Choosing a mouthpiece is a part of horn playing that can still be a bit mysterious for some. Although I am no expert, I’ve been through quite a few mouthpieces and have learned a few things that can help you expedite the process of finding something that fits both your face and your instrument.
To let you know where I’m coming from, I’m starting out with a (brief) version of my own mouthpiece history. A bit further down, you’ll be able to read my thoughts on picking out a mouthpiece for yourself, and I’ve also included a list of some recommended makers and models. And don’t forget about my Mouthpiece Comparison Chart, where you can check out the specs for a large number of mouthpieces!
My Mouthpiece Story:
I remember when I first started learning horn, my parents bought an old Holton single F horn, and for many years I used the mouthpiece that came with that horn. I don’t specifically remember what it was, but it was likely a venerable Holton MC or MDC – both of which are fairly middle-of-the-road in terms of cup depth and bore size, but quite small when it comes to the internal diameter of the rim (if you don’t know what these terms mean, check out my Mouthpiece Comparison Page for a breakdown). As I recall, I struggled quite a bit on this mouthpiece – it’s internal diameter is very small, and the rim is fairly narrow, which didn’t work at all for my lips and face. I did stay on this horn (and mouthpiece) for at least a year or so, however.
In high school, my (new) teacher simply said “You should get a Stork C10” and that’s what I did. While that was closer to the right internal size (for me) it was still on the small side, and the rim shape (reverse peak) didn’t really help. In theory the reverse peak (where the highest point of the rim is toward the outer edge of the rim) should help to “focus” or “bunch up” the lips and the aperture toward the center, but since the internal diameter was still very much on the small side (again, for me), it didn’t quite work for me, and the rim shape felt like it was cutting into my embouchure. It was quite uncomfortable, but I didn’t know any better and I (somewhat) managed on that mouthpiece until my sophomore or junior year of college.
That’s also about the time when I switched horns – moving from a large-throated Conn 8D to a much smaller-throated Yamaha 667. The Stork was well-suited to pair with the Conn but didn’t really work at all with the Yamaha (notwithstanding my own playing problems, which were many). I can’t remember exactly how, but about this time I heard of a new mouthpiece maker – Laskey – and tried out a couple of models owned by other players in the studio, and was instantly intrigued.
I can’t remember exactly what the models were, but I imagine there was a 75G and an 80G. I remember really liking the 80G for a reason which I really couldn’t readily articulate. After doing a little research, I found out that not only was the 80G bigger than my Stork – it was (relatively speaking) a LOT bigger. The 80G’s 18.00mm internal diameter was among the largest internal diameter sizes you could get. But that size, along with the more evenly rounded rim shape, worked quite well for me. I stuck with the Laskey 80G for quite a while, before moving up to the 85G (18.5 mm on the inside). Moving to a European instrument shortly after graduating necessitated getting a horn with a slightly different shank, so I moved to a two-piece system, but my rim is still almost the exact same as the rim on the Laskey 85G.
Update: April 2017
For the past couple of years, I’ve been subtly adjusting my embouchure (not to be too boring, but essentially trying to shrink my aperture to an ‘optimal’ size). To that end, I had been noticing that on certain notes in certain dynamics (mainly middle of the staff at loud dynamics) I had been getting a fairly obnoxious double buzz.
While I tried a few different things to get rid of it, I talked to a friend of mine who works for a mouthpiece maker, and it seemed like the culprit was really just a mouthpiece that was too big (internal diameter-wise) for my facial setup. The rim I was using (an 18.5mm E rim by Houser) is quite large on the inside, and while it worked well for a time, things change and it’s important to find optimal equipment and not get too hung up on specifics.
I didn’t want to go too small too quickly, so I tried the same rim in a slightly smaller size (18.25mm E rim), and after a pretty short adjustment period, it actually felt quite comfortable. The double buzz was definitely reduced, and while I had to adjust a little bit for certain playing techniques (mainly slurs over an octave), there really wasn’t much else to adjust to.
After about 4-6 months, the double buzz started to come back, and so I was looking for something a bit smaller. For no reason other than it was available, I switched from the E rim to an 18mm H1 rim (still made by Houser) which has a very similar profile. There wasn’t much reason for the switch other than the H1 rim was available and the E rim would take a bit longer to make. I was assured that they felt similar, and to me they do. I was actually able to switch the rim and play a week-long musical run just a few days later. I’ve been on the H1 rim for about 4 months, and it still feels great. I’ve thought about trying out a 17.75mm rim, but only out of curiosity, not a necessity.
As far as cups, most of the last year I was switching between a few different ones (Houser, Osmun, PHC), but when I got the H1 rim I also got an H3 cup from Houser. While I like the H1, and used it quite a bit, the H3 is even better (to me, right now). With my horn (which already has a bit of resistance), the H3 requires even more focus and attention to airspeed, oral cavity and playing in the “fat” part of the note. The immediate aural and physical feedback when you try to fight against the horn + mouthpiece has been great!
What This Means for You:
When choosing a mouthpiece, there are 2 main things to consider:
- Does it work with your instrument?
- Does it work with your facial/lip structure?
Pairing a Mouthpiece With Your Instrument
There are two main types of horn, Kruspe (pronounced KREW-spee) and Geyer (pronounced GUY-er) style. Many, many pages could be written about the differences between the two, but here are a couple of generalities:
Kruspe: The Conn 8D is the most well-known Kruspe-style instrument played today (although it’s not an exact copy of original Kruspes). Kruspe-style instruments are primarily identified by the change valve located on the “player side” of the valve cluster, the use of all nickel-silver, and a relatively large or extra large bell throat (not a larger bore). In general, Kruspe style instruments are considered to have a “dark” and “veiled” sound – although some consider it “tubby” and “woofy”
Geyer: The Yamaha 667 is a good example of a Geyer-style horn (although, like the Kruspe style, there are many manufacturers making this style). Geyer-style horns (sometimes called Knopf-style, although there are some minor differences) are characterized by the change valve being located away from the “player side” of the valve cluster, all- or mostly-brass construction, and a bell throat that is either is usually medium or medium large. In general, Geyer style horns are considered to have a “bright” and “projecting” sound, although some consider it “shrill” or “tinny”.
In general, Kruspe horns work better with deeper, more V-shaped mouthpiece cups with bore sizes in the 1 – 10 range, while Geyer horns work better with shallower, bowl-shaped mouthpiece cups with bore sizes in the 12-16 range. Remember, these are generalities, but they are good places to start.
Pairing a Mouthpiece With Your Face
Pairing a mouthpiece with your lips and face can take a bit of trial and error – it’s highly recommended that you have a good teacher that knows your playing assist you. It’s quite easy to spend $100’s of dollars and wind up more confused than you started – remember a mouthpiece is no substitute for practice and good use of your air!
In general, the horn embouchure uses more upper lip in the mouthpiece than lower lip. This is generally the exact opposite setup from a trumpet embouchure – so if you’re switching from trumpet (I did, many years ago) make sure you think about moving the mouthpiece “up” a bit toward your nose. Generally speaking, the outside of the bottom of the rim should be about where the red of your bottom lip starts. The internal diameter of the rim should then be large enough to allow the mouthpiece to extend over the red part of your top lip – for horn, the top lip does most of the vibrating – you want it to be uninhibited. The Horn Matters website has a good picture to visualize what I mean. Notice where the outside part of the lower rim rests, and where the inside part of the upper rim begins.
If you think your mouthpiece may not be a good fit, try this exercise: Form your embouchure without the mouthpiece, and then, while using a mirror, slowly place your mouthpiece on your embouchure. Check (in the mirror) where the mouthpiece is coming into contact – does it extend past the bottom red part of your lips, can you still see red above the top of the rim? Try buzzing moderately high and low notes (and slurring between them), can you keep the buzz going between the different registers, or is there a place where you have to physically remove the mouthpiece to “reset” the embouchure to continue the buzz?
If you have to physically remove the mouthpiece between registers, or if the mouthpiece doesn’t quite feel “right” on your face, you may want to try a slightly larger internal diameter. Make sure that you consult with your regular teacher (or someone experienced who knows your playing) to make sure that everything else is in order before you spend money on a mouthpiece. If you’re using one of the very small Holton Farkas MDC/MC models, try something with at least a 17.25 internal diameter – if that size doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to move up a bit. However, be aware that going from something small to large (> 17.6mm) will require a longer adjustment period – you’ll be using your aperture muscles in a slightly different way, and it will take some time for them to compensate.
Rim shape and thickness is a very personal preference. Keep in mind that rims that ‘feel’ thicker and more cushioned, while they can increase endurance, can also reduce flexibility and articulation crispness. Likewise, thin rims, although they can feel great for a few minutes, can be more tiring (or even painful) to play on if you use too much pressure. Generally, more middle-of-the-road is better than an extreme rim, but you should find something that is comfortable for your face. I’ve written more about the specific rim shapes over on my Mouthpiece Comparison Chart page.
As you can probably tell, I’m not the biggest fan of the Holton Farkas line of mouthpieces – for some people they work great, and they were certainly the standard for students and professionals many years ago, but I think their relatively small inner dimensions may have contributed to the notion that the horn was for “people with thin lips”. If they work for you, though, go for it – they are generally inexpensive and easy to find.
For most students in middle and high school I generally recommend Yamaha mouthpieces, since they are easy to find and (more importantly) they are relatively inexpensive. The 30C4 (which comes in most Yamaha horns) is a little small, but I think it’s a much more appropriate starting size. The 32C4, 33C4, 34C4, and 35C4 all provide approximately the same cup, bore and rim with different internal rim diameters, making them ideal to use to find your “best fit”. They only go up to about 18mm, but that’s generally plenty large enough for most younger students.
For a more advanced student in high school or college, I really like Laskey mouthpieces. While the rim shape is a little bit unusual (or, it was for me), over about a month it became very comfortable – it feel both precise and cushioned, and now I don’t really care for anything else (my current rim is based on the Laskey shape). What really separates Laskey from the Yamaha line, however, is the engineering and design of the cup shape, bore size, and back bore. The Laskey cups are a bit more efficient at getting a nice, full sound without requiring much strain or wasted effort. These mouthpiece are a bit more expensive than the Yamaha, but if you are serious about playing, they are a worthy investment. I really like the “G” cup and I think it’s probably the best all-around, but for a Kruspe horn, and “F” cup may be a better match. The Laskey numbering system is also very logical – the numbers are the middle two numbers of the internal diameter, followed by a letter denoting the cup – so a 17.50 mm G cup is a 75G, the 80F is 18.00 mm with a F cup, etc.
Price-wise, Stork mouthpieces are a nice middle ground between the Yamaha and the Laskey – I prefer the Laskey, but that’s primarily due to the Laskey’s rim contour (which not everyone is a fan of). The Stork C series has a wide-variety of custom options available at a very reasonable cost – if you want a bigger inside you can try the Stork CA series or Stork CB series and you can get any one of those three sizes in three different cup depths: the C (and the CA and CB) is the deepest (best suited to Kruspe horns), while the CM, CMA, and CMB, are medium cups (for a Geyer-style). There are also shallow cups (again, in all three sizes) for very demanding high parts. All of these options are also offered in a variety of bore sizes, depending on your horn and your specific needs. Stork’s Orval series, doesn’t have the options of the C-series, but they are good general-purpose mouthpieces available in a wide variety of sizes from 17mm to 18mm. I don’t have much experience with the Stork Wekre or the Stork Myers mouthpieces, but I will say that the Myers mouthpiece seems to be a very personalized design.
2- and 3-piece
2- and 3-piece systems make changing out individual components much easier, and they also add an extra layer of expense. For example, most individual rims will cost more than an entire Yamaha mouthpiece! For this reason, I generally only recommend 2-piece mouthpieces for those who are willing (and need) to make a significant investment in money and time to find what works best.Moosewood, owned and operated by Tom Greer, is a good source for a wide variety of custom rims and cups. He makes a wide variety of both to fit essentially any horn (even mellophone and tenor horn!), and he is a great resource to consult if you have any questions or need recommendations. His “B” cup (for Geyers) and “C” cup (for Kruspes) are good places to start, but he has many others – most of which aren’t listed on his site. Houser makes my current mouthpiece and rim – they were (at least to my knowledge) one of the first makers to use stainless steel in mouthpiece construction. I like their stainless rim, since the steel is much less reactive to skin than the brass-plated nickel used by most makers. I used gold-plated rims for a while, but I would have to have the gold re-plated about once a year, since I’d wear through it and it would irritate my lips – stainless steel doesn’t have that problem.
I also like the Osmun system of 2-piece horn mouthpieces. Instead of giving you a just a description of the cup’s attributes (medium deep, bowl, etc.), they separate the cups into “sound families” – Chicago, Vienna, London, New York, Haydn – giving you an idea of the sound and instrument each cup is designed for. This can make it easier to pair a specific cup with your instrument and it gives you an idea of what each cup was designed to do. They use a similar system for their rims, which doesn’t work quite as well (in my opinion), although they do have a wide variety of options and sizes, so you can likely (with some experimenting) find something that works well. They also offer cups and rims in both “standard” threads (also called Giardinelli threading) and metric threads (used by PHC and others) at no extra cost.
Coming from across the pond, the English-made PHC cups and rims are not quite as easy to find in the US. They were designed by Anthony Halstead and Anthony Chidell were 1st and 2nd horns in the London Symphony Orchestra. PHC was one of the first to encourage and support much larger internal diameter mouthpieces for both low and high horn players, due to his research in natural horn. According to the PHC website:
In 1810 Domnich recommended an internal cup diameter of 18mm for Ist horn players, together with one of 20mm for 2nd horn players, and as early as 1800 Duvernoy had recommended a cup diameter of 19mm for the 2nd horn.
PHC makes 15 different cup shapes, and each of those cups comes in 4 “flavors”: normal, heavy, Z (specially annealed for increased response), and Z heavy. This makes 60 combinations of cups, that, along with the 12 different rim diameters and contours, provide a large number of combinations for any instrument. This is an especially flexible system, and worth looking into, especially for those playing English- or European-made instruments.
Remember, if you’re interested in the specifics of your mouthpiece (or are looking at something a little different), I’ve got a comparison chart over on this page featuring all the mouthpieces listed here along with quite a few more! Don’t let your mouthpiece be a mystery!