Does Equipment Matter?

Having recently moved for the first time in 25 years, I became acutely aware of the inordinate amount of woodwind equipment that I had accumulated throughout my career. I know that I am not alone in this situation and that many woodwind musicians find themselves in the same situation. The multitude of horns, mouthpieces, headjoints, ligatures, saxophone straps, instrument stands and pegs, swabs, woodwind cases, reeds, reed tools, accessories, etc., was eye opening and somewhat distressing. (This does not include the thousands of sheet music works, LPs/CDs/cassette tapes/DVDs, etc. that I also came face-t0-face with!) It made me realize the extraordinary amount of time, money, and effort that I had spent in acquiring these materials. It helped raise the question: “Was all of this truly necessary?”

When it comes to equipment, I’ve noticed that musicians tend to fall into one of five categories:

  1. The first group of players find decent equipment that suits their gig needs and rarely, if ever, change. They tend to resist trying and purchasing new equipment unless the gig absolutely demands it. Often, these are very established players who have been successful in their milieu and are not willing to experiment.
  2. The second group are always interested in trying equipment but are reluctant to purchase anything new or different without long periods of trial and error at home. These performers are often ones who play primarily in one setting (symphony orchestras, musical theater, chamber music, jazz artists) and are not faced with as many diverse musical scenarios from day-to-day as would a freelancer. They will make changes but only when they are 100% sure that it is necessary.
  3. A third group of colleagues that I have encountered include those who work in many different musical environments daily (studio work or freelance) and therefore need a wide variety of equipment for each of their horns. This group will always look for the best horns, mouthpieces, reeds, headjoints, etc. and not be afraid to try them out on gigs, even if they purchased them one hour before!
  4. The fourth group is one that every experienced musician has encountered in their careers—the obsessive, compulsive artist who is willing to make any sacrifice to obtain the holy grail of woodwind playing. Whether that involves acquiring a pristine Henri Chedeville clarinet mouthpiece, a 3-digit Powell flute, a vintage Selmer Mark VI in mint condition, or a horn that belonged to a famous player, this group will stop at nothing throughout their careers to make that necessary purchase.
  5. A final group concerns those who determine if a piece of equipment is good or not by measuring the dimensions or eye-balling that product.They never actually play the equipment but are quick to offer their “expert” advice on its feasibility. They are generally unhappy people!

I have met great players who fit into all these categories. In fact, many players might fall into several different groups at one time or another during their careers. While the vast majority fall into categories 2 and 3, those who fall into groups 1 and 4 are among the most interesting to encounter.

Over thirty years ago, I spent a week playing next to the legendary Vincent (Jimmy) Abato. Jimmy is recognized as one of the great woodwind virtuosos of the 20th century on clarinet, bass clarinet, and alto saxophone. During that week, he told me that he had played his entire career on one mouthpiece for each of his three principal horns—the ultimate Category 1 artist. Jimmy’s equipment choices were superb. However, I was astonished that a musician of his caliber who had a long and distinguished career while playing and recording commercial, orchestral, chamber music, in addition to being a world-class soloist could accomplish that on just a single mouthpiece for each of his primary instruments. Upon further reflection, I realized that Jimmy did not have to compete with loud rhythm sections or electronic instruments during the bulk of his career. Whether playing lead clarinet with the Glenn Miller Band; lead alto on Percy Faith recordings; bass clarinet with the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; all horns as an ABC staff musician; or performing some of the major works for concert alto saxophone and clarinet, Jimmy was surrounded by acoustic instruments in settings that, more often than not, allowed the performers to project their sounds without exerting undue effort. However, that period of acoustic music is of a bygone era. The differences between setups that would be acceptable to articulate classical music and commercial were minimal compared to what we would find today. The multitude of new musical styles over the past 70 years, ushered in by the success of the R&B and Rock & Roll performers of the 1950s/1960s along with the electronic instruments associated with those idioms, helped push the overall dynamic levels upwards while also creating different ways to rhythmically articulate these new styles. No longer could most successful multi-woodwind players rely on just one mouthpiece/reed combination, or even one specific horn.

In complete opposition to Jimmy’s approach, my former teacher and dear friend Ron Reuben comes to mind as the ultimate Category 4 example. Ron was a magnificent clarinetist and saxophonist in both classical and jazz settings. While he was largely known for his work as bass clarinetist with the Philadelphia Orchestra for roughly 35 years, he also played saxophone with the big bands of Stan Kenton, Sy Zentner, and Terry Gibbs. He had the most beautiful, resonant sound on clarinet and bass clarinet that I ever experienced live and sounded like Stan Getz on tenor sax. BUT, Ron was obsessed with equipment and the search for the perfect mouthpiece/reed setup throughout his entire life. So much so that the great mouthpiece re-facer Everett Matson once told me that he needed to teach Ron how to adjust his own mouthpieces so that Ron would not come to his home every week with a sack of mouthpieces to work on. And Ron Reuben became an excellent re-facer of mouthpieces as a result. (Additional Note: During Ron’s first season with the Philadelphia Orchestra, 1967-1968, he accumulated 13 bass clarinets in search of the “answer.”)

His collection of mouthpieces was second to none. Many years ago Ron gave me some of his collection of saxophone mouthpieces to clean up since they had been stored in cigar boxes for many years. After six months of work, I returned the “clean” 300 sax mouthpieces to him. (This does not take into account the many hundreds of clarinet mouthpieces he owned as well.) Since Ron loved the Bonade/McLane/Wright school of classical clarinet performance; Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman for jazz clarinet; and Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Larry McKenna on jazz tenor, he was determined to get those sounds. He felt that if he only had the equipment that they played or equipment similar to and as good, then he could sound that way and be happy. The irony is that he really did capture those schools of playing and sounded great. However, he was never totally musically satisfied because he believed that he didn’t have equipment that was the equal of his heroes. For Ron and those like him, EQUIPMENT MATTERS.

Recently, I had a lesson with a talented student who is preparing to sub on a Broadway musical for the first time. He has fine equipment for classical and straight-ahead commercial scenarios but the nature of the musical is largely 1960s/1970s Rock & Roll. Although the student could clearly execute the musical demands of the chair he was preparing to fill, his mouthpieces on alto and tenor saxophones were not appropriate and did not allow him to achieve his best performance. Since the job of a sub is to mimic exactly the player for whom you’re subbing AND the musician my student would be replacing is a superb artist in that style, we had to make some adjustments. Fortunately, we found some excellent mouthpieces in my collection that worked well immediately and made the student feel more confident in executing the rock style. That is exactly what equipment is supposed to achieve—to make playing the instrument and music easier with a satisfying sound This is an example where EQUIPMENT MATTERED.

While I think it is beneficial for all doublers to have a standard go-to horn/mouthpiece/ligature/reed setup on each instrument, it is highly unlikely that one can survive in today’s music industry using just that, unless you’re Ted Nash (inside joke). EQUIPMENT DOES MATTER.

After more than 50 years of working through this process, I believe that there is a happy medium that all musicians, and especially woodwind doublers, can benefit from without breaking the bank if one understand a few principles.

  1. Attempting to purchase the exact horn, mouthpiece or headjoint that a particular player one might admire is using DOES NOT MEAN that it will transform you into sounding like that esteemed performer. We are all different creatures with unique physiognomies and hear music differently. I’ve learned that a talented individual with strong musical direction and great ears can sound wonderful even using equipment that may not be “The Accepted Standard.”
  2. When trying to decide on purchasing a horn, mouthpiece, headjoint, or any accessory, make sure that piece of equipment works well IMMEDIATELY and makes you want to play. Don’t buy anything that you hope will eventually work well in a month or a year later. If it doesn’t hit the bullseye right away, walk away.
  3. Be open-minded with regard to trying new and/or different equipment. A manufacturer’s product that you had tried previously and initially rejected might have evolved over time and then be exactly what you are looking for.
  4. Don’t think that because you have purchased a “name” brand product that you have musically arrived. In other words, don’t purchase materials just because they have a certain manufacturers name associated with it—try the product with blinders on and make an honest assessment of its strengths and weaknesses.
  5. A piece of equipment that does not work for a colleague might indeed work well for you, or vice versa. Be open-minded to that possibility.

Finally, a situation that I witnessed helps put all that I have discussed in perspective. Ron Reuben came to hear the great jazz clarinetist Buddy DeFranco perform when Buddy was a guest at the university where I was teaching. After a masterclass, Ron went up to him and asked him if he ever experienced a time when he was going through a mouthpiece dilemma. Buddy replied: “Absolutely.” Ron then asked: “What were you searching for?” Buddy thought for a moment and said: “You know, I don’t really know.” Buddy’s statement is important to keep in mind. While it is essential to have excellent horns, mouthpieces, headjoints, ligatures, reeds, etc., it is also necessary to accept the fact that one can get lost in an endless maze while searching for the “best of the best.” If a musician can achieve a beautiful tone with flexibility; articulate in a wide variety of musical styles; play instruments that are ergonomically friendly; and phrase whatever music one is playing stress free, then most of one’s time should be spent practicing and learning more about MUSIC. To go through life constantly obsessed with acquiring and changing equipment is not as productive as playing and studying music. Find instruments and accessories that work well and then deal with the music. If a better instrument or accessory comes your way, by all means get it. (Coincidentally, some of the best horns and mouthpieces that I own came my way quite by chance or accident.) Ultimately, the objective listener is judging one’s performance on its musicality, not on the equipment that you are playing. As someone who has lived through many of the categories mentioned above, I can honestly say that EQUIPMENT DOES MATTER, BUT MUSIC MATTERS MORE!


You may enjoy other Articles.