O.J.'s Trumpet Page Interview

Focus on FoKus

Lowell Stevenson

An interview with Lowell Stevenson

Lowell Stevenson is a manufacturer of trumpet mouthpieces. He is also the author of trumpet books. We had a "cyber- conversation" with him about his FoKus mouthpiece and his books. For more about him and his background, see the bio on the FoKus website.

Lowell, before we “zoom” in on the FoKus mouthpiece, could you tell us about your own background? What led you to mouthpiece designing?
As a young player I just played what my teachers told me to. I trusted their judgment and thought they knew best because of their experiences. It really wasn’t until I started working at Disneyland in a 12 piece production group that I noticed my sound did not match the timbres of the other trumpet players. I tried to change my way of playing to match their sound and left it at that. I grew up on the west coast of the US and for some reason the sound at that time in that area was bright and brassy. I thought that was the trumpet sound that everyone in the world wanted to hear.

One of my trumpet instructors in college showed me his book about playing, and in it there was a list of different timbres by region of the US, and by countries. I thought every trumpet player wanted to sound like Conrad Gozzo. I did. This was about the same time that I was working at “The Park” (Disneyland). It was a real epiphany for me. By the time I moved to Las Vegas I could play really loud and felt confident that was all that I needed. Boy was I wrong. Not only did the LEAD players play loud but there was such edge on their sound it seemed to take the paint off the walls of the back of the room in which we were playing.

Then in 1975 I was lucky enough to get a call from a friend to come to Switzerland and work for the Pepe Lienhard Sextet, which led to an invitation to audition for “le Grand Orchestra de Amié Barelli” in Monte Carlo, Monaco. To my surprise the whole trumpet section including Amié was  playing Burbank Benge trumpets. I thought we would sound all the same but once again we did not. This was more information to tuck away in my memory for later use. There were many more playing experiences in Stuttgart and the Suddeutscher Rundfunk Radio Orchestra, and quite a few others that I will not take the time for here. All of these experiences helped me realize that there are different timbres for the trumpet, depending on where in the world you play, and with what kind of organization you play.

There were many years in the music business, that if you played commercial music, or jazz, or orchestral you could make a nice living doing so, without ever crossing over to another genre. Times have changed and even orchestral players sometimes take a big band gig to make ends meet. This cross-over playing and need for the correct timbre for the genre was the impetus for the FoKus system.

Tell us about the FoKus line of mouthpieces?
When I started to have thoughts about manufacturing a mouthpiece I kept thinking about all the playing experiences I had had and the different timbres needed and thought that was the direction I should go. I contacted many different players from many different genres, from scream Lead player, to Principal trumpet. I asked each the same questions, " How do you get the sound that you are known for?" In each case the players were easy to correspond with and were willing to share. What I found out was actually simple. Large is dark, small is bright. I used this idea when making the FoKus.

The FoKus LEAD mouthpiece has a #27(3.6mm) hole, and narrowest of the FoKus back bores. The one centimeter long straightaway  gives this mouthpiece its great projection.

The ARTIST has a #28(3.5mm) hole with the same length of straightway as the LEAD but the back bore is slightly more open. This sound is a very commercial sound; however, I have many customers that find this model perfect for Piccolo trumpet, and D trumpet. The newest model in the FoKus line is the SYMPHONIC. This model is in production as I write and will be available shortly. It has a bit deeper cup than the LEAD and the ARTIST. It also has a #26 (3.7mm) hole size and the length of the straightaway is not 1cm like the LEAD and ARTIST but only .5cm which makes it a bit more free blowing. This model is the closest to the sound of a Bach mouthpiece but since Bach’s were designed without a straightaway, this FoKus model has more projection.

The last two FoKus models are much darker in timbre than the LEAD, ARTIST or SYMPHONIC.

The ALL AROUND has a deeper cup than the SYMPHONIC, also a #26 (3.7mm) hole and the same hole length, but the back bore is a different shape which lends itself to the darker sound, but will get some edge if played to do so. The PRINCIPAL has a different shaped cup than the ALL AROUND. It has a #22 (3.98mm) hole and the length of the hole is only .4cm long. The back bore is very large (similar to a Schmidt). The result is that you can play very loud on this piece and it has maximum spread to the sound.

The FoKus Models are made in four inside cup diameters, 1.5, 3, 7, and 10.5 which are similar to the Bach widths of the same numbers.

 This allows the modern player to choose the correct timbre for the genre.

Lastly we have just finished the work on the FoKus Cornet and Flugelhorn models. Those should be ready by the end of the summer.

What advice can you offer to someone searching for a new mouthpiece?
The mouthpiece can only give you a different timbre and will not correct bad playing habits. I have seen many players over the years think that you can play higher on a certain mouthpiece but once they get it, discover that “IT”, the mouthpiece doesn’t work. Playing high is not a function of the mouthpiece; I have the same range on all of the FoKus models, from the 3rd pedal C to E above Double high C. The mouthpiece with not increase you range, only correct playing will do that. The mouthpiece WILL change the intensity of the sound and the timbre and projection. That being said, look for a mouthpiece that will give you the sound that you need, or the intensity of sound, or projection, to fit with the groups that you play with.

Can you use the FoKus mouthpieces on different horns like the C and Piccolo?
Yes, as I mentioned earlier the FoKus ARTIST is a great match for Piccolo, whether it is a .460” bore, or a .412”. The C trumpet matches up very well with the SYMPHONIC, ALL AROUND, and PRINCIPAL. But it depends on what size group you will be playing with and which composer's music you will be playing.

If a person is playing on a Bach 3C what type of FoKus should he try?
I would first ask this person what he wants to sound like that is different from the sound he already has. IF Brighter with more projection, the FoKus LEAD, ARTIST, and even the SYMPHONIC. If a darker sound with less projection, so he blends well with the group he plays in, the ALL AROUND and PRINCIPAL would be the best choice.

A lot of people don’t know much about mouthpieces, so they think that if Adolph Herseth gets a great sound on a Bach 1C - that is what they should use too? In other words Large vs. Small.
Good question and I have a good answer. First, Adolph does not play a Bach 1C, he plays, the last time I talked with him, a Bach 1B with a #22 (3.9mm) hole, and a Bach 24 back bore and he plays C trumpet most of the time. But when he played his audition in 1947, the same year I was born, for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra he played a Bach 7B!

I asked him, why he plays a 1B now, and he said, “The rim is the same size as my beer bottle”.  But, the real reason is that he was in a car accident and got hit in the mouth and had to find an inside cup diameter size that would keep the rim from sitting on the scars. Please remember that the difference in cup diameters between a Bach 1 and Bach 20 is only 2.5mm (0.09”). Mr. Herseth also told me that he regularly changes under parts, by unscrewing his rim, and putting on a different under part that will accommodate a Guest Conductor's ear, or to play a certain composer, or to play a horn of a different bore, like piccolo. Giving the correct timbre each requires. But I think that is side stepping your question about larger vs. small mouthpieces. I take your question to mean the inside rim diameter size, but also the cup, hole and back bore size. I will address each by starting with the history of the trumpet. Most know that the trumpet was first invented by Gustav Besson in his Paris workshop in 1888, and that Victor Mahillon, the 18th century Belgian acoustician, was given credit for inventing the trumpet Lead Pipe. To give you some bearing of the time, the cornet had been KING of brass instruments since about 1825, which was the same year that Joseph Jean-Baptiste Laurent Arban was born. He had been the cornet instructor at the Paris Conservatory of Music since 1880. This position was open to him after the death of Maury. Arban fell into disfavor when he advocated the use of a shallower cupped cornet mouthpiece to achieve more brilliance for the soloist.

It took quite a number of years for this new instrument ( the trumpet)  to find its way to the U.S.A.

When it did, there were not many making mouthpieces for it. Most were still making cornet mouthpieces with hole sizes from about #14 (4.6mm) to #18 (4.3mm). This #18, is the same size hole that Friedemann Immer uses for his Salzburg model made by Rainer Egger in Basil, for his Baroque trumpet, even today. Only a dozen years from the birth of the trumpet and in the same city there was the great world's fair of 1900, which attracted top bands and players from all over the world. Included in that group was the John Philip Sousa band from the U.S.A. The First Cornet player was Herbert L. Clarke. Cornet was still KING. However, with the newly invented trumpet, mouthpieces were needed and in the U.S.A. most trumpet mouthpieces were from Germany made by the Schmidt Company. The holes in these mouthpieces ranged from about #18 (4.3mm)-#24 (3.8mm).  The cups were deeper, and the back bores wider too. There was no standard to the hole size at all.  By the time Vincent Bach started making trumpet mouthpieces there were so many different hole sizes being used that he made his mouthpieces with a #27 (.144” or 3.65mm).

Mr. Bach believed that this was a small enough size to allow the players of the day to enlarge the hole size to what they were accustomed. That is why Bach mouthpieces do not have a straightaway. Because when you enlarge the hole with a straight fluted reamer it cuts into the back bore and creates a straightaway, which gives more projection than before. The top players of the day used narrow cup diameters about equal to a Bach 6 or 7, but the cup was deeper and the hole larger and the back bore was wider. That is why, as I said before that Adolph Herseth used a Bach 7B in 1947 for his audition with the CSO.

In the early 1950’s Adolph Herseth was involved in  an automobile accident. Because he was hit in the mouth, he changed to a wider rim diameter to avoid the scare tissue. Shortly afterward, players in Boston, and New York started using wider inside rim diameter sizes also.

 I cannot be sure this was the only reason we play wider rim diameters today. But when you were playing a mouthpiece with a rim diameter of a Schmidt mouthpiece (Bach 6 or 7) that not only has a narrow rim diameter, but also a deep cup, large hole and large back bore, and when you change to a Bach mouthpiece of the same rim diameter size,  the Bach will have a smaller cup, smaller hole and smaller back bore, to get the same tonal volume as the player had on his Schmidt,  the easy solution was to go to a wider rim diameter like a Bach 3, or Bach 1, instead, of keeping the rim diameter the same, and making an adjustment in some other part.

I have a customer in Atlanta, Georgia that was playing on a Bach 3C, and wanted to increase his endurance. I recommended that he play a mouthpiece with a slightly narrower rim diameter but a slightly larger hole too. It worked for him.

The old players knew that when you use a narrow cup diameter you will have more endurance, and that means you can play higher longer.

So by way of summarization, large is not good, nor bad. And small is not bad or good. Each has its own playing characteristics.

Trumpet playing is hard enough with the wind power needed to play it, why add more strain with a mouthpiece that is making you work  EVEN harder to get the results you want?

I remember one teacher putting like this, “it's the easiest way”.

It would be interesting to see what size cup diameters we would be playing now, if Adolph Herseth had never been injured.

You also have some trumpet books that you wrote. Tell us about them?
There are four books about 315 pages altogether. I encourage my students to practice twice a day, so I named the first two books, Morning Trumpet Studies, and Evening Trumpet Exercises. The third book is The Scale Book for Trumpet, and the last I named Finger Flexibilities. When I was young and studied with various teachers they had me play exercises that worked for them or from their teachers that helped them to feel good. One of my teachers, Claude Gordon, had studied with Herbert L. Clarke for about 10 years. So I got to play all of Clarke’s books, many exercises were played with alternate fingerings to increase the strength of the third finger. Claude had just finished his Systematic Daily book and was working on others. Both men used a Priority System of exercise in their books. Another teacher that I thought a great deal of was Harold Mitchell. He has written a set of four books for trumpet that are excellent. They are built on a Circuit System of exercise. I found that by using both systems I could not only build strength but also endurance. My books are exercises in the Priority System style that made me feel good after playing them, just like my teachers had written exercises that made them feel good. It is possible to play my books in a Circuit System, I have done it, but they are best practiced in the Priority System.

I will give you an idea what is in each book starting with the Morning Trumpet Studies book. There are studies in: Long Tones, Lip Looseners (pedal tones), Flexibility Studies, Finger Flickers (technical study), and Velocity Studies. In the Evening Trumpet Exercises book there are exercises in Bending, Flexibility, Scale, Arpeggio, and Chromatics, and Finger Twisters (alternate fingerings).  The Scale Book for Trumpet has these scales in exercise form: Major, Pure Minor, Harmonic Minor, Melodic Minor, Whole Tone, Diminished, Augmented, Lydian Augmented and Blues Scales.
The Finger Flexibilities book uses chords in exercise form. The chords are Major, Minor, Diminished, Augmented, Major 6th, Minor 6th, Dominant 7th, Minor 7th, and Major 7th.  

Samples of each of the books and their exercises can be found at this web address: www.fokusmouthpieces.com

Where can people get the FoKus mouthpiece or the Trumpet Study and Exercise books?
FoKus mouthpieces are sold directly from the company web site: www.fokusmouthpieces.com
Also in the U.S.A. FoKus is available from the WoodWind and BrassWind Company, Music123, and their subsidiaries. Last summer, I was in Paris and sold the FoKus line to Feeling Musique. Links to all of these companies are on the FoKus Site. My books are only available through the FoKus Site at the moment.

Lowell, thank you very much for this little cyber-talk!
You are welcome; it was my pleasure and if any of your readers have any questions, please e-mail me at: email@fokusmouthpieces.com

Best of Wishes,
Lowell Stevenson

o.j. 2004