Full version of my interview with Richard MacDowell and Larry Guy, published in the current edition of The Clarinet.
Mouthpiece Madness — Part VI
An Interview with Ramon Wodkowski by Richard MacDowell and Larry Guy
During the past few years, Ramon Wodkowski’s meticulous work as a mouthpiece craftsman, redesigner and maker has won him a wide following among many fine players in this country and abroad. A native of the Detroit area, Mr. Wodkowski’s first influence was his father, a clarinettist who studied with Paul Schaller, principal of the Detroit Symphony. His early years were spent studying with his father, Emil Moro (local Detroit area teacher), and Ted Oien, principal of the Detroit Symphony. During high school he attended the Interlochen Arts Academy as a student of Richard Hawkins. His undergraduate years were spent at the Cleveland Institute of Music where he studied with Frank Cohen. While at CIM he also studied with Linnea Nereim, who taught him about vintage mouthpieces and introduced him to Everett Matson, with whom he worked closely for a time. He received his Master of Music degree at the Yale University School of Music as a student of David Shifrin who encouraged his mouthpiece interest, gave him a set of refacing tools and introduced him to James Kanter in Los Angeles, another important influence. After Yale, he attended the Royal College of Music in London where he was a student of Richard Hosford, principal clarinettist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of Europe. At the Royal College he earned the Artist Diploma, won the Frederick Thurston Prize and was subsequently named the David Bowerman Junior Fellow for 2005–2006. During this time as a student he began freelancing with the major orchestras in the U.K., and thus began his career as a professional player, one of less than a handful of American clarinettists who have built a playing career in London. Despite his hectic schedule as a mouthpiece craftsman, he continues to lead a busy playing life.
Mr. Wodkowski’s career as a mouthpiece craftsman has risen in quite a flurry. In the past four years he has accumulated experience and a client list rivalled by few. He makes a special study of all mouthpiece designs and playing concepts and works with most every type of mouthpiece imaginable. Restoring and refurbishing vintage and contemporary mouthpieces has resulted in the accumulation of knowledge concerning how best to revitalize a mouthpiece, whether refurbishing a vintage piece or enhancing a modern commercial design. Recently he has been working closely with Donald Montanaro in creating a new “super” mouthpiece, inspired in part by some of his vintage Chedeville mouthpieces. Mr. Wodkowski’s Chedeville style project puts him in good company as many makers have copied Chedeville mouthpieces over the years — we were curious to learn how Mr. Wodkowski’s approach might differ from other makers.
Richard MacDowell: Given your dual background of American and European playing, what drew you to re-create, through the development of a new mouthpiece, the American style of sound?
Ramon Wodkowski: Due to my background of having studied with a wide spectrum of players, my own concept has become extremely flexible, especially since working with so many clients all over the world — their concepts have gotten into my ears and greatly aided and added to my own playing as well. My goal with mouthpiece crafting has always been to master and understand different concepts of playing. This flexibility allows me to work with most any setup and player. I have always been attracted to the beauty of the Philadelphia/Henri Chedeville concept and admire its purity of tone, flexibility and color palette. Donald Montanaro and I have formed a relationship over the past few years, and I have restored many of his mouthpieces, which are wonderful. At the time of our introduction, I had begun to explore various avenues to create a new professional mouthpiece via CNC and high-end technology, and felt that this particular design was the ideal first project to attempt. Vintage French mouthpieces can be very complicated to work with, especially pieces such as the Henri Chedeville, so I thought to tackle it head on. I like a challenge!
RM: Do you think playing in a different style gives you a certain objectivity to the American sound that an American manufacturer might not have? RW: Yes, in part. Everyone has their own way of playing, and most mouthpiece makers create mouthpieces in their personal style. It’s natural and makes sense. I grew up in the American tradition, however have changed my playing voice many times during my life and currently employ a very British setup (Peter Eaton clarinets). I’m one of those unusual people who can play any sort of setup and change my sound completely if needed. I have always had that flexibility and understanding of voicing. So I see the American school of playing from both the inside and outside you might say.
Larry Guy: How would you describe the difficulties of restoring a Henri Chedeville?
RW: Most of the Henri Chedeville mouthpieces were custom-made. The blanks varied, and they were made for a different time (different bore clarinets and reeds from today, etc.). Also they were hand finished and often times not completely symmetrical internally. The style and requirements of playing in the 1920s and before was a bit different from the way we play now. To make them play to modern standards, but still adhere to their original intended qualities can be quite a challenge. Players in modern halls and orchestras need a great range of dynamics, a sensitivity to gradations of color, flexibility and control of intonation which wasn’t necessarily standardized or evolved 100 years ago. One has to to be very creative to respect the inherent qualities of the mouthpiece, but make it playable in today’s environment.
RM: Let’s say for argument’s sake that all the good qualities were there 100 years ago, but since the mouthpieces you see have been worked on so many times, how are you able to imagine what they were like in the first place?
RW: That’s a good question. Some mouthpieces have been worked many times, and very poorly at that, but I find most things can be brought back to life with study and effort. You cannot aim to restore something exactly as it was, as that is impossible unless you knew the mouthpiece first hand on the day it was made. Also the rubber has most likely changed and deteriorated, so it’s impossible to know exactly how it played when new. However, you can make them play well in the appropriate style. I have a template in my head of the playing feel, baffle shape and chamber configurations of the finest Henri and Charles Chedevilles, LeRoys, Roberts, etc., as preferred by many of my major clients. Most of the time they can be brought back to life, even those which have been tampered with too much in the chamber or the window shape. In the end it will never be as it was, but can play very well, often times even better than it did originally. From the moment a mouthpiece is born, it wears and changes with playing so it never will be exactly the same, even in the hands of the very finest craftsman.
RM: How has your experience with so many vintage mouthpieces influenced the design of your new model?
RW: I don’t think I would have been able to create this new mouthpiece without the experience of working with such a dense succession of high-level clients who engaged me to refurbish their vintage mouthpieces. I saw and worked on, within a year or two, hundreds of them first-hand, and along the way I made a note of what attracted various clients to a particular mouthpiece and made an effort to understand why that was. For my new mouthpieces, I have chosen a design which has qualities many of my clients value, but also which I feel are especially beautiful. So the amalgam is my personal choice, but also based on what players prefer, from my experience.
LG: What body parts do you think are essential to a good mouthpiece?
RW: Aside from studying the facing of the mouthpiece in great detail, I also study the chamber of each style of mouthpiece. For example, Henri Chedeville did certain things to the chamber of his mouthpieces, as did other makers. If you look closely enough it is evident. I try to keep my work within what the maker would have intended, but at the same time make things comfortable for modern players, especially the owner of the piece, who is the ultimate judge. They have the final decision.
LG: So one change in the mouthpiece’s dimensions affects other aspects of the mouthpiece.
RW: It’s a balancing act. I study the facing under the microscope, but you can’t just put a perfect facing on a mouthpiece and expect it to play well; there’s always something else to be done to add that extra bit of life and playability to the mouthpiece. That’s what I love about working with mouthpieces, especially vintage pieces — finding the soul inside, underneath. To do that, I often have to test the mouthpiece myself, but when working with clients, I prefer to test with their reeds and clarinet, and, most importantly, listen to them play to understand their concept. That usually tells me what I have to do. I don’t test the mouthpiece with my clarinet, because then it’s “me,” and I don’t want to put “me” into it. When working via the post, I generally ask many questions to understand how the client plays and what needs doing.
LG: Can you tell us about the detail with which you measure the facing and how you put on a new facing?
RW: The system I came up with is very elaborate and works for my needs and personality. I originally began with the standard four-point system, which I learned from Everett Matson [the Erick Brand system, which measures four points of the facing, from near the tip to the point where the facing closes into the table. This system was described in Part V of our series while interviewing Michael Lomax in The Clarinet, Vol. 41 #1: December, 2013]. James Kanter, with whom I worked while a graduate student at Yale, had a more elaborate system which showed me ways one can precisely manipulate the facing to increase one’s accuracy. Gradually that led me to develop my own method which allows me to see the arc of the facing in a way which works well for my needs. When working with major players in my early days of business, I studied the various facing curves they preferred and noticed certain inherent similarities. Over time and study I observed which changes in the facing and chamber altered response, etc., and this lead to my system of work — not just the numbers alone. Since I work on so many different kinds of mouthpieces, I like this system because it allows me to see things very clearly so I can work with most anything — French, German, classical clarinet mouthpieces, bass and saxophone. However, I know other refacers who have great success with the four-point system and other means. In the end, the maker has to find a system that works for them and their concepts. Both Jim Kanter and Everett Matson told me to find my own way, and I believe in that very much. This is a very personal craft and trying to copy other makers’ systems generally leads nowhere. So much of this craft is heavily reliant on our ears and understanding of concept, far more than numbers and dimensions.
RM: How do you approach the baffle shape of the mouthpiece, as opposed to what others do, or what the commercial mouthpiece makers do?
RW: For me, the baffle reflects the facing, and they have to compliment one another, also with the chamber to create the personality of the mouthpiece. I study the shape, depth and size of various baffle and chamber designs and how they create their unique voicings. For example, with a Henri Chedeville, in my opinion, a certain baffle contour spectrum is needed; whereas with an open facing Riffault design, a different baffle contour is generally necessary. Another example, many Kaspar Chicago mouthpieces have a slightly different baffle shape than Kaspar Ciceros. This is what contributes to their qualities. The old mouthpieces: Roberts, Charles and Henri Chedevilles, LeRoys, all had different baffle contrours from one other, within certain parameters of course, given the time period they were made. There are ways of measuring the baffle, but for me, I picture it in my mind . It is very creative work, much like sculpting.
LG: Do the depth measurements you make to the baffle compare in number to the measurements you make to the facing?
RW: No. For me there are crucial points inside, but I am less controlling about the internals of the mouthpiece and like it to be how it was born, rather than carving and carving to make it something else. I usually find the facing first and then make adjustments inside. I stay with templates and shapes of facings that work with certain chambers, and then make adjustments from there, UNLESS the mouthpiece has a very unusual chamber. There are some craftsmen who will customize a facing for a particular reed on a particular day, generally manipulating the facing greatly to work with that reed. This may work; however, when the client goes home to their environment, it might not be so successful when that reed dies or the weather changes and reeds play differently. I don’t experiment very much in that way, as for me it generally leads to a dead end. I aim for a certain template, based on my experience of studying hundreds of lays, and almost 100% of the time my system works, even when reeds and weather are not ideal. When creating an unusual custom facing, I always am certain that it functions, first and foremost, ensuring the contour is balanced.
RM: Is the difference between a Kaspar and a Chedeville impacted by the difference of the bore size — the large-bore clarinets that the Chedeville was made for versus the smaller-bore Buffets that the Kaspar was made for?
RW: For me, not so much. The major character difference between the Chedeville and Kaspar spectrum, as wide as it is, is more to do with the chamber configuration. I focus on the facing and the tone chamber. Kaspar and Chedeville mouthpieces are a fairly broad area, but for me the bore is more of a secondary issue. Generally speaking, the older the mouthpiece, the larger the bore can be. The early Chedeville and Kaspar pieces had larger bores, but over time Kaspar made their’s smaller. The problem with the bore one can encounter with vintage mouthpieces is tuning. With modern clarinets some vintage pieces will not tune properly, and it can be a problem. I have met many students and professionals along the way who have attempted to play a vintage mouthpiece which had a bore too large for their setup. The sound is wonderful, but they struggled with tuning.
LG: So the bore of your mouthpiece is a little smaller than some of the old Chedevilles?
RW: In part. I am engineering my new mouthpieces to tune reliably with modern clarinets, but still possess the voicing of the old Chedeville design. I could make a mouthpiece that has a large bore with a Henri Chedeville contour, but I can guarantee it will not tune for everyone. I will offer that option though. Because expectations and standards for tuning are so very high these days, we have to make a mouthpiece that will tune reliably, while keeping the wonderful sound and flexibility — the “soul” of the old mouthpieces. That’s what I am working on. Regarding the quest to totally replicate the old Ched, I do not believe it is a realistic one. I’ve never seen an original facing piece from that era which was 100% comfortable to play on, past a minute or two. Although it may be a wonderful sound, once you play it for a little while, you soon feel its limitations. In their original state they can feel small-scale as the facings were generally very short and close, and with some the chambers were very tight in feel. Although it may be authentic, I guarantee if one is playing in a major modern-day orchestra, you would put it down before too long. They need to be adapted slightly to work for our standards.
LG: When you talk about the dimensions of the body of the mouthpiece, are you also including external dimensions? How important are they compared to material?
RW: I believe the dimensions of the mouthpiece, chamber, baffle, bore – including external dimensions such as the shape of the beak and the overall circumference, the thickness of the walls of the body — to be much more crucial than the material used. The current trend of attempting to replicate old rubber is a redundant exercise in my mind. This issue for me is about craftsmanship, and I focus on the physical dimensions in great detail, which in my opinion are what makes the tone chamber play the way it does. For me there is no reason why we cannot use a modern material and make a very fine resonating mouthpiece — dare I say even better than the old designs. The ebonite we are using for my new project is very high quality, durable, and, most importantly, resonates very well. The ultimate test is the feedback. No one who has tried my new mouthpiece has questioned the quality of the material. People simply don’t think of it if the piece works for them. If the piece does not play to their liking, players sadly have a tendency to blame the material, which is usually completely the wrong reason for why the mouthpiece does not work for them.
RM: Do you hand-finish the mouthpiece when it comes from the machine, and, if so, in what way?
RW: The blanks that come from the machine are not playable to my standards, and I don’t think current technology is sophisticated enough to do the entire job, so I finish them by hand. I prefer it that way as I have complete control of the body production and finishing touches. This new Chedeville style project is my first super high-end product where I have 100% control of the production and design. I am, however, a scientist of all mouthpieces and plan on creating a Kaspar-style mouthpiece, a more open model, a spectrum of German designs, bass, etc. I make a point of playing different styles myself to expand my flexibility. I am fortunate enough to have a playing career and environment which is flexible enough to allow this, and it has been the perfect laboratory to test my ideas. LG: Do the blanks purposefully have extra rubber in them, so you can do specific finishing?
RW: Yes. I leave enough room inside to customize them in various directions, so they are not just one flavor. I can make slightly different facings and chambers to suit the varying needs of my clients.
RM: I think there are schools of playing that are based on one generation or one player, and other schools that are based on many generations. I think what you are saying is that there needs to be a connection to many generations to bring important concepts to the next generation.
RW: Yes. A number of years ago I told myself that I would not allow my per- sonal opinions of clarinet playing to enter into my work. I like to cater to people and help them achieve their individual needs. But, at the same time, when I hear a school of playing or a style of equipment which offers a beautiful palette of colors, I am intrigued by how they achieve that and why those players appreciate that vehicle. I believe that when a mouthpiece maker dies or retires and the equipment is no longer available, a school will change. As time passes, people retire and move on, etc., and students begin playing other equipment, orchestra requirements change, etc. But like every other instrument, we need to have a variety of equipment available, and that is something which concerns me. In my opinion, we need more variety of mouthpieces available today, otherwise clarinet playing will homogenize, as it already has done in my lifetime to a great degree. My goal is to make mouthpieces of very high quality which will hopefully help widen the spectrum of playing and allow for more room for individuality and various scholols of playing to find their voice. I chose this Chedeville style project because this mouthpiece is at the core of the American sound and tradition, not just America, but Europe as well to a degree. I hear that sound everywhere in this country. It’s deeply rooted (also in my own playing), and when people play my prototypes, everyone responds to them.
LG: This kind of sound seems so idiosyncratic to the instrument, with its resonance, depth, etc.
RW: And also the vocal quality: that’s what I am after with this model. The greatest Henri Chedeville mouthpieces, while having a beautiful sound and resonance, have an extra dimension to them which attracts me. They want to play music. If the mouthpiece won’t allow the player to play a phrase, while possessing a beautiful sound, dynamic range and taper, then I personally don’t consider it to be a great mouthpiece. For me it has to be more than just “clarinettistic,” or “efficient”— I loathe that word — it has to be musical, too.That’s what this is all about.
RM: So I think what you’re saying is that you are not trying to recreate an original old mouthpiece, but rather create something that has the qualities of the old mouthpiece but will play well in a modern setting.
RW: Right, and I think that’s what my predecessors, Everett Matson, Don Jin Kim and Kaspar in Ann Arbor did in the 1960s and 1970s. They took these old mouthpieces and moderized them, adapted them for Mr. Montanaro and others, and that’s as far back in time as we can look to study the science of crafting, realistically. I am after the same kind of “playability” achieved by these craftsmen while in their prime, but push forwards and try to better my work and the evolution of the craft with constant refinement and improvements. The Chedeville project is my first, but I am a scientist of all mouthpieces. I would like to do a Kaspar-style mouthpiece, a German mouthpiece, a more open mouthpiece, etc.
LG: Tell us about your current services and offerings
RW: I offer my refurbishing services for any clarinet mouthpiece — B-flat, E-flat, bass, contra, etc. — all makes, whether vintage, commercial, custom, etc. One of my specialities is sourcing and dealing vintage mouthpieces. I have a large revolving stock. I also work with saxophone mouthpieces, as I do play professionally in London, and will be expanding into that world in the coming few years. However, for the moment I am concentrating on clarinet mouthpieces. Apart from that I have an entire range of new mouthpieces which are made from a variety of blanks — far wider in selection and diversity than most makers. These are made on a custom order basis, and I am only now beginning to plan their advertisement and sales via the Web. Until now I have simply not had the stock or time for their Web presence. Demand has been too high.My schedule and life has been very hectic over the past four years. Now that the new designs are nearly ready, I will create a new website and put all of my offerings on the Web very soon. The new mouthpiece (which I have nicknamed Napoleon) and its sibling will be available this summer hopefully. Information and updates will be posted on my website and online. The waiting list is already very long, so it’s going to be a very busy time ahead!