Chanter Reeds # 2
Today your order of chanter reeds arrived in the mail. You carefully unfold the wrapping to reveal the orderly arrangement of cane soldiers. Breath-taking. You can hardly contain yourself. You rush to get your chanter.
In these days of instant gratification we are disappointed with anything less than “brilliant” and are quite likely to pass absolute judgement on the reeds right then and there. Over the years I’ve learned that a bit of patience and a calculated approach works best. Let me tell you what I do and then you can tell me I’m crazy.
The first thing I do is to inspect the reeds. I look for uniformity in the blades. The edges should meet with no overlap. Make sure there are no linear splits in the cane. The cut at the top should be straight and even, without any tearing. Holding it by the staple, blow into the reed. You should hear a “craw” which is an indication that you have a good reed.
I then get a couple of empty plastic pill containers. I bought a box of them years ago online. I use the amber bottles with the non-airtight lid. I suppose other containers will work just as well, however these work best for me. Now I pick up my chanter and drop the first reed into the seat. I hold the reed between my lips for a few seconds to impart a little warmth and moisture. I make the reed sound, go up and down the scale once or twice and then put it into a bottle. Each bottle is numbered 1, 2, or 3. The reeds that are most responsive go into #1. These reeds aren’t too difficult and release a good sound. The chances are that they’ll be the easiest to break-in with the least amount of work. Bottle # 2 is for those reeds that are slightly more difficult. Bottle # 3 is for the most stubborn.
Without being too rigid in all this, the reeds in bottle # 1 should be ready to hand out in about two or three weeks, those in bottle # 2 will take perhaps four to six weeks, and bottle # 3 will probably take longer and require more aggressive management. My expectation is that all the reeds will be outstanding in the end.
It’s important to mention here that new reeds always start out with a flatter pitch. It’s not until the reed is fully broken-in that it achieve optimal pitch. In my experience, trying to hurry the “break-in” process will only serve to shorten its life. It may produce instant results however the reed has been compromised and will probably not last long. It’s also important to understand that mixing old reeds with new reeds in a band is just asking for trouble. In a band, everything should be done uniformly. All the reeds should be the same make and more-or-less the same strength and age. I always required my pipers to have a spare reed ready to go in an emergency and I always had a personal supply of reeds broken-in and ready to press into service at any given point in time. (The Power of Preparedness)
Today I received two dozen reeds. I’m getting ready for a workshop at the end of April and I want to have reeds ready to hand out. I’ve been getting reeds from this source for many years and I’ve never been disappointed. I intend to demonstrate to the group how I receive the reeds and how I work with them from day one. Today I only opened one package of 12 reeds. Following my course of action above, I wound up with seven reeds in bottle # 1 and five reeds in bottle # 2. Nothing for bottle # 3! So, up and down the scale, into the bottle, and then I fog the bottle before putting the lid on. By “fog the bottle” I blow warm moist air into the bottle until it fogs and then I put the lid on. That was yesterday. Today I’ll visit them again and I’ll repeat this process daily until the reeds are broken-in.
Some new reed explanations:
The bottle maintains the reeds in a controlled environment. If I’m in a damp, rainy place, I might keep the lid off the container. If the opposite, I might “fog the bottle” a couple of times a day, at least initially.
I keep several reeds in a bottle to allow osmosis to regulate the amount of moisture in each reed. In theory, the reeds will borrow and share moisture so that all the reeds are equal in moisture content.
Everything with reeds must be done slowly and deliberately. If a reed is too wet, you need to remove moisture slowly or the reed will collapse. If the reed is too dry you need to introduce moisture slowly so that the entire reed changes uniformly. Just as an example, if you wet one side of a plank and not the other, the plank will warp, bend, and twist. Apply the same logic to a reed.
It’s very important to visit the reeds frequently during the first several days. You’ll want to make sure that the reeds are responding correctly and that the moisture level is adequate and not excessive. A too-wet reed is simply a breeding place for mold. The key here is to visit the reeds at least once each day to make sure they’re keeping well.
After a few days, the reeds start to “find” themselves. The cane is moving to where the internal stresses are taking it. It may open up, making it slightly more difficult to blow. It may close slightly, which will require a poke with a mandrel to slightly open the aperture of the staple. It might require a pinch to ease it just a tad and to brighten the pitch. It might loosen up on its own just from the short periods of playing. Everything you do should be conservative. You should be guiding your reed to where you want it to be without hitting that point of diminishing returns.
I prefer reeds that are straight-sided or molded. This is a personal preference and no reflection on the many very good ridge-cut reeds available today. We’ll talk about both styles of reeds separately.
Molded reeds have a generous amount of wood left on the blades. Perhaps the most famous of the molded reeds was the MacAllister reed, which was legendary for being very difficult out-of-the-box. The reward was that they delivered an outstanding sound once broken-in. It was a struggle of monumental proportions with some MacAllister reeds, where ultimately, the reed won out! Old-timers like me will remember the Osborne chanter reed, which was even more difficult than the MacAllister reed. I think Red Hackle used to play them. They were excellent reeds but real back-breakers.
Following the methods above, when the reed starts to loosen up, I generally remove wood that is not contributing to the sound. Using a sharp blade, I scrape the cane in the area north of the sound box and just south of the tips of the blade. For those of you who are woodworkers, during the finishing process you wet the surface of the wood so that tiny fibers of wood will stand up. These are removed through sanding to ensure a smooth finish. Cane is no different. During the initial break-in period, tiny fibers of cane will stand up. They do not contribute to the production of sound and may otherwise dull the reed as they trap moisture and debris. I have found that it is best to remove this from the equation. With my blade perpendicular to the surface of the reed, I gently remove this material. I like to say that I take what the reed will give me. As you work with reeds, you will understand what I’m saying. I do not carve and I certainly don’t sand. I scrape. I may feather the tips just so I don’t wind up with a ridge near the tips.
After the process above, if the reed is too hard, I’ll probably give it a pinch near the top of the sound box. I’m careful not to collapse the reed or the aperture. I simply want to guide the reed to where I need it to be. I repeat this “pinching” for several days until the reed starts to behave.
Let’s talk about ridge-cut reeds. The break-in routine is similar to molded reeds other than I am very conservative regarding the thin part of the reed (the top 1/3). I might clean this part with a blade however I’m really not trying to thin the wood here. With a ridge-cut reed the blades are already pretty thin above the sound box. If you touch this part of the reed be very careful and it doesn’t take much to cross the line and ruin a reed. You can ease up a ridge-cut reed by taking a little bit of material off the top of the sound box where the ridge occurs. A pinch of the sound box is also effective. Some use tiny rubber bands to constrict the sound box just a bit. This will ease up the strength of the reed and raise the pitch slightly.
I have found that both ridge-cut and straight-sided reeds may be prone to the dreaded double-toning “F” on occasion, especially if they take on too much moisture. This can be resolved by use of the rubber band mentioned above or by shortening the blades of the reed ever so slightly. This generally fixes the problem however may make the reed harder to blow which can be remedied by either pinching or scraping the blades ever so slightly near the top of the reed.
The bottom line in all this is to break-in your reed outside of the bagpipe. Be patient and take a conservative approach with any adjustments.
After your reed is properly broken in, you can play it for extended periods of time in your bagpipe without worry. Provided the environment within the bag is correct and stable, your reed will last for months and years.
In the next blog, we’ll talk a bit about how to keep your reed.