Master craftsman: McClune’s mouthpieces give voice to clarinets

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McClune Audio Report

By Amelia Krauss, News Editor

 Tucked in the corner of his office on the first floor of Jennings Hall is a wooden desk displaying an array of tools — a block of machinist-grade granite, Swiss files used in the jewelry industry and a bench motor. While his bookshelf holds some books, it is also home to a buffer machine. While most professors’ offices are places for quiet study, his is a place of creative, meticulous handiwork.

His office is a workshop, and Dr. David  McClune, university professor of music, is not just a teacher — he is a craftsman.

In addition to playing clarinet and saxophone professionally, providing woodwind lessons, conducting jazz band and teaching Arts in Western Civilization classes, McClune crafts clarinet mouthpieces and sells them worldwide to professional musicians.

While McClune has repaired mouthpieces since the mid-1980s, he began to seriously pursue his hobby and business venture about 10 years ago.

He soon attended his first international conference, where he displayed a small tray of his own handcrafted pieces. While McClune said he felt like a “fish out of water” at the event, he sold several mouthpieces and said he was humbled to be commended by renown professional musicians.

McClune is one of approximately six to eight people in the U.S. who create and craft mouthpieces of this caliber. Ninety-five percent of mouthpieces are made in factories by machines, McClune said.

He and other craftsmen take finished mouthpieces made in factories, which are called “blanks,” and fine tune them to have specific dimensions that produce the best-quality sound.

A clarinet mouthpiece has a flat surface with a curve at the end. A reed, made of a type of bamboo, is attached to the mouthpiece. When a musician blows on the piece, the reed vibrates against the mouthpiece, creating a musical sound.

Using specialized tools, McClune manipulates the mouthpiece’s dimensions to reshape the curve and smooth the piece to alter the way the reed vibrates against the mouthpiece. Even slight adjustments to a mouthpiece are enough to change the entire instrument’s tone, quality of sound and ease of play, McClune said.

What sets McClune’s handcrafted mouthpieces apart is meticulous attention to detail and consistency. He creates 15 different mouthpiece models, and every piece of each model is notably uniform. He is accurate to the thousandth of an inch, which is a tenth of the size of the diameter of a strand of hair, he said.

“I am basically removing microns of dust to reshape the curve,” McClune said. “I measure the curve, I shape the curve by hand. … I am probably 10 times more accurate than a machine. No machine on the planet can get as accurate as I can by hand.”

Dr. Chris Mathews, associate professor of music and department chair, attests to the quality of McClune’s work and its value to serious musicians. He said McClune’s mouthpieces are unique and exceptional for at least two reasons — McClune understands what makes a good mouthpiece, and he is able to specifically design them based on clients’ needs.

“He is a professional performer himself, and so he understands the quality of the mouthpiece and what it takes for the instrument to produce a beautiful tone,” Mathews said. “He designs them specifically for the players. Professional players will come to him, make requests based on their own face, their own mouth and muscles and the particular tone that they want, and he’s able to design those down to the fraction of measurements in order to create a mouthpiece that people will desire.”

After reshaping and reforming “blanks” — usually made in Germany — McClune tests each mouthpiece by playing on it to determine which changes are still needed.

“You have to have insane amounts of patience and perseverance,” McClune said. “You have to be a pretty good player to be sensitive, so I’ll play things and I’ll try to analyze in the playing of the mouthpiece what’s working, what’s not working, what’s really not working … .”

While McClune said he prefers not to share names of his patrons with the public, he said some of his clientele are comparable to the quarterback for the New York Giants or to Tiger Woods. “Now people say, ‘I play a McClune,’” he said. “It’s really a badge of honor. Someone says, ‘I play a McClune mouthpiece’ … It’s a real awesome, humbling thing to realize I make something that helps these really phenomenal clarinet players play better, sound better … That’s a real honor to help them out.”

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The Cardinal & Cream is a student publication of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Our staff ranges from freshmen to seniors and includes a variety of majors — including journalism, public relations, advertising, marketing, digital media studies, graphic design and art majors.