Ramón's Blog

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Thoughts on Kaspar

Apr 3, 2020

Pictured is a vintage Kaspar Cicero 13 Bb mouthpiece, formerly owned by Robert Marcellus. I have worked on several mouthpieces that belonged to Mr Marcellus, and have to say, he knew how to pick a mouthpiece. This example is outstanding – was in original condition until it came to its current owner who had me restore it. Just needs a bit of refacing as it has worn during the past few years since I last touched it. As with any Kaspar Chicago or Cicero I touch, I apply facings that are faithful to Mr Kaspar’s designs – with this mouthpiece, 1.13mm tip, medium curve and length.

I posted the above photo and brief write-up on Facebook last week, and have since received a number of questions related to Kaspar mouthpieces. I will try to answer them here in blog form and elaborate on a few thoughts of my own.

At the moment, I do not have any Kaspar mouthpieces for sale – I do sell vintage mouthpieces from time to time and source them for players on demand, but my Kaspar dealings are mostly with refurbishing and restoration. Best to check with me periodically to see what I have in stock.

The nearest Wodkowski mouthpiece models to a Kaspar Cicero 13 would be my 2 model – however, the majority of Kaspar players purchase my Philadelphia or 1 models, with the Philadelphia being the most popular.

Many questions have been from players who are interested in acquiring Kaspar mouthpieces, and wanting to learn more about them and how to go about selecting and refurbishing.

It is important to make the distinction between the two Kaspars that made clarinet mouthpieces – Frank Kaspar of Chicago and Cicero (IL), and Frank L Kaspar of Chicago and Ann Arbor (MI). The Franks were cousins from Bohemia, and worked together in Chicago for a period in the early 20th century (primarily repairmen) before they parted ways – the elder Frank L moved to Ann Arbor, and Frank settled in Cicero. Frank Kaspar’s mouthpieces have a greater following and “mystique” surrounding them as many well known players and their students used them – Robert Marcellus being one. One way of distinguishing between their individual mouthpieces is Frank L Kaspar stamped a small star on his mouthpieces, inside the oval logo and on the body. Frank Kaspar used a small oval, stamped in the center of the oval logo.

I have worked on hundreds of Kaspar mouthpieces, Chicago, Cicero and Ann Arbor. These mouthpieces varied quite a bit during the several decades the Kaspars operated – Frank L and Frank had their own styles and personalities with their work. One thing to keep in mind is they had to use whatever blanks were available at the time, which were very crude in comparison to the more ready-made blanks of the later 20th century. This is a true testament to the quality of their work, as they were able to make so many fine mouthpieces from them. Frank Kaspar’s mouthpieces shine in particular for me as they were so cleanly finished, beautifully crafted, and acoustically superior to most anything else made at the time. This posting is primarily about Frank’s mouthpieces – I will write another post on Frank L’s mouthpieces in the future.

Frank Kaspar had a very simple system of model classification which he followed consistently during his career. Models were stamped with the tip opening on the side of the mouthpiece – 11 (approx 1.11mm), 13 (1.13mm), etc. The most common mouthpieces to find are the 11, 13 and 14 – the 13 being the most sought after. I have seen Kaspar mouthpieces stamped below 10 and some going up to 18. Robert Marcellus and many of the professionals in the mid 20th century preferred the 13 and 11. There were some special designs also, L, G and others he made for certain players and their students.

As a craftsman dealing with many examples for restoration, one can group these mouthpieces into three basic “categories” of condition that they can be found in. One must remember that these are vintage mouthpieces, and all have a past and story.

Firstly, there are the examples that are in original condition which have been played. Many enthusiasts believe these are ideal as they are “original” – perhaps a mouthpiece from a former teacher, colleague or relative, etc. These are good mouthpieces to acquire, however you are essentially dealing with an old car that is most likely in need of a servicing. Years of wear has accumulated (sometimes two careers worth) on the mouthpiece, facing and table, which will have an impact on the way it plays. Often times they are very free, bright/harsh, a bit tired, not reed friendly and very temperamental to use full time. With careful restoration work, there is no reason these cannot be made to play as new, if not better. Much work may be needed however to restore a heavily played mouthpiece, which will result in the mouthpiece performing differently from its worn out state. I generally don’t advise players who are new to vintage mouthpieces to use them in original condition, as there are inevitably strange things happening with the table or facing that they will get used to, and lead them down the path to becoming “addicted” to that particular mouthpiece – or abandoning it in frustration due to its temperamental nature.

Second, there are the “original, new old stock” mouthpieces that come up from time to time – very low mileage or unplayed. These may not have been as preferable as others originally and discarded or overlooked. Often times Kaspar would send batches out and there were always a few that weren’t selected. For whatever reason they ended up in a box or drawer, untouched. Even if they don’t play well (as many of this sort do not), these are excellent mouthpieces to have restored as they do not have the wear of a well played mouthpiece. Most of the time, all that is needed is minimal facing, chamber work and you have a pristine, wonderful playing mouthpiece. Kaspar was quite consistent with his internal work, so assuming the blank is of good quality, it is a much easier restoration than mouthpieces from category 1. Of course, there is always the magical possibility of finding an original, beautiful playing new old stock Kaspar, however as I mentioned above, it is always worth giving it a check up with a skilled craftsman.

The third type of Kaspar one encounters, which is the most common, are those that have been worked on. This is a minefield, as so many have been scraped and tampered with over the past 80 years – some good, many not so good. These mouthpieces can be the most difficult to work with as makers from the past and present often have not applied work that is appropriate to the mouthpiece. Mr Kaspar was a very consistent maker, and with enough study of his original models, one can see very clearly what he intended with facings and chamber configurations. Sadly, many facers apply whatever facings THEY believe are correct – most today apply very long, closer facings to a Kaspar, which is not what they were designed for. This makes it difficult to restore as the craftsman must perform more drastic surgery to realign the facing to specs that are faithful to Kaspar. There is nothing wrong with these mouthpieces, but from my experience they work optimally with the style of work that the maker intended.

Regardless of what condition you may find a Kaspar mouthpiece, and assuming is it a good candidate, in the hands of a skilled craftsman it can be transformed into a wonderful gem. I always recommend having a check up every year or two to see how much wear and warpage is happening.

It is worth mentioning that Kaspar also made excellent bass and Eb clarinet mouthpieces – the Eb clarinet mouthpieces in particular are wonderful and well worth acquiring. Unlike their Bb soprano siblings, both vintage bass and Eb mouthpieces from the mid 20th century often need adapting to play to modern standards. The bass can be more challenging as they need a more open facing than Kaspar originally intended. This is because bass playing has evolved since Kaspars day, and most all professional players prefer a longer, more open facing in a modern orchestra/ensemble.

Kaspar mouthpieces (and vintage mouthpieces in general) are losing popularity in the clarinet world today – trends change. Most of my business now is with new Wodkowski mouthpieces – it is wonderful and very gratifying to see many players take my mouthpieces and put their vintage away, however we must remember that all mouthpieces wear out, need adjusting and maintaining by a craftsman. Just as the Kaspars had customers return with their mouthpieces for refacing, so do mine with Wodkowski mouthpieces. Mouthpiece crafting is sadly dying out today as so few have devoted real study and an organised, scientific approach to the furtherance of the craft, but that is for another blog post.

I work with Kaspar and vintage mouthpieces via the mail on a regular basis, and am most happy to evaluate any photos online of prospective candidates for refacing and restoration. For more info on the Kaspars, my friend David Tuttle recently published a wonderful series of articles in the ICA journal – extremely well done and in my opinion, the definitive history of these makers.