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by Jack Lee
Great tone all begins with
the chanter reed selection and development. You want a chanter tone
that is bright, harmonic, has an appropriate volume and notes that
are in tune. The elusive goal is a bottom hand that is not too
flat, a top hand that is not too sharp and a full rich tone
throughout the scale. This is achieved through careful reed
selection and periodic adjustments during the life of the reed.
Use a solo chanter for the best results, not a band chanter. There
are several good ones on the market. Wood is preferable for solos,
especially piobaireachd, as it gives a smoother tone. Select a reed
that works well in the chanter. Many reeds are poor for solos.
Common pitfalls are dullness, flatness of pitch, poor piobaireachd
High “G”s, etc.
Test the chanter reed on its own for efficiency and brightness by
blowing and hearing the schreck (crow). All reeds will schreck when
blown on their own. The good ones will lose the tone and produce a
clear tone when blown harder. These are the most efficient vibrant
Mount the reed appropriately with waxed hemp. Don’t
shove it too deeply in the reed seat as it can produce instability
and shrill characteristics.
Get the foundation right first and tune any specific notes later.
Don’t worry about slightly sharp or flat notes until the reed has
been properly selected and developed. Poke, lick and shave the reed
as appropriate to develop its vibrancy.
Check the notes. Make sure the top hand is sweet, not sharp; the
bottom hand is sweet, not flat. Don’t overlook low “G”,”B”,”C”, and
Above all, the chanter must produce a balanced sound. The top hand
should not be noticeably less than the bottom hand.
Good drone tone is much easier
to achieve now than ever before due to synthetic reeds. There are many
good cane and non-cane reeds on the market but select reeds that produce
rich harmonic, cane-like tone.
The reeds should start easily – no irritating squealing.
The balance with the chanter is important – ensure the drones don’t
overpower the chanter. Have someone else blow your pipes so you can
stand back and listen.
Balance and stability within the three drones is a must. A common
problem is an unsteady bass. Consider using a cane bass with a wire
insert. Ensure the bass tone has adequate depth.
Putting it All Together
Blowing steady is an art that
can take years to master. We all blow somewhat unsteadily but the trick
is to recognize it and guard against it.
Listen intently while playing for fluctuations on the top hand notes
– they vary easily with changes in blowing pressure. A periodically
occurring High “A” crow is a sure sign of unsteady blowing.
common pitfall is too much elbow movement. The elbow should always
put some pressure on the bag – even when blowing. Don’t release the
elbow too far from your body.
Most pipers squeeze too softly. That causes a drop in pressure when
switching from blowing to squeezing. Be sure to squeeze
Finding the Perfect Blowing Pressure
Each reed has a sweet spot or
blowing pressure that produces the most ideal tone. The way you find
this is to blow the High “A” just hard enough so that the crow barely
disappears. At that pressure, the High “A” can give a slight buzz.
There is a little body or substance to its tone rather than a pure
whistle. This is the sweet spot.
As you are playing, set your blowing pressure by the High “A”.
Blow just enough so that the High “A” produces a slight buzz and
hold that pressure during your performance. Each time you come to
High “A” you should hear the buzz. If you do this you will be
blowing past the choke line.
Measuring Changes in the Tone
Listen carefully to your tone
while playing. This is hard to do since most of us are concentrating on
technique while playing, rather than tone. Get the tunes off well
enough that they don’t require all your concentration while playing.
As you play, your pipes gather moisture. That can lead to wandering
drones and flat chanter tone. If you hear flatness in your chanter,
blow it out. If time permits, give the reed a small squeeze to
return it to sweetness.
Be prepared to blow slightly more firmly on the bottom hand notes.
Also, be willing to ease off slightly on High “A” and High “G”.