Tour to visit artisans in Japan A mouthpiece artisan who entices trumpeters around the world
Hi, this is writer Io Kawauchi. Today I would like to talk about a mouthpiece artisan whom many top trumpeters all over the world admire.
Maurice André, charismatic legendary player, known as the god of trumpet, Håkan Hardenberger, another legendary player from Sweden after Maurice André, Miroslav Kejmar, ex-principal trumpeter in the Czech Philharmonic, having the reputation of being a genius, and Hans Gansch, the world famous player who once was a principal trumpeter at the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; these top players all have something in common: their mouthpiece. Mr. Toshiaki Kameyama is the artisan who created the handmade mouthpieces for them. This is the untold story about the man who has been filling floods of mouthpiece orders from all over the world.
A man of 68 years who receives orders through Facebook Messenger
Mr. Kameyama started this small atelier in April 2000 when he was 50 years old. That was after he had retired from Yamaha where he had worked for decades, taking advantage of their early retirement program.
Even though he now receives orders from all over Europe, the USA, Mexico, Turkey, etc., he mentioned that he was a little anxious when he started his business. But he said “the range of the customers has now become much more international. I receive requests from players asking if I can make this or that though Facebook Messenger nowadays.”
I could hardly believe that he actually took orders through Facebook. I asked him again about that.
“Yes, I receive requests from many countries through it. I even receive orders from people I don’t know. But basically I communicate with them in English or German.”
This 68-year-old man is so popular among trumpeters around the world that he cannot accept all the requests. He speaks two foreign languages and utilizes SNS to work globally. I would call him a “global artisan.”
Why are his mouthpieces in such demand? Let’s trace his footsteps.
A kid trumpeter from Nagara River
When Mr. Kameyama was a 14-year-old student, he had his first encounter with a trumpet. He liked music so he joined the brass band club at his junior high school where he tried clarinet and percussion first. But when he played the trumpet, he instantly knew it was the instrument for him. “Maybe the trumpet matched me because it was easy for me to make sounds with it. I was a wimpy kid both physically and mentally when I was an elementary school student. So I really liked the cheerful sound of the trumpet since it stood out and encouraged me to create my own sound.”
Shortly after, the shore of the Nagara River in his local town in Gifu became his practice field. Thanks to this, he improved his playing skills significantly. During his last year at high school, he passed the exam to be a brass band member at Yamaha. So after graduating high school, he moved to Hamamatsu where the headquarters of Yamaha is located.
Even though he became a member of the brass band, it didn’t mean he could just play music all day long. He needed to work as an officer at the company, training in various departments during the day. He first worked at a test factory to make trumpet and other wind instrument components. Then he worked in the inspection department. Finally, he became involved with the design of trumpets.
Design work required a great amount of patience, aiming for a better sound by adjusting little components millimeters at a time. They used instruments from leading manufacturers in the USA and UK as benchmarks. His hard work was highly appreciated, so when Yamaha started making their first full-scale entry into the European market, he was chosen to go to West Germany. That was in 1979 when he was 30 years old.
A memory at an opera house
His new office was at Yamaha’s workshop in Hamburg, West Germany. They had a goal to spread Yamaha’s instruments wider and to produce the best products they could. In order to achieve this goal, he had a mission to visit well-known orchestras to talk with players to get feedback about Yamaha’s instruments as well as service the instruments for players.
He was still young and highly motivated, desperately learning the German language and often visiting practice halls and concerts to listen to players and address their requests and demands. That is how he gradually developed the trust of the players.
“Since Germany has the Meister system, instruments are produced and maintained by local Meisters. But many German players told me that Meisters tend to be authoritative, so they don’t really listen to requests from players. But as an outsider and newcomer, I was flexible, so many players told me I was easier to talk to and make request,” recalled Mr. Kameyama.
Eventually some players started warming up to Mr. Kameyama.
“If you are in an opera house, normally the orchestra pit is under the stage, so you would not see the orchestra playing from the audience seats. But they often invited me to sit by them so that I was able to listen to how our instruments were played. Normally outsiders cannot go into the pit but players were eager to have me listen so I could make their instruments play and sound better. They knew Yamaha was serious about responding to such requests. That was why they wanted me to understand and listen to their sounds more closely.”
He had quit playing in the Yamaha orchestra when he moved to Germany. But his experience as a player made him not only a good salesman and technician but also gave him the ability to know what sounds players wanted to improve. I think that is why he could have such close relationships with players.
Fight of 1/100 millimeter
After he developed deeper relationships with local trumpeters, he started receiving requests to make mouthpieces. Many players were having trouble with their mouthpiece.
“Among these players, there was a guy who used the same mouthpiece for decades. If he had lost it, he would have quit playing the trumpet. The mouthpiece is key for the trumpet. If a familiar mouthpiece is used, we can actually play with someone else’s trumpet and retain the sound and playability that we want. So the mouthpiece is very important for players. There are many varieties of mouthpieces since each player has their own lip shape and breath capacity; thus, many players are not satisfied with ready-made ones.”
Making customized mouthpieces is not profitable and is actually troublesome for instrument manufacturers, so they tried not to go into this business. But Mr. Kameyama never says “No” without considering a player’s request. Since he had received training on mouthpiece production in Japan before coming to Germany, he started making mouthpieces through trial and error.
Mouthpieces are created from shaving brass into its outer shape. Once the outline is made, a hole called the throat is made using the lathe. After that, the blowing inlet called the cup is shaved into a conical shape. If the cup is shallow, the sound will be bright while a deep cup will produce calm and rich sounds. At the same time, the angle and thickness are adjusted on the rim where the lips touch.
The sound of a mouthpiece can change if there is as little as 1/100 mm difference in the shape or thickness of any of these parts, and players know the difference. Therefore, highly delicate skill is required to make a single mouthpiece. Mr. Kameyama made tons of mouthpieces through trial and error using the feedback he gathered from players. When players would finally receive their perfect mouthpiece, they would erupt with joy in front of him.
The day a superstar came
Word of mouth can get around quickly. After delivering his first customized mouthpiece, rumor spread and soon he started receiving requests one after another. What Yamaha wanted to sell was the instrument itself; thus, making a mouthpiece was not their main business. But they still received requests and agreed to fulfill them in order to keep relations good with players. Mr. Kameyama was the man who took charge of this mission.
The rumor even crossed the border. One day in 1981, a man came to his workshop in Hamburg from France. It was Maurice André, known as the best trumpeter of the 20th century. Maurice talked to Mr. Kameyama about several mouthpieces he wanted and then asked him, “Can you make them in a day as I need to leave Hamburg tomorrow?”
For Mr. Kameyama, Maurice was the yearning superstar. He had never made multiple mouthpieces in a day but he couldn’t say “No.” He instantly accepted the order, and he and his colleague stayed up all night to make the mouthpieces and deliver them to Maurice the next morning. Maurice didn’t even have time to test them but he happily paid 1,000 German mark (approx. 150,000 JPY). After they took a picture together, he left them like the wind.
After that, well known French players started coming to Hamburg as they began to learn about Mr. Kameyama from Maurice. This surprised him greatly since he never heard whether the mouthpieces were any good from Maurice. He was finally able to know Maurice was actually satisfied with them.
Shortly after that, Mr. Kameyama became known as the man who made the customized mouthpieces for Maurice André and started to receiving orders from all over Europe. Among his clients were such well known players such as Swedish star Håkan Hardenberger, the Czech genius Miroslav Kejmar, and Austrian expert Hans Gansch.
One day Mr. Kameyama received an urgent call from Miroslav Kejmar saying that his instrument and mouthpiece were stolen from a car trunk in a Prague venue parking lot during the few minutes he had taken his eyes off the car. Then Mr. Kejmar said to him, “I can buy a new instrument but your mouthpiece is irreplaceable. Will you please make another one for me?” Soon after, Mr. Kameyama produced and delivered the new mouthpiece.
The job one can do best
In 1988 Mr. Kameyama finally had to go back to Japan when he received a directive from the head office of Yamaha. It is not hard to imagine how much trumpeters in Europe have lamented his departure. Some players even offered him an opportunity to open a workshop.
After his return, he was involved in trumpet design for another 3 years in Hamamatsu, and then he resumed a similar role in Tokyo for 8 years working with players in Japan and overseas like he had in Hamburg. During those times, he actually kept making mouthpieces for some of his musician friends. Gradually though he started feeling uncomfortable working in the company.
“As long as I was an employee of Yamaha, I was not able to make mouthpieces for amateur players or instruments from competitors. I was caught in a dilemma since I wanted to accept those orders.”
While he was struggling, Japan’s economy fell into recession leading to the creation of Yamaha’s early retirement program. That was the moment he finally decided to set up his own atelier dedicated to the instrument most familiar to him: the trumpet.
“My job now focuses on supporting and helping players. So for me, this is the job I can do best.”
It has been 17 years since he set up his own atelier. Toshi’s Trumpet Atelier opened in April 2000 maintaining and repairing trumpets and producing mouthpieces. At the beginning, many of his friends wondered if you could make a living dealing exclusively with trumpets and advised him to service all brass instruments; however, 90% of his orders are now mouthpiece production alone. There are more and more players all over the world that are putting their faith in Mr. Kameyama. Two reasons for this are that 1) he started accepting orders from players who use instruments other than Yamaha and 2) the Internet. In the past, rumors had to spread among players via word of mouth as they sought out good instruments, but the internet just sped this up exponentially. Mr. Kameyama became famous among trumpeters.
And so the story now goes that the boy who once practiced playing the trumpet by the banks of the Nagara River has become one of the most admired people among top trumpeters all over the world.
I asked him what he thinks about his life so far. With a smile he answered, “It’s been too good. I think I am really lucky as I do not have any special knowledge or skills but just happened to get involved in mouthpiece production and form these close relationships with players. I only try to do the best I can. But I think this attitude was what attracted my clients. Making an ordinary mouthpiece is not difficult at all, but if you need to make a mouthpiece to a player’s specifications, it becomes much more difficult to fulfill their needs.”
Mr. Kameyama has one unforgettable memory. He went to one of Mirolsav Kejmar’s concerts, whom he has known now for over 30 years. The last song was met with thunderous applause as the audience went wild at the end. Then suddenly, Mr. Kejmar removed his mouthpiece and raised it toward the audience with a big smile.
Toshi’s Trumpet Atelier
Address: 362-23 Sunayamacho, Nakaku Hamamatsu
Writer/Photographer: Io Kawauchi