The first and most important step to finding your ideal setup is selecting a good mouthpiece. The selection process will be different for every player for several reasons. Firstly, everyone has their own concept of sound. Secondly, every person’s physical makeup is unique, with different jaw and teeth structure, size and shape of mouth and lips, and size of the oral cavity. Also, a very important factor that is too often overlooked and the very first question I ask someone looking for a new mouthpiece is, what mouthpiece are you playing on now? Knowing the basics of your current mouthpiece will be very helpful in deciding which mouthpieces you should playtest. Don’t worry if you don’t know your mouthpiece characteristics. The trial and error period may just take a little longer. A word of advice: Many people choose a mouthpiece based on what reed they are currently using. Select a mouthpiece that gives you the sound and response you are looking for and then find a reed to complement the mouthpiece. As an example, Vandoren has a great guide that suggests reed/mouthpiece combinations which can be found here.
Mouthpieces come in many different designs. There are two basic design characteristics that greatly affect the way a mouthpiece responds and performs. These are the tip opening and facing length.
The mouthpiece tip opening is the distance between the mouthpiece tip and the reed. Basically, how much curve is there at the very tip of the mouthpiece. Generally speaking, mouthpieces with wider tip openings (more curve) will respond better with softer reeds, and mouthpieces with narrower tip openings (less curve) will respond better with harder reeds.
The mouthpiece facing length is defined by where the reed actually separates from the mouthpiece table. If the reed separates from the table near to the tip, this would be considered a shorter facing. If the reed separates from the table slightly further back, this would be considered a medium facing. Slightly further back yet would be considered a longer facing. Generally speaking, shorter facings will respond better with softer reeds, and longer facings will respond better with harder reeds.
It is the combination of these two factors, tip opening and facing length, which will influence a player’s choice of mouthpiece. Every player will find their optimal comfort and sound with the right combination of these two factors, and each player is different. Although the physics governing mouthpiece design are very interesting, it is not necessary to know the science behind the mouthpiece to discover what works best for you.
By far the most popular mouthpiece for beginners is one that features a medium tip opening and medium facing length. Look for something with a tip opening of 110 with a medium length facing which should work well with 2.5-3.5 reeds.
As a player progresses, they may find themselves looking for a mouthpiece with more specific tonal or response characteristics. Such factors as warmth, tone color, response, and resistance, may influence a player’s decision when selecting a mouthpiece. There are many options to choose from, but beware of using the same style of reed on every mouthpiece.
Generally speaking, mouthpieces with tip openings smaller than 110 will offer less resistance and a very focused sound. These mouthpieces will require stronger reeds. Mouthpieces with tip openings larger than 110 will offer more resistance and a more rounded sound and will require softer reeds.
Once you have found your ideal mouthpiece/reed combination, the other component needed to complete the trio is the ligature. In addition to securing the reed on the mouthpiece, ligatures influence both response and tone color. There are many options to choose from however, my personal experience is the more weight/bulk in the material, the darker the sound becomes. A ligature that is very lightweight tends to create a more responsive sound.
Choosing an ideal setup takes a little time and patience as well as some trial and error. Once you have selected your new mouthpiece, reed, and ligature this custom combination should give you superior musical results for years to come.