A Millimeter Makes a Big Difference
The mouthpiece is probably the most important part of the tuba- it is the place at which we encounter the most interaction with the instrument, where flesh meets metal, and the vibration that creates the tuba’s unique sound is controlled. Numerous endorsements have been made and many times, general guidelines are a great way to find a starting point for each person’s individual needs. However, due to the variances in human facial structure, there is no panacea or “magic” mouthpiece for everyone. In my personal quest to find a mouthpiece that I can play in all registers of my horns while maintaining good fundamentals, I discovered what I believe to be a key element in mouthpiece selection that will help players of all levels- the diameter of the cup at the rim. While the flesh that covers our bone structure and teeth is malleable and often changes throughout a lifetime, the shape of our teeth and mandible is relatively set by the time we become adults. I found that some rim diameters were simply too wide for me to create a proper embouchure in all registers.
The tuba is the largest of all the orchestral brass instruments, and because of its size, we face the possibility that the equipment might be too large for human control. All of the smaller brass instruments fit well on the face, but as tuba players we run the risk of using something that is simply too large to be pedagogically sound.
When I first purchased my CC tuba, I was told by a reputable professor of tuba that a PT-88 mouthpiece was the one to use. This was reaffirmed many times; I began to realize that many great players used the PT-88 for a great German cup mouthpiece, and a PT-50 for an American style cup. As I continued to practice and improve, I noticed a couple problems that I quickly found to be unavoidable with the mouthpiece I was using. For the record, I have a relatively long and thin face. As I progressed into the extreme upper registers without changing my embouchure or using a “shift,” I found that air would escape from the corners of my mouth, and my face was in the mouthpiece a considerable bit. As I played into extreme lower registers, I found the need to relax the embouchure a little too much to create a good seal. Looking back, the problem was obvious- the diameter of the rim was too wide for my facial structure.
To understand what I am talking about, imagine a dome. If one were to put a hula hoop on the dome (assuming it’s perfectly centered) it would encompass a certain amount of the dome. A very small hoop would not allow much of the top of the dome to pass through it; conversely a large hoop would allow much of the dome to pass through it before coming to its resting place. While this is a gross simplification of a face meeting a mouthpiece, I believe it illustrates the point. If the rim is too large for one’s face, the mouthpiece will either force someone to put too much lip, tooth, and possibly bone “into” the mouthpiece, making it nearly impossible to make a good seal without relaxing the embouchure too much. Too small of a rim is a much lesser problem, but a mouthpiece rim diameter that is too small does not necessarily inhibit the production of a bad embouchure. When I found a rim that was not too large, I found that other problems began to correct themselves.
About $1,000 later and after many months of frustration and discovery, I had learned a lot about how mouthpieces can affect one’s sound and control of an instrument. I also learned that recommending a mouthpiece for someone is just that, a recommendation. Mouthpieces are a very personal and individual choice. Obviously the cup depth, rim width, throat, backbore, and shape of a cup can affect the feel, control, and sound of a mouthpiece. While all those things are considerations, I believe that rim diameter can make the biggest difference, as it is based more on physiology than preference.
As I was researching for this article, I found a wonderful tuba mouthpiece guide provided by David Werden Publications and TubaEuph.com. ( www.dwerden.com/mouthpieces/tuba.cfm) I was actually a little surprised to find that my personal journey was only about a millimeter. When we think about the minutia involved when creating sound on the tuba, it’s not surprising that this would make a big difference.
If you ask the average person who deals with middle and high school students, you will find that there is a small group of mouthpieces that continually show up in the band hall and lesson room. This list is by no means comprehensive or definitive- it’s merely anecdotal- but if you teach the under 18 crowd, you probably see a lot of Bach 18s and 24AWs, Conn Hellebergs and Helleberg 7Bs, and Yamaha 64s. When teaching younger students, it is important to set them up for success. A cursory examination of the shape of a student’s face can yield many positive results. Most high school and middle school students do not play in the extreme high and low registers of a tuba, but simple things like the puffing of cheeks will become much easier to correct if a student has a mouthpiece that fits a little better.
When looking at the chart I mentioned above, one will find mouthpiece diameters as large as 35mm and as small as 29mm. Obviously these are specialty mouthpieces and should probably never find their way into a high school student’s possession. Of the most common mouthpieces I cited, the Conn Helleberg tops in size at 32.5mm, with the Bach 18 at 32.1mm in diameter. The smallest was the Yamaha 64 at 30.45mm. I believe teachers should be careful to not mandate that students all play the Helleberg or Bach 18. For directors who believe that matching mouthpieces make for a matching section sound, consider starting students on the Bach 24AW or Yamaha 64, then graduating to the 18, or Helleberg 7B graduating to the Helleberg.
While it is easy to obsess over equipment and blame inanimate objects for our problems, it is only sometimes that the equipment is a part of the problem. If a student is having a hard time not puffing their cheeks out while playing a low F, or keeping a good seal while playing the Bb at the top of the bass clef staff, take a moment to examine whether the mouthpiece may be too large for their face. Above all, remember that sound fundamentals and technique are primary concerns, and equipment issues are nearly impossible to address if students aren’t playing with proper technique. A mouthpiece may change some things, but nothing beats great teaching and technique!
Angelo Kortyka is a band director at Central High School (Harrison, TN) and director of the School of Music and Arts at the Salvation Army Citadel in Chattanooga, TN. Mr. Kortyka earned the degrees of Bachelor of Music- Music Education from Tennessee Technological University and Master of Music- Tuba Performance from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and is currently enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as a Master of Music Education student. Past positions include Assistant Band Director at Woodward High School (Cincinnati, OH), Assistant Band Director at Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD (Pecos, TX), Adjunct professor of music at Xavier University (Cincinnati, OH) and Sul Ross State University (Alpine, TX). Currently Mr. Kortyka performs with the Jericho Brass Band, the Moccasin Brass Quintet (Chattanooga, TN) and the Chattanooga Tuba-Euphonium Quartet. Some of his past teachers are R. Winston Morris, Timothy Northcut, Tucker Jolly, and Anthony Kniffen. Originally from the Cleveland, Ohio area, Mr. Kortyka maintains an active schedule as an educator, drill writer, performer, arranger, researcher, and clinician in the Chattanooga area.