Mike Lomax mouthpiece event at Howarth of London 25th -30th April a review by Julian Wheeler A couple of years ago I was handed a brochure advertising clarinet mouthpieces by an American guy called Michael Lomax, I have to admit Id never heard of him and I filed the brochure appropriately and forgot about it. A few weeks later I received an order for one c/o David Campbell, for whom Mike Lomax had designed a mouthpiece. On its arrival from BG France, European distributors at the time, I had a quick blow and was rather taken with it. I eventually ordered a rather tentative selection of various openings to test the water. I need not have been so cautious as they flew out of the building and I was soon on the phone to France for some more, only to find that BG would no longer be supplying them. This was the beginning of a very close relationship between Howarth and Mike Lomax. Within the first year of dealing direct with Mike I placed four or five separate orders each with an average of thirty mouthpieces extending the range of models and sizes and including bass and E flat. I attended the International Clarinet event in Washington DC last July and met Mike for the first time, I was astounded by the amount of players crowding around his stand and evidently walking away with a new mouthpiece. We had several chats during the week and over dinner discussed Howarth becoming exclusive suppliers for the UK and maybe Europe. We also touched upon Mike perhaps coming over here sometime. I invited Mike to come over the week of the 25th April with the aim of hosting an official mouthpiece day on the Wednesday including a cheese and wine party that evening, Thursday at one of the colleges (which did not materialise) and Friday in the saxophone department to show his new sax mouthpieces. I spent the two weeks leading up to the 25th in a cold sweat, panicking that no-one would turn up which would have been extremely embarrassing. Its a long way to come to sit there twiddling your thumbs. My threats of not buzzing the door to let people in ever again and an increase in prices must have paid off as the place was packed all week. We planned just two official days at Howarth thinking that Mike would be eager to cram in some sight-seeing, but he had already decided that the trip was to spend time here and here alone. The planned saxophone day fell by the way-side because of the constant flow of clarinettists. We had players from most of the London orchestras including the London Philharmonic, Philharmonia, Covent Garden, BBC Symphony and Academy of St. Martins in the Fields also renowned teachers and students. As you can imagine it was a very relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere, we were sad to see him go home. By the time the week finally ended at 830pm on Saturday evening Mike wished he had booked an extra week.
Whilst here I managed to get Mike to one side to ask a few questions with this article in mind; JW: What got you interested in mouthpiece design? ML: My interest in mouthpieces goes way back to my student days. I found myself wishing from time to time that I could change the way my mouthpiece sounded and worked for me, but I had no idea how to accomplish this since it was a complete mystery to me. As the years went by, and I progressed as a player as well as a woodwind repairer, I always had the desire in the back of my mind to learn about mouthpiece and someday to make my own. I had played most of the clarinet mouthpieces that were available and always felt that there good qualities in most of them but wished I could combine the best of my favourites. JW: Where did you learn about mouthpieces? ML: I got to know some of the better makers in the US, and was able to pick up bits of information concerning different aspects of the art, but soon realised that these people had spent many years of hard work and experimentation learning their trade, and rightfully guarded in their willingness to share their hard earned secrets. This was a small, but very competitive vocation, and each maker was striving to win the approval of the better professional musicians and their students. In 1996, a very fortunate event occurred in my life that opened the door for me to pursue my desire to learn how to make mouthpieces. Paul Dirksmeyer, a retired university professor of clarinet, who was one of a few mouthpiece craftsmen in the United States, called me one day at my shop and was wanting to send his clarinet to me to have it overhauled. Dirksmeyer, was in his seventies at this time, and in bad health due to kidney failure. As I was talking to him a light bulb went on in my mind and I asked him if he would consider a barter arrangement for my work on his clarinet? He asked me what I had in mind, and I said, how about you teach me how to make mouthpieces in exchange for the work on your clarinet? Paul knew that he was in the final years of his ability to work, and agreed to teach me what he knew about mouthpieces. I was confident that with my repair ability and my playing experience that I could acquire the skills needed to become a skilled mouthpiece craftsman. In the spring of 1996, I went to Pauls home in Dover, Arkansas, and spent the week with him absorbing as much of his wealth of knowledge about mouthpieces as possible. We would have to take breaks every other morning for him to go to the hospital for kidney dialysis, and then we would be back to work. I learned enough from this time with Paul, to return to my shop and start the long process of developing my skills and ideas for what I thought most clarinettists were looking for in a good mouthpiece. Paul and I had set a time in August of that year for me to return to Arkansas for further study, but sadly, only a week before I was to return, Paul passed away. I was sad that I would not get to spend further time with this very kind and gentle person, but so thankful that I had had the opportunity to learn so much in the time we had together.
JW: So now to put it into practice, ML: Yeah, I realized that I was on my own now, and my first goal was to make a mouthpiece that I liked better than my faithful old friend that I had used for many years in the orchestra. I told myself that I would not try to make any mouthpieces to sell to others until I could make one that I really liked and used myself. This process took me about seven or eight months to achieve but it was exciting when I finally had something that I was proud of and that sounded great in the orchestra. JW: It must have been a great advantage being an orchestral player? ML: Many of the great makers of the past were not players, but rather craftsmen and machinists, Being a player was very helpful to me, in fact I cant imagine being able to make what I wanted to make without being able to play test my progress every step of the way. I knew that one of my most important goals was to make a mouthpiece that was reed friendly, ie. I wanted the musician to be able to open a new box of reeds and find as many useable reeds as possible. This came from the fact that as a busy repairman full time and a symphony musician part time, I did not have the time or energy to spend hours working on reeds! So, I designed my mouthpieces from the ground up to work well with the commercial reeds I was using, since I knew that I was not going to be able to get the reed companies to change their reeds to work on my mouthpiece! JW: How did you set about getting your mouthpieces played? ML: Well, there was a time in the beginning when I was very discouraged. I liked my mouthpiece, but because I was not a member of a major orchestra with a big reputation it was hard to interest other professionals. So, I just went back to my repairs and didn't do anything further with the mouthpieces. Finally, months later my wife and I were taking our nightly walk and she asked me what I was doing with the mouthpiece idea. I shared my discouragement with her and she reminded me that if you really are making something that is good you don't have to have a name it just takes longer to let the product build the name. Words of wisdom from my biggest fan, my wife Suzanne! So, I made some mouthpieces and took them to the Oklahoma Clarinet Symposium that year, and after my son and I spent the first two days watching people walk by our booth on their way to the other established makers, Paul Garner, assistant principal clarinet in the Dallas Symphony, stopped and tried the mouthpieces and really liked them and this was the encouragement I needed to press on. Now that I had a product that I felt was really good, I started to show my product to the professionals and students, at various symposiums, conferences, and trade shows, and continued to improve my work by incorporating the feedback from the players as they used and tested the mouthpieces. This is an ongoing process of research and development that continues today.
JW: And for the future? ML: I continue to strive for a better product every time I sit down at my workbench, and I enjoy very much passing on my knowledge to my son Joel, and my former student Levi Tracy. I hope to pass the business on to these two fine young men someday, and hopefully, they will continue this time honored craft and pass their knowledge on to the next generation. As long as there is music and musicians there will always be those who want the best available in equipment, and computers and mass production will never be able to take the place of the artist craftsman with his trained ear and hands. JW: Now that youve made hundreds of mouthpieces how would you best sum up your craft? ML: I will never forget the time I had made my very first mouthpiece with Paul Dirksmeyer. We were sitting side by side at the workbench, and I had tested the mouthpiece and it actually played pretty well. I looked at Paul and