Mouthpiece Testing and Benefits
This fall, a brand new crop of wide-eyed, energetic beginning band students will file into band rooms across the country. No doubt, each will have some idea what he or she wants to play; for most of the students, it’s probably a tie between the alto sax or the drum set. There has to be a Murphy’s Law about that.
One of the best ways to help a band director to ensure his new students’ success in band, and to ensure they stay in band, is to do careful and detailed mouthpiece testing, or “play testing,” as some retailers call it. Many directors were not taught in college how to do mouthpiece testing; many don’t feel they have the time during their regular school day to test effectively. But if you take your time to do this, you will begin to build relationships with the beginning students and their parents, and help your band program a take a huge step forward at the same time.
Why mouthpiece test? When it’s done properly, mouthpiece testing does not take a whole lot of time, but it does have a number of benefits:
1) Students who are mouthpiece tested are much less likely to drop out of band than those who chose their instrument by what looks the “coolest” or the “shiniest,” or by what their friends are playing. Nearly 75% of the students we test here in our store leave the store wanting to play something different from what they were “sure” they wanted to play when they first walked in. Sometimes, a mouthpiece just “feels funny;” sometimes, playing a certain instrument is just not what the child had expected. If a student is not comfortable with the way his instrument feels, he will not do his homework (i.e., practice) and he will not be able to progress. An informed decision is always a better decision.
2) Through mouthpiece testing, you will have more control over instrumentation. You will be able to guide children towards instruments that will balance the band’s sound. More importantly, students who truly cannot afford an instrument can be guided towards background instruments that the school already owns and can rent or loan out.
3) During mouthpiece testing, you will have the opportunity to reinforce to students and parents the benefits of music education, and to reaffirm their choice to be in band. You will also have the opportunity to debunk some myths and “old wives’ tales” that have been around since I started playing (in 1964!):
¯ If a child has a cupid’s bow, it does not automatically mean he or she cannot play the flute. If the condensation pattern the child produces is cloven (split), then he will have a very difficult time, but even this can be overcome with private lessons and perseverance if the child is really set on the flute.
¯ The clarinet is not a “girl’s instrument.” My dad was a clarinet player, and he was six-foot, three inches tall and weighed 265 pounds. He was no “girl.” Gone are the days where some instruments are “for girls” and others are “for boys.” Jean-Pierre Rampal and James Galway are magnificent (male) flutists; Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman were outstanding (male) clarinetists. Deanna Swoboda is a first-rate (female) tuba player. Instruments are not gender-specific. Though it’s true that, in 1969, I had to appear before the Plainview-Old Bethpage (NY) School Board to ask permission to play bari sax in our jazz band ...
¯ It’s very rare that a child’s arms are really “too short” to play trombone. Even in states that start band in fourth grade, we find that most beginners can manage to reach far enough to get by until they hit their growth spurts.
¯ There is no “drum set” in beginning band. Parents who were in band some years ago may have a hard time with the idea of playing bells and other mallet instrument; mouthpiece-testing time is a great time to explain the difference between “drums” and “percussion.”
4) When children try out each others’ instruments, as they often do, they may rush to conclusions. “I made a great sound on the sax mouthpiece” does not mean you should (or even could) play sax. In truth, nearly anyone can “make a sound” on a saxophone mouthpiece. Mouthpiece testing gives you a chance to see if the child’s chin stays flat (essential on any reed instrument), and gives you a chance to place an instrument in the child’s hands and see if the child can actually reach around the palm keys of the instrument and still pivot his thumb on the octave key. We have more saxes returned each year than any other instrument besides percussion, and most of the time it’s because the instrument is too big for the child even to play the first note in the book successfully.
5) One of the best reasons to mouthpiece test (and one of the reasons it’s really not a good idea to have high school players or other untrained “testers” work with the students) is that if mouthpiece testing is done properly, each student will be gently guided to an instrument that he not only wants to play but also has every chance to play well. Each student will leave feeling confident about his ability to “make it” in band. Each student will then begin band with excitement and motivation, rather than apprehension, knowing he has the potential to succeed.
Of course, parents should have a part what their children will play, but if you are proficient at mouthpiece testing, they will trust your input. While you are providing a valuable service to your students, you will also be getting to know the beginning band students, and giving your program tremendous credibility at the same time.
For a complete protocol for successful mouthpiece testing, see If the Mouthpiece Fits, Teaching Music (MENC), December 1998, pp. 30-32.