This week’s questions were sent to us from Japan; however they are universal in that they concern the very most basic elements of mouthpiece design: rim shapes and cup shapes. Helping players navigate their way through these decisions is part of our mission.

Q: What effects on playing characteristics do the various rim shapes have? 

A: The answer starts with a general rule: Thin lips / thick rim, thick lips / thin rim. In other words the important thing to keep in mind here is, again, how can we best use equipment to better fit the individualized physiology of a given player?

The explanation for this rule is very simple. Thick lipped players need all the help they can get to set their fleshy lips to vibrate. Cutting down on the amount of metal making contact with the lip allows freer vibration.

On the other side of this rule is the thin lipped player. The thin lipped player cannot tolerate a thin rim, because in this case the rim acts like a cookie cutter working its way into the lip. This can potentially cause bruising and at the same time cut off the flow of blood thereby reducing endurance. For the thin lipped player, a thicker rim acts under the same principle as a snow shoe. In effect, a snow shoe increases surface area diffusing the weight of the user allowing him to walk where he would otherwise be unable to. A thick rim spreads out the pressure of the rim allowing a thinner lipped player to gain extra endurance.

Obviously, even for both types of players, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. The thick lipped player will eventually suffer ill effect from a rim that is too thin for his lips to tolerate the pressure of. The thin lipped player will likewise eventually experience a diminution of response if the rim is thicker than is beneficial as the thickness will eventually stop vibration *AND* inhibit muscle movement, restricting the players ability to compress the lips and forcing him instead to use greater pressure when playing.

Q: What about variations in rim bite?

A: The rim bite in many ways breaks down along the same lines in terms of which physical type will benefit and which won’t. Again, it should be clear that a thicker lipped player is the only type that would even be able to consider using a rim with the bite being on the sharp side. The thin lipped player simply does not have enough flesh to withstand the irritation that a sharp bite would cause. For the thick lipped player, a bite that is on the sharp side will act to hold his fleshier lips away from the inner wall of the top of the cup allowing faster vibration and response. Without this bite, the fleshy lips will merely flow down the walls of the cup resulting in more of a pursing of the lips. This position works against gaining control through compression. So this player, without a sharper bite to control where his lips will be placed, would very likely be drawn into more of a pressure approach to playing.

The thinner lipped player will want to use a more rounded rim to avoid cutting off the flow of the blood, excess pressure and irritation. Obviously, if the rim is too rounded, even the thin lipped player will loose control and response falling into the rim rather than staying on top of it, as it were.

Before leaving the rim, I would add that while these aspects that I have mentioned are fundamental to proper mouthpiece fit, it has been my experience that in most cases people who are overly concerned about rim contour are experiencing discomfort more because of an imbalance in their equipment in terms of balancing the resistance, than having any real need to overly manipulate rim contour. In short, the greater the internal volume of the mouthpiece / instrument set up, the greater the amount of air needed to create the velocity required to meet the demands to play in the upper range, play loud or to obtain maximum resonance. The greater the air needed, the harder you have to blow. The harder you have to blow, the more embouchure strength required, or more pressure must be used to maintain the embouchure. It was once said to me “if you can feel your teeth, you’re using too much pressure”. There is a great deal of truth in this. If there is discomfort, look to the internal volume, not just the contour of the rim.

Q: What about the shape of the cup?

A: There are, as I’m sure you know, 2 basic cup shapes. “C” shape and “V” shape. To understand the inherent sonic properties of these shapes vis a vis the flow of air, I often ask people to relate it all to the nature of water. “C” shaped cups are akin to sinks. They have relatively flat bottoms and work to pool the water before allowing it to drain slowly through the hole in the bottom. “V” shaped cups, on the other hand are very much akin to the workings of a funnel. The funnel aligns the water, much the same way that a viaduct works to draw it quickly to the bottom. In terms of brass playing, the slower the air, the darker the sound, the faster the air the brighter the sound. Generally, a “C” shaped cup slows the air and darkens the sound. A “V” shaped cup speeds the air and brightens the sound. Most mouthpieces combine elements of both shapes to achieve the full spectrum of timbres. These same elements can also be manipulated to help players balance resistance for themselves and still attain the quality of sound that they are seeking.

For example: a great many of the Alexander mouthpieces have unusually deep cups that are more of the “C” shaped variety. The cup, being large, “holds” a tremendous amount of volume. The air is forced to move back on itself causing tremendous turbulence and slowing it even more. If these mouthpieces also had large bore sizes, the player would have a great deal of difficulty in moving the air to speed. It would be far too much volume to excite. But, since the bore size on most of these models is on the small side, it compensates in the overall design. This mouthpiece is set up to deliver a large dark sound when used with the Alexander horn which is on the small side as compared to something like a Conn 8D. Trying to use this same mouthpiece on a Conn 8D (for instance) would not work as well, because not enough air would be released at one time to set that horn to resonate.
Take, as another example, the fact that horn mouthpieces are generally “V” shaped as opposed to trumpet mouthpieces. If horn pieces were “C” shaped at the depth that they need to be to reach the characteristic horn sound, the overall volume of such a cup would be so large that the sound would be unresponsive and “tubby”. The “V” shape allows for depth while cutting down the volume. To better picture this, try visually superimposing a “V” over a “U”. You can see that the bottom of the “U” holds more than the “V” does. Of course, as I said before, all horn mouthpieces have elements of the “C” design in them, which acts as a mechanism for slowing the air while adding depth and color.