Working with band directors recently, the topic came up about how to find a decent mouthpiece for beginning saxophone students that won’t break the bank. Well, I have to confess, I was somewhat at a loss to answer those folks. If you’ve read my Gear lists, then you already know my mouthpiece preferences for classical use (large chamber and small tip opening), but you might also be surprised that I have essentially the same criterion for beginner use. (I’ll cover the reasons why in a future blog post, but suffice it to say, I want the larger chamber to help generate resistance, and I want a closed tip to discourage them from manipulating the reed in order to achieve pitch and tone changes.) But it’s hard enough to find these large chamber/small tip mouthpieces in the first place, much less one that a beginning band parent would consider “inexpensive.”
So I began looking in earnest for such a mouthpiece, and quite frankly, I haven’t been able to find anything under $100 that has what I consider to be a true “large” chamber. When I say “large,” I’m thinking something as large as an old Buescher or Martin, or also like the chambers currently found on the Sigurd Rascher mouthpieces. Yes, you can find the old Bueschers on ebay for under $100, but I know from experience that they have generally been refaced to be more open than originally manufactured, and quite frequently this has been done rather inexpertly, so in almost every instance, you will need to have that mouthpiece refaced – meaning your “fantastic $50 deal” just turned into a $125+ investment that’s still only worth $50 on the open market. Now for me personally, this is the way I like to proceed, because I get my mouthpieces tuned to my liking during the refacing process, but for Mom and Dad who just need something for their 10 year old to play on, this is WAY too much detail, and WAY too much time investment.
So what can you buy off the shelf? As I began asking friends and colleagues this question, basically they all agreed with me that there’s nothing out there that fits the bill for under $100. Some told me they have settled for the Yamaha 4C because it’s easy to find one, and they seem “good enough.” Well I’ve played the 4C’s in the past, and while they seem well made, they also seemed too open, which leads to a pretty rough sound, and encourages the student to manipulate the reed (instead of using voicing) to alter tone or pitch. With a little more research I found that Yamaha also makes a slightly-more-closed variant called the 3C. I wondered if maybe it would be a little more well-behaved, so I bought one and gave it a try. Here’s what I found…
The Yamaha 3C, according to the Yamaha web site, is just slightly more closed than the 4C, coming in at 1.5 mm instead of 1.6. (FWIW, a Selmer C* is 1.7mm, a C is 1.6, and a B* is about 1.5.) Everything else about it appears to be the same as the 4C – chamber size and design, shape of the beak, baffle, etc. It’s made of the same plastic material as the 4C, which is not my preference, because this stuff seems to wear down more quickly over time – but hey, it’s a beginner mouthpiece and hopefully it will get your student through a few years until he/she is ready to quit or pony up the $$ for something a little sturdier. The build quality seems good overall, and the table appears to be very flat. I did notice some rough edges where the squarish chamber transitions into the throat. These appear to be left over from the molding process. I would have liked to have seen them filed down, but I don’t suppose that’s gonna happen in a mouthpiece that lists for about $45. Maybe one of these days I’ll get out my files and see if taking them off improves the playability. The rails appear to be well-finished and of even widths. However, I also found them to be somewhat wider than I usually prefer. Generally this will make the tone a little dead and stuffy – but I suppose that just might be a desirable quality for a beginner mouthpiece!
Anyway, I tried the mouthpiece with the same ligature I use on my old Buescher – a Rovner Dark. At first I tried my Vandoren blue box 5’s – WAY too hard. Then I tried some 4’s. Still way too hard. I didn’t have any blue box reeds that were softer, so I grabbed an old 3.5 Rico brown box and that was what finally worked. I imagine a number 3 would probably be better for a beginner, but the 3.5 worked great for me. It didn’t take long to figure out that I was really sharp – a natural condition of the chamber being smaller than my Buescher. So I backed the tuner neck out a little over a half inch and that really helped. Overall, I could still hear the affects of the smaller chamber – a tone that is somewhat more strident, focused, and generally more “intense” than I like. The more I played, the easier it was to temper those tone qualities though. Overall there was a good resistance that I hadn’t felt from the 4C’s I’d played in the past, and overall the tone was smoother and cleaner as well. Altissimo was comfortable as well (although you probably won’t be teaching your beginners that right away), and I also found no issues getting the reed to respond, and no squeakiness (often a sign that the rails are not well matched to each other). In general it was easy to play with no glaring problems to disqualify it.
Now I actually want the mouthpiece to behave badly if I bite down on the reed, so I tried doing some biting in order to affect decrescendos, mute the tone, and also to get up into the altissimo. (Again, I want the mouthpiece to close down so the student will learn to control these things with air and voicing instead.) Unfortunately, the mouthpiece did keep playing during all this abuse, but I suppose that a certain amount of “forgiveness” is okay in a student mouthpiece. I think when the tip is this open, it will always allow for a certain amount of biting before it shuts down completely and refuses to cooperate.
So to sum up, this Yamaha 3C is my new favorite beginner alto sax mouthpiece. There are a few things to complain about – I wish it were more closed at the tip, and I wish the chamber were larger – but it is really inexpensive, and should be relatively easy to find. How to get one? Well, I tried getting one on Amazon and waited about a week and the thing still had not shipped. So I cancelled that order and got one at that big auction site. I have noticed the 3C is available at Weiner Music for a GREAT price, and I would venture to say your local music store would be happy to order one for you as well.
I would love to hear your thoughts about beginner mouthpieces, so please comment and let me know what you use with beginners and why.