Students put their instruments through a LOT – daily practice in a variety of conditions and venues, outdoor concerts, marching band, school band rooms, and encounters with the occasional little brother or sister! One of the most overlooked, under-appreciated and easiest to damage parts of any instrument is it’s mouthpiece. There are so many ways that a mouthpiece can be damaged both in the case and out that taking a few simple steps to prevent accidents before they happen will ensure that the mouthpiece doesn’t cause problems in a student’s playing.
Accidents and inappropriate in-case storage damage unfortunately happen from time to time. Some problems can be corrected and others are often not worth it. Here’s a brief guide to what to look for:
Brass mouthpieces are machined from leaded brass (lead is added to the alloy) and then plated in either silver or gold. Over time this plating can wear off, particularly around the shank or the rim and can expose a player to lead through direct skin contact at the rim. If a player finds they are developing a rash or soreness around their lips then their mouthpiece should be checked for plating wear at the rim. If a mouthpiece often gets stuck this can be an effect of the smooth plating on the shank being worn away.
The mouthpiece can be re-plated however unless it’s a vintage, custom or specialty model it’s often cheaper to replace the mouthpiece
The rim of a mouthpiece can be damaged by being dropped, particularly on concrete or asphalt surfaces. Even a small scratch can make a big difference in the seal and feel of the mouthpiece. Small scratches and nicks can be repaired by a qualified technician however deep “pits” or scratches warrant replacement.
Finally the shank can also be damaged by being dropped. If the shank is out-of-round this can have a dramatic effect on the playability of the mouthpiece. This can be easily corrected by using a mouthpiece arbor and small rawhide hammer. If the shank gets damaged multiple times it will eventually crack and at that point it must be replaced.
Often made from plastic or hard rubber woodwind mouthpieces are a different animal. They won’t take the same kind of abuse that a brass mouthpiece does and must be handled a little more carefully.
Typically if a woodwind mouthpiece is dropped the tip (or worse) will break. This is always a case for replacement as it cannot be repaired. However small chips on the tip or damage to the rails can sometimes be repaired.
As with brass mouthpieces the slightest scratch or chip on the tip or rails can dramatically effect the mouthpiece. The reed must lay flat on the rails and a scratch can cause air to leak. Depending on the quality of the mouthpiece (particularly hard rubber mouthpieces) it is often worth the cost of the repair to have the mouthpiece corrected (or “refaced”). With the cheaper plastic starter mouthpieces it is typically more cost-effective to replace or upgrade.
Inspect the tip and rails carefully (preferably with a magnifying glass) for chips and scratches. If there are divots where the upper teeth rest (particularly common on plastic mouthpieces) this can lead to poor embouchure development and incorrect positioning of the mouthpiece in the player’s mouth. Finally inspect the tenon or socket for correct fit.
General Mouthpiece TIps
- KEEP YOUR MOUTHPIECE CLEAN! Aside from being generally disgusting any kind of build-up inside the mouthpiece can cause problems with playability. Use warm water, a mild soap and clean the mouthpiece often with an appropriately-sized mouthpiece brush
- Be careful not to scratch the inside chamber of the mouthpiece with the brush!
- NEVER use alcohol or an alcohol-based “sterilizer” to clean a mouthpiece – this can break down the compound it is made from and made the mouthpiece weak. These cleaners are very popular in band rooms.
- Make sure that the mouthpiece “slot” on the instrument case holds the mouthpiece securely. Nothing can damage an instrument or mouthpiece faster than the mouthpiece flying around loose in the case while it’s being transported!
- Never store a woodwind mouthpiece with the reed and ligature attached!
- Always store the mouthpiece and reed in it’s cap
- Consider purchasing a rubber or fabric mouthpiece case to store the mouthpiece in the instrument case. This can protect during transport and also against drops