Earlier this year I had a lesson with one of Atlanta's best jazz trumpet players, Joe Gransden. During that lesson, I got to try his Monette trumpet and wrote an article about the experience. Reader comments to that article eventually led me to switch from a 7C mouthpiece to a larger Yamaha 14B4 (3C) mouthpiece. I've been relatively happy with this new mouthpiece, but continue to wonder if it's the ideal solution. After all, I've only tried a handful of mouthpieces over the years and there are literally hundreds of alternatives to choose from.
My search for a better mouthpiece took a new turn about a month ago, when I was introduced to Alexa (Alex) Yates by way of Joe Gransden's Facebook page. Alex Yates is a professional trumpet player living in the Atlanta area. She also happens to be a mouthpiece consultant for GR Mouthpieces. As my trumpet playing readers may know, GR Mouthpieces is a boutique company that specializes in high-end mouthpieces. I've always heard good things about their mouthpieces, but frankly their dizzying array of options has always scared me away. GR Mouthpieces even jokes about their complexity with the following text that appears in bold type on their "Mouthpiece Tutorial" page: Caution - Do Not Venture Here Unless You Want Your Brain To Hurt! That's why they have consultants, like Alex Yates, who specialize in matching mouthpieces to trumpet players.
Interested, but not entirely sold on the consultation, I sent Alex Yates an email to learn more about the consultation process. She told me that the consultation lasts 1.5-2 hours, after which time 99% of the players leave with a new mouthpiece that matches their embouchure, playing style, and horn (the other 1% don't buy a mouthpiece). That's a great track record considering she's done hundreds of these consultations. Alex also told me that regardless of whether I buy a mouthpiece or not, "You will come away feeling much more in-the-know about how to listen to yourself, allowing your chops to respond to the air and play naturally in sync with your body." Sold!
Following are my notes from the consultation, which occurred yesterday.
THE MOUTHPIECE CONSULTATION
The mouthpiece consultation began with me playing a few G's in the staff on over a dozen different mouthpieces. For each of the G's, I used an air attack (a "Pahh" sound) and Alex listened as I played. We eliminated any mouthpieces that felt uncomfortable and kept those with which I was most easily able to get a clean attack. After the air attack sequence, we moved onto excerpts from classical etudes. The excerpts covered a variety of skills including low slurs, large intervals, articulation, and varying dynamics. With each excerpt, Alex noted my reaction to the different mouthpieces and tweaked the list of potential candidates.
The mouthpiece selection process felt a lot like an eye exam. Initially it was easy to eliminate mouthpieces since she tried a wide range of possibilities. But as time went on and the list grew smaller, I had a hard time picking my favorite. This was especially true when we finally arrived at two options that I really liked: 65M and 65C. At that point I alternated between the two, improvising jazz lines for about 15 minutes. I still couldn't make up my mind, though, so I asked Alex to choose one for me. She suggested the 65M, and that's what I bought.
DID I FIND THE PERFECT MOUTHPIECE?
As of this writing, I've only had the mouthpiece for one day, so it's way too early to tell how much I'll like it long-term. I can at least say that it doesn't sound as good in my tiny practice room as it sounded in the vaulted ceilings of Alex's trumpet studio. It still sounds pretty good, but now it seems a little thin, which isn't ideal since I like a nice warm trumpet sound. I really wish I could have tried the 65C at home so I could compare the mouthpieces in their normal setting.
The new mouthpiece is definitely easier to play on than my old mouthpiece, but at this moment that means it's actually harder to play. For example, on this new mouthpiece it feels like the notes slot much closer together. In other words, it takes less effort to go from one note to the next. In the long run, this added efficiency should improve my endurance and overall playing level. But since I'm not used to it yet, I'm overshooting some notes and/or missing their center. Alex told me it would take a couple of weeks to change my motor memory to lock into the new mouthpiece, so I knew this was coming. I just need to be patient during this adjustment period. Hopefully, once I've adjusted to this mouthpiece I'll also get a warmer sound.
CHANGING MY EMBOUCHURE
While the mouthpiece selection was the primary focus of the consultation, I think I'll benefit the most from Alex's assessment of my embouchure and use of air. The embouchure part came early in the lesson, when she noticed I was rolling my lips in to play the classical etudes. The roll-in is something I've been doing for several years now, ever since I first read about it in the Balanced Embouchure method several years ago. Here's an article about my initial experiences with Balanced Embouchure.
My longtime readers may notice that I haven't mentioned Balanced Embouchure in quite a while. I haven't said anything because I don't know if I actually did it correctly. Although, I guess I could say that if I did do it correctly, it doesn't work for me. I base this on the fact that I now have three different embouchures: one for notes below the staff, one for notes in the staff, and one for notes above the staff. When I play classical etudes, I constantly reset my embouchure based on the range I need to play. Obviously this doesn't work well for large intervals, and it doesn't work at all for jazz since I need to play all around the horn without stopping and starting again. When I play jazz I typically end up using the middle embouchure and excessive pressure for anything above the staff. That explains why I can only play jazz for 15 minutes or so before my chops begin to wear out.
Anyway, when Alex saw my rolled-in embouchure and all the horn pivoting and jaw movement I do when I normally play, she advised that I stop doing all of it. As she put it, it's all causing unnecessary fatigue and although some people can excel while doing all of that stuff, I've already proven that I'm not one of those people. Instead, Alex suggested that I use a single embouchure with strong corners and let the air do most of the work.
The embouchure itself is formed by saying "hmm." The goal is to keep the corners in that position throughout all ranges of the horn. That means I shouldn't relax my corners and puff my cheeks, and I shouldn't drop my jaw and loosen things up when I play low notes. She also gave me a couple of exercises to help strengthen my corners. I'm definitely going to give this new embouchure a try over the coming weeks and months. It may not be the ideal embouchure for everyone and it might not even be an improvement over what I already do. But, since I know that my current embouchure isn't working, I think it's worth trying something new.
I'd like to thank Alex Yates again for the consultation. As you can see, I learned a lot about my embouchure and came away with a shiny new mouthpiece. I'd definitely recommend her services to my trumpet player readers, even if you don't intend to buy a GR Mouthpiece.
- Will I still like the GR 65M mouthpiece after a couple of months? Read my seven-year anniversary article to find out!