A Little Piece About Little Mouthpieces

by Patricia Backhaus

The cornet – just a little trumpet? No, not at all. A real cornet is a conical bore instrument that is most similar to the F horn. Early versions of the instrument used a mouthpiece that was funnel-shaped, like a horn mouthpiece. This helped to create the distinctive warm and throaty sound of the cornet. When you’re learning to play the cornet, it is important to remember this information. Many trumpet players try to make a cornet sound like a trumpet. However, it is a totally different instrument and worth of its own tone and color.

In my years as a cornet player, I have tried many different mouthpieces including the British Brass Band style. This was an interesting experiment for me and I still use that design for some solos. It does have a decidedly British coloring and sound. It is the mouthpiece I would choose for British or Australian-style solos such as Percy Code repertoire or the solos of Harry Mortimer. Once at a conference, I was playing a British-style mouthpiece, and a friend who was listening asked if I was trying to sound like a Salvation Army musician. Unfortunately, at the time I was not. This helped me realize just how much the sound depended on my mouthpiece and just how distinctive a sound that particular style had. It also showed me how important it is to focus on the “voice” I wanted out of my cornet at any particular time.

Since then, I have experimented with different ideas to find different sounds. I have experimented with turning down flugelhorn mouthpieces on a lathe to bring the shank down to a proper cornet size. The sound they produce is great, but forget any thoughts of performing solos requiring any kind of range. This mouthpiece just doesn’t provide it. However, this style of mouthpiece could be utilized on some of the very oldest of repertories where range is seldom an issue. Again, this is an issue of the desired “voice”.

For many, chances are pretty good that if you own a cornet mouthpiece, it is really a trumpet mouthpiece on a cornet shank. I believe that sometime in the 1920’s mouthpiece manufacturers were going toward this combination. Many cornet soloists were also playing trumpets and it was common to see ads for dual cases that allowed performers to carry both their trumpets and cornets. Switching back and forth between instruments was made much easier if both had similar mouthpieces. Because of this, by the 1930s the true cornet mouthpiece was out of fashion in the United States. That meant that the traditional sounding cornet was also disappearing. However, the present-day trend is to return to the old style of cornet mouthpieces and to return the cornet to the roots where it began.

There are many manufacturers that offer traditional cornet mouthpieces as either an aftermarket product or right along with a new cornet. Recently when I opened a new cornet from Getzen there was, of course, a mouthpiece in the case. Out of respect and curiosity, I tried the mouthpiece and it absolutely blew me away. It was exactly what I had been searching for for nearly 15 years. For me, it was the perfect combination of a funnel-shaped cup and a rounded rim. Finally, a mouthpiece gave me the voice I had been searching for. Granted, it may or may not be perfect for every situation, but it is the closest I have come to an “overall” cornet mouthpiece. This is just one example of a modern manufacturer realizing that the cornet is much more than just a little trumpet, so much more.