Chanter Reeds #3
When I first started piping, I required a new reed every couple of weeks. You can imagine how aggravating this was. I’d show up to band practice with my pipes going not too badly. By the end of practice my reed was starting to go and I was lucky if I made it through the contest on Saturday. All this added greatly to the stress of playing, not to mention the expense. Now in those days, chanter reeds were 50¢ which is a far cry from the $15 we spend today.
We were doing so many things wrong in those days. We didn’t have moisture control systems and reeds often became water-logged. When breaking-in a reed, we seated it in the chanter and put it into our pipes and played. If there was an issue with a reed, we blamed the reed and got another.
Having dedicated a good portion of my life to understanding reeds I can say with complete confidence that if you break-in your reed correctly and maintain it correctly, it will sound and perform like a champion for months and perhaps for years.
So what impacts the sound, performance, and ultimately shortens the life of a reed?
# 1 – Excessive changes in moisture content. Without enough moisture, your reed will become shrill in sound, shrink in size, and become brittle. Too much moisture and it will swell. The pitch will flatten as the blades of the reed vibrate below proper frequency.
In order to sound and perform correctly your chanter reed needs to house moisture uniformly. This means that the moisture content must be the same throughout the thickness of the reed.
We’ve all had that experience where the chanter reed gets too wet. Perhaps it’s from over-playing the reed without sufficient moisture management or perhaps something went awry inside your pipes. Maybe your water-trap became dislodged or a hose to your chanter-stock broke or perhaps your bag was simply too wet to absorb any more moisture. When you wind up with a water-logged reed allow it to dry slowly. Perhaps take it out of the chanter and dry the surface using a tissue. Allow the reed to adjust to this for a couple of minutes. Perhaps, if the overall humidity isn’t too dry, just let the reed dry out in the open air. You have to make the judgement call based on your experience and on the prevailing conditions. Whatever you do, go slowly.
While teaching at St. John’s I inspected every bagpipe after each practice or performance. Depending on conditions, I might simply remove the chanter and place it beside the bagpipe on a table, otherwise unprotected. This allowed the reed to dry out gradually in the open air. Once the reed reached a more acceptable moisture level, I returned it to the bag or into a reed protector cap. By staying on top of moisture/reed issues I was able to minimize damage and extend the lifetime of reeds significantly.
Conversely, every day at one point or another I would quickly visit every bagpipe to ensure the chanter reed was neither too wet nor too dry. If I felt the reeds were drying out, I’d introduce a bit of moisture and return the reed to either the reed protector or to the bagpipe. Introducing moisture might be as simple as a quick blow up and down the scale, it might mean playing the bagpipe for a minute or two, or it might mean wetting the tips of the reed with my tongue. By staying on top of things, I was able to achieve a very good sound consistently.
So, the number 1 rule is to maintain the proper moisture content within the reed and to make adjustments on a gradual basis. You won’t do your reed any favors by holding it under the tap or licking it like a lollipop!
# 2 – Excessive temperatures. This goes hand-in-hand with what was written above. Leave your bagpipe in the trunk of your car on a hot or cold day and don’t expect much out of it until its temperature normalizes. Of course, with excessive heat you also might have an issue with the reed drying out. Again, referring to my experience at St. John’s we were required to do several cold weather parades, both on and off campus. I would keep the bagpipes in a warm place until the very last minute, when that was an option. If it wasn’t an option, I had the boys hold their pipes with their hands positioned under their armpits. Either the right or left hand would be holding the chanter stock, with chanter and reed inside. This not only kept the reed relatively warm, but it also helped the boys keep their hands warm. Once we started playing, we didn’t stop until the parade was over.
With both moisture and temperature, it’s easier to keep your reeds where they’re happiest rather than to correct the situation after the fact. If, for instance, you do need to either introduce or remove moisture from your reed, this should be done gradually over time. Otherwise you risk ruining the reed. Working With Chanter Reeds
# 3 – Overblowing. I always tell think of a clock and to blow their chanter at 12 o’clock. This means that the reed is vibrating at the proper frequency and is producing a quality sound. Under-blowing won’t do any damage to the reed however your pitch will be flatter than a properly blown reed. This can be very problematic if you play in a band. Learn to listen and to blow at 12 o’clock. Now if you over-blow a reed you will certain do damage. In essence, you’re forcing more air through the reed than it is designed to handle. As such, it is causing undue stress on the reed, shortening its life. Many people choose reeds that are too weak and then over-blow them. STOP!
So, just to recap all three blogs on chanter reeds, Choose a reed that has a bit of backbone, break it in outside of the bagpipe (in a bottle) blow it at 12 o’clock, maintain it at the proper temperature and moisture levels and it will be outstanding for months and longer.