannot play, we adjust it slightly by gently removing as little material as possible, because it will be needed later. In all types of mouthpieces, the tip rail is a delicate are, that should be left rather thick especially in crystal mouthpieces, otherwise the sound becomes woodier and the whistle more likely. However, it must not be too thick either, else it does not allow sufficient air to flow and again, the mouthpiece might whistle. On the other hand, if the tip is very open, the curve must be made longer. Although one needs to follow certain rules, otherwise the work is likely to be useless, the opening measures cannot be completely exact because the differences from one mouthpiece to another (window, side rails, etc.) oblige us to make adjustments. For example, if a hard rubber mouthpiece was already reduced to its correct measures and curvature, but its voice remains too dry, one could still lengthen the opening slightly to make the sound more homogeneous. Particularly in hard rubber mouthpieces, the opening must be well curved, never straight, to produce sweeter voice, although a harsher mouthpiece is better than one that whistles.

As said before, hard rubber mouthpieces have a greater tendency to whistle, yet at the same time, benefit from the tenderness of the material, for example when it is necessary to enlarge the window, modify the tip or side rails, etc. If the bore, that controls intonation, is too narrow, the mouthpiece is high in tune. It would be better not to intervene in this case because the result may be poor, but if it were really necessary, it would only take a few minutes to enlarge it using a piece of sandpaper wrapped on a wooden stick. However, one should remove less material than seems necessary, otherwise the instrument might become too low in tune and the mouthpiece useless. In general, the mouthpiece should be slightly high in tune, leaving some leeway in the intonation that one can tune in later more precisely, pulling out slightly the mouthpiece from the barrel or the barrel itself from the upper joint


5.3 Crystal

The last mouthpiece to have appeared on the market, the crystal mouthpiece soon became the favourite combination in the Italian school, which is considered among the best in the world, although the French mouthpieces, made of a straw-coloured crystal, are more beautiful than those made in Italy. When I was a student in Bologna, it was said that the crystal should be old, because it has higher quality, is easier to adjust and has a more elegant look. As far as I could see, the type of crystal has almost no influence on the sound, that depends rather on the workmanship. To prove my point, some time ago I ordered a pack of crystal mouthpieces from the firm Bucchi of Genova. Although all mouthpieces came from the same casting, one I adjusted very quickly and sounded great, while another took months of work before I could make it to work somehow.

Crystal mouthpieces have fewer requirements than hard rubber ones, they work fine even if they have a slight defect and are also more elegant, hygienic and less subject to whistling than the large and bellied ebony mouthpieces. At the same time, however, they are more prone to cracks and breakages, not only caused by a fall, but also by removing the mouthpiece from the barrel or, especially when in hot temperature, by a slight bump on a crack invisible to the naked eye. Although a clarinettist is forced to keep a spare ready at hand, as soon as he gets accustomed to the massive and sonorous voice of crystal, other types of mouthpieces will appear shrivelled and childish so that one will no longer want switch. It is also true that the use of one type of mouthpiece rather than another, depends on the size of the orchestra or ensemble in which one is playing: if it is large, one uses crystal mouthpieces, if it is smaller, rubber or wood. Professionals should own all three types of mouthpiece, using them according to the environment, size of orchestra and genre of music.

Only rarely does a professional clarinettist continue the same way as when he was a student, although here too there are exceptions. For example, a short man (1.52 m) once entered the Bologna conservatory, who had already studied clarinet with Prof. Lugatti, was intelligent and endowed with such huge musical talent that besides the specific teachings of the curriculum, he had very little to learn. He never changed his crystal mouthpiece mounted on a Rampone clarinet and continued to play with it even after. Voice, staccato and legato presented no difficulty for Luigi Amadio and when he graduated with full marks, Maestro Toscanini took him with him to play at La Scala as first clarinet. There, however, he needed to work hard before obtaining enough volume for the theatre.

But does the crystal mouthpiece sound really better? I have ascertained that with a well-adjusted mouthpiece, perfect facing and suitable reeds, the voice is beautiful with all types of mouthpieces if one is used to it. Since crystal mouthpieces vibrate less than the other types, its voice is less brash, especially in a band where some players seem to scream, yet argentine and apparently sweeter, particularly from a distance. The player does not hear the same sound as the listener, for instance the oboe that might seems to screech when listened close, is pleasant from afar.

Usually, crystal mouthpieces I find on the market have well-made facings. The measurements range from one to four. However, measurements checked with a calibre do not have much value because each mouthpiece is unique in itself and one moves away from the original factory measures, as adjustments in different areas progress. One must find the most suitable measures for each individual mouthpiece, keeping the second factory measure as a reference.

Since crystal vibrates less, this mouthpiece is shorter than that of wood or rubber, while its opening is longer up to the letter D, from which one should not deviate too much when adjusting it, to avoid that the low and the chalumeau notes become less clear.  The crystal mouthpiece one purchases should be made of the purest crystal, without any bubble or impurity, and with a facing neither too wide nor too narrow, as the work would otherwise be excessive should the facing need adjusting. The length is important, because if a mouthpiece is too short it is likely to be high in tune, making it more difficult to match the other instruments in the orchestra, conversely, if the mouthpiece is too long, it might be low in tune. Many argue that one regains in width what cannot be gained in length. On the contrary, I think that even the slightest differences cannot be compensated if they are fundamental, as are the length and width of the mouthpiece, because they are measures independent of each other and specific to each manufacturer.

With the pinkie finger one can check the size of the bore. If the mouthpiece works fine but the chalumeau is high in tune, one can enlarge the bore. This operation is long and dangerous because by rubbing the crystal with abrasive paper, it heats up and might crack. Thus, one should avoid working for more than a quarter of an hour at the time and resume after a long break. The mouthpiece is more likely to crack if the tip rail is too thin, which also makes the sound harsher and woodier.


6. The Parts of the Mouthpiece


Before moving on to practical execution, one should first understand how to adjust or reface the mouthpiece, because it is not possible to venture into this process simply holding a sheet of sandpaper in the hand. Surely, one might ask at school, but teachers will hardly explain how to perform such interventions, either fearing that a student might ruin the mouthpiece, or because most clarinettists are reluctant to reveal their secrets. It even occurred to me that, when I asked senior musicians in the orchestra for advice on this matter, they pretended not to understand my questions.

At thirteen, I owned a small clarinet in E flat and was a member of my home town band. Although my first teacher was a clarinet amateur, he had a superb voice and was a true specialist of the mouthpiece. Thanks to him, I gained interest and a certain knowledge of mouthpiece adjustment and I came across a manual written by a German or Austrian author called Blatt who treated the mouthpiece in passing. Many years later, when I came across that manual while I was living in France, it was still the only one I had seen showing the different areas of the mouthpiece. A letter designates each area that must work with the others in maximum harmony. German and other clarinets that do not follow the Boehm system have a different mouthpiece, size and the fingering. In general, however, as each mouthpiece has its own characteristics, the most important thing is to get a good result, although it might appear somewhat different from what I am showing here. [2]


6.1 Tip

The tip must be well-made to allow an effortless breath flow. One should avoid purchasing mouthpieces with a too large tip, especially should some adjusting be needed. The more one works on the curve, the more the tip rail gets wider, allowing less air flow and producing whistles. The letters A and C that indicate the two ends of the tip rail must be absolutely symmetrical when looking at them in the backlight. If one is higher than the other, the mouthpiece whistles or does not work at all.


6.2 Beak

The beak is the slope from the bulge of the mouthpiece to the tip rail and has some importance in regulating the execution and stabilizing the clarinet. As the upper lip or the teeth rest on the beak, it is better if it has slight dip, so as not to cause discomfort and insecurity while holding the instrument. Usually the beak is straight in wood and rubber mouthpieces, while crystal mouthpieces are concave in the middle, offering better support to the lip and greater stability to the instrument. One should be careful when buying a crystal mouthpiece, as it is very difficult to create that support for the lip because it might crack, whereas one can work freely with wood or rubber mouthpieces, after checking through the window that the baffle is thick enough. One should only intervene when necessary, because the beak might become too weak and if one adopts the single lip embouchure, the teeth might even dig a hole in it. Moreover, the beak should be rather wide so the lip can hold it comfortably. [3]


6.3 Table

The letter B marks the table of the mouthpiece from the heel to the curve breaking point, indicated by the letter D. This area must be perfectly smooth, because even a slight protrusion or depression would cause whistling. Although one may not be aware of the table design and simply continue to adjust the mouthpiece until his needs are met, both in old and newly purchased mouthpieces, one should first choose how to execute the table, flat, Italian style, or sunken, French style.

Clarinet schools in France and some in Italy, adopt mouthpieces with sunken table. It is a very logical system, because it prevents the reed from closing, as the trough in the table will force it to raise from the tip when tightening the ligature. This offers an advantage when playing high notes and even the chalumeau notes are rounder and clearer. This type of table is more suitable for crystal mouthpieces than rubber or wood ones, where the voice tends to become too metallic and sour.

The flat table can be adjusted by hand and when the area from the shank to the break point works fine, one needs only to adjust the curve so that everything falls in place. On the contrary, it is difficult to create a trough in the middle of the table by hand. As in France, mouthpieces with sunken table are better made by machine, in which a grinding wheel moves back and forth with maximum precision. I adjusted dozens of these mouthpieces and many clarinettists around the world use them with satisfaction, but I find the choice of reeds more difficult, and the looming whistle does not give enough peace of mind to play. Although my teacher didn't like the French style table, I decided to try it out to increase the sonority of some shoddy mouthpieces made of crystal, which is already rather dull sounding by its own nature. By slightly hollowing out the table, I managed to make them work, but only after numerous tests. I ended up adopting the flat table as a rule, because it affords fewer complications during the adjustment process and fewer whistles. I made a trough of about 0.2 mm, using a purposely made steel plate with a slightly convex face. Others, more simply, place between the plate and a sheet of abrasive paper a sturdy needle that produces the required trough almost by itself.

The opening of mouthpieces with sunken table is narrower because the reed needs to turn upwards when the ligature is tightened. At the same time, the fibres of reed are in tension such that they don’t vibrate evenly but depending on the thickness of the fibres, thus causing whistles even when the reed is good. However, as we here are in the field of research, even a mouthpiece with flat table can be made more resonant by making a slight trough in the middle of the table.

Some mysteries of the mouthpiece still remain unsolved and here is an example. A student of mine once gave me a hard rubber mouthpiece that did not emit a single note without whistling, although all seemed fine according to my parameters. After a while I decided to take care of the problem and almost angrily, I made a huge trough in the middle of the table, which made the problem even worse. I continued to grind the table back and forth and the more I ground, the better the mouthpiece sounded. When I decided to stop and check the work on the plate, I found a hump right in the middle of the table and this mouthpiece became one of my favourites.


6.4 Opening

The opening should begin from the letter D, but based on my experience, if everything else is fine, outcomes can be great even if the opening is made to begin slightly before or after. The curve should not become a straight line but bend increasingly towards the tip. [9] My teacher believed that each type of mouthpiece needed a different opening. Nevertheless, my direct experience suggests that all mouthpieces once adjusted, end up having a similar opening. Although a theory may seem acceptable, it is more often than not a matter of sensibility, or perhaps of instinct or personal skill of the artist. One can always measure the opening of the reed at each letter, however, as one works by hand and not by machine, it is more convenient to talk of an opening system of reed and mouthpiece. With some practice, one will be able to shape the distance between the opening of the mouthpiece and the reed based on the median size of the factory. [10]

In general, I consider that the correct opening for playing in an orchestra corresponds to the second grade of Bucchi or Cutrie mouthpieces, about 2 mm, that affords even more sound than needed. In the adjustment process, however, one cannot stick too closely to factory measures because each mouthpiece has its own characteristics and sometimes, to make it work, it is necessary to ignore those limits for technical reasons. Exceptions to the rules especially require art in order to reach the highest level of accomplishment, as for the luthier. I met many luthiers, even of fame, who told me that when the work is finished, not all the violins, cellos or violas have the same flaws, one needs adjustment, others don’t, because each instrument has different characteristics. The same happens for the mouthpiece and one should, as a doctor in front of a patient, understand the disease and work with skill and insight until full recovery is gained or resist the temptation to intervene, an ability not less important.

Here are a few general rules for adjusting the opening. If any material is removed from the tip, some must also be removed in correspondence of the letter D. If the mouthpiece is more open at the tip, the opening should be continued further down. Starting from the letter D towards the tip, one must always get a curve, not a straight line. [11] One should pay attention to the tip rail, because if it is too thick it might prevent the flow of breath, but if one removes too much material, the sound becomes woody and whistles are likely to occur. If the mouthpiece is too closed to play, one should open it just enough to test the mouthpiece and finish the opening when the rest of the adjustment is completed. During my career I used clarinets with large holes, especially in the lower joint, that produced little sound, and others with small holes that produced plenty. The same happens to mouthpieces: if the opening is closed, it produces a lot of sound, if it is very open, nothing comes out. The width of the opening does not determine the volume of the voice, and widening it beyond need, makes the sweetness of the voice disappear and messes up intonation and staccato. Instead, if one is looking for more volume, one should use a firmer reed, playing with more ease and confidence.


6.5 Bore

The letter F is my own addition and designates the bore on which depends the intonation. If the chalumeau notes are high in tune, it may be necessary to enlarge the bore, proceeding with the greatest caution not to exceed the limit.



7. The Adjustments


Before beginning to work on the mouthpiece, one first needs minimal equipment. I had two steel plates made 1 cm thick, 10 cm long and 4 cm wide, perfectly rectified by a machine tool. Thus, I obtained four worktops that I checked for accuracy matching them two by two. A glimmer of light between two worktops, indicates that a side is faulty and needs to be rectified again, or dirty. I noticed that two floors were perfect, and I could use them for fine adjustments, while the other two I kept for coarse grinding. [12]

First, one should carefully clean the worktop before placing the mouthpiece on top. If looking at their contact line in backlight, one sees any light leaking through, it means that there is a trough at that point, and therefore, a relief in its immediate proximity that needs removing. In the same way one finds all other faults in the facing and where it is necessary to intervene.

When deciding whether it is necessary to adjust a mouthpiece, one should always use the utmost caution. For example, some mouthpieces almost invite removing material from the table, because it is so narrow or short that a strip of the reed is left out when tightening the ligature, which in turn, must not be too loose not to slip. Once the need is ascertained, one should plan what to do and where to start from. To learn this art, one can start practising on inexpensive mouthpieces with flat table, because they are less difficult to work than those with sunken table. Let's now see with all the patience we are capable of, how to create beautiful mouthpieces for clarinet, following the procedures in the order described below.


7.1 Tip

One should first check the tip rail, avoiding as much as possible to remove material in this area and if anything, only the bare minimum when the adjustment work is almost complete. Certainly, the rail should not be too thick, but here hides the secret of the mouthpiece and removing too much material is likely to produce not only whistles but a harsh and dry sound.

If one end of the rail is higher than the other, one should level it perfectly with the lower one. To do this, one cuts a narrow strip of black extra fine (00) abrasive paper, spreads it on the plate and removes any roughness by rubbing over it a carborundum stick. Right and left-handers, without distinction, should hold the mouthpiece with four fingers: the thumb facing the body, the index finger pressing on the back of the mouthpiece, the middle and the ring finger preventing the mouthpiece from wobbling. While one hand holds firmly the abrasive paper strip on the plate, the other will rub the mouthpiece left to right on the paper, slowly and without pressing too much, because the slightest imperfection of the paper might produce irregularities on the facing. One should keep checking the progress on the steel plate and before finishing the work, level it with the unworked part, so that the adjustment remains almost unnoticed. [13]


7.2 Window and Side Rails

Most of the whistles are due to an imperfection of the plane, more rarely to an uneven tip rail, or to a side rail higher than the other. If the window is too wide, especially towards the tip, it might allow too much air flow and cause whistling, while if the window is too small, it tends to produce whistles but not with all reeds. If the tip rail of a crystal mouthpiece is not very thick, but the window is too small, it is better to avoid enlarging it, because it might crack. One can intervene on wood and hard rubber mouthpieces at need, having caution to leave the tip rail sufficiently sturdy, because it is a delicate area and one might change the timbre.

From the side rails, one should only remove as much material as indispensable, to avoid producing a hollow that would easily fill up with condensation making sound emission more difficult. One should also be careful when eliminating burrs, avoiding for example the use of a pen knife, or grinding along the sides of the window, on which one should only intervene outside.


7.3 Table

First, one checks that the two sides of the table are even, otherwise the mouthpiece may not work at all, despite everything else being in order. Although several pieces come out of the factory with this defect, it is difficult, at the time of purchase, to notice if the table is rotated or tilted to the right or left. [14] Straightening the table is extremely problematic and one needs extreme sensitivity to understand how to operate, also because it is rather difficult to describe. [13b] On the other hand, the mouthpiece might work fine anyway, which needs not amaze us, because one faces unbelievable circumstances when adjusting mouthpieces for the profession. For example, I recently discovered a flaw in the heel of a mouthpiece. It took me a long time to find this defect, because the reed almost never reaches the bottom end of the table and I had therefore, no reason to look for it there. Still, the mouthpiece worked fine as soon as I eliminated that defect.


7.4 Opening

Unfortunately, spontaneous sound is a miracle that occurs only once every thousand mouthpieces. Nevertheless, when a clarinettist hands me over a mouthpiece to adjust, he invariably asks me to open it because, according to him, it does not produce enough sound, “it doesn’t vent”. It is very rare that a mouthpiece, well-made but too closed, can be made more sonorous with a quick fix of the opening. The cause is rather to be found in the window, that is too small for vibrations to be channelled towards the mouthpiece bore, or as it more often happens, in a relief on the table in correspondence with the letter B. I insist that one should never start adjusting the mouthpiece by widening the tip opening, because one risks having to do a huge job afterwards. Since the reed would be on top of a hill, as it were, it would be necessary to remove tenths of a millimetre of material from the middle of the table to readjust the curve. I remind that to remove a relief in the B area of the facing, one should also remove material in the D area, to preserve the curve of the mouthpiece. Otherwise, if the mouthpiece is made of hard rubber, the sound is likely to become dry and lose sweetness while increasing the risk of whistles, and on the other hand, if it is made of crystal, it would change the timbre even if it were to work.

When correcting defects of the facing or widening the opening of a mouthpiece, grinding in the middle of the table is one of the most difficult operations. It is easier to notice any excess material on a flat table by placing a strip of black abrasive paper number 00 on the steel plate in the direction of length and dragging the mouthpiece on it, so that any relief leaves behind a light-coloured track. As soon as a relief is found, one cuts a narrow strip of abrasive paper about one centimetre wide and lays it across the plate to work only in that area of the mouthpiece, being careful not to move further up or down.

Now, one can start to eliminate the relief by dragging the mouthpiece on the sandpaper from the letter D towards the heel, without ever pressing too much. One tends to remove more material around the window and towards the heel of the mouthpiece than in the middle of the table, thus causing a relief that would make the mouthpiece impossible to play. Although the risk of whistles may increase, the reed vibrates better if a slight dip is produced in the middle of the table. Every time one interrupts the work to control it on the plate, the abrasive paper strip should be replaced. A slight depression on the table can be noticed where the relief has been removed. At this stage, one cuts a wide strip of sandpaper and places it on the plate in the direction of the length. Moving back and forth, one adjusts the excess material towards the tip and the shank, being very careful not to exceed the level of the depression, particularly at the further ends that are consumed quickly.

After working on the facing to a certain extent, it is good to mount a reed and test the mouthpiece: if it works, but with little spontaneity, one continues the work testing every progress; if it whistles, one needs to start again searching for defects without feeling discouraged. As soon as the mouthpiece works, one finishes the work slightly smoothing the facing up to the tip and the next day, one makes a final test with the lips well rested.


7.5 Bore

Intonation can be adjusted not only through the mouthpiece, but also the barrel. If, for example, we buy a mouthpiece that is low in tune, we can adjust it by slightly shortening the barrel, although it would be better to avoid this, trying a shorter barrel instead. On the other hand, if the chalumeau notes are high in tune, it is necessary to enlarge the bore, an operation that at the same time, increases the volume and the sweetness of the sound. To do this, one uses a wooden stick, at least twice the length of mouthpiece and of a round and regular section, so that it penetrates the bore until the chamber. First, one cuts a piece of abrasive paper in the shape of a trapezoid or a triangle, so that the stick wrapped in the abrasive paper is thicker towards the tip than near the hand. Then, one starts turning the stick in the bore, enlarging it until the instrument is in tune. If the mouthpiece is made of wood or hard rubber, the operation is rather fast, if it is made is crystal, one must work slowly, both because the material is hard, and because if it heats up too much, a drop of condensation would be enough to crack it. Finally, one should pay attention to the fact that one tends to give the bore a conical shape, because the stick wears out the shank as well.

Unfortunately, I will never be able to exhaust the subject and I entrust the rest to the art of each pianoiste, as the French call the artist who adjusts or reface mouthpieces. In fact, the pianoiste may not be a good clarinettist and vice versa, in the same way as the art of playing the clarinet and that of adjusting its mouthpiece are contiguous, yet the latter art is different and certainly less appreciated than the former. I will only remind the reader that this treatise includes specially composed studies to check the adjustments of the mouthpiece, with indications for testing whistles, the ligature of sounds, and especially the staccato.


[12] The plates.

[13a] Position of abrasive paper for even facing.

[13b] Position of abrasive paper to lower the table from the heel to the letter D.

[5] Mouthpiece nomenclature indicating: window (finestra armonica), tip opening (apertura), tip opening start (D), side rails (ala armonica destra/sinistra), table (B), table edges (bordo destro/sinistro), table heel (tallone) and tenon (F).

[6] Mouthpiece nomenclature indicating: tip rail (orlo AC) and baffle (scarpata armonica).

[7a] Concave beak (Penna incavata) v Straight beak (Penna pari). [7b] Convex beak (1) v straight beak (2) v convex beak (3).

[8] French concave facing (piano incavato alla francese) and Italian even facing (piano piatto all'italiana)


1. Introduction

2. The Clarinet

3. The Reed

4. The Mouthpiece

5. The Types of Mouthpiece

5.1 Wood

5.2 Rubber

5.3 Crystal

6. The Parts of the Mouthpiece

6.1 Tip

6.2 Beak

6.3 Table

6.4 Opening

6.5 Bore

7. The Adjustments

7.1 Tip

7.2 Window and Side Rails

7.3 Table

7.4 Opening

7.5 Bore

[1] Twelth interval (a), eighth interval (b), lower joint notes (c), chalumeau notes (d).

[2] From Ludwig van BeethovenSymphony no. 8 in F Major, op. 93, III Tempo di minuetto.

[3] From Modest Mussorgsky, A Night on the Bald Mountain

[4] From Giuseppe Verdi, La traviata, Act I, "Libiamo ne' lieti calici"

[5] Mouthpiece materials (from left): crystal, wood, rubber.


[9] Straight facing with concave beak; curved facing with straight beak; mouthpiece marked areas.

[10] Pronounced facing curve (apertura curvata), less pronounced facing curve (apertura meno curvata), starting point for extending the facing curve (allungare l'apertura).

[11] Mouthpiece opening size 1 v size 2.

[14] Check for rotated or tilted table.