Final reed strength is a subject of debate and personal (or band) preference. Many bands prefer or require the strongest reed a piper can handle safely. Many (but not all) fine soloists prefer a much easier reed, one which can be played for a long time without tiring the piper. I prefer an easier reed still, one which I can play without tiring my lips or breathing on any day in which I'm healthy enough to go out in public. (I'm not sickly, just prone to the usual ailments.) Therefore I rarely forfeit a performance engagement due to common colds, allergies or flu.
In some of the big name bands they're known to choose real lip-bleeders and suffer for weeks breaking them in before ever putting on any drones. Yikes.
The usual procedure is to select a strong reed but one you could blow comfortably enough to play tunes & embellishments for some shortish period, maybe 10-30 minutes on chanter alone, with the drones all stopped. This is blown-in over a period of several weeks until it settles-in to the desired strength and can be played in whatever passes for comfort in your case, playing the most difficult music with all drones going, as long as desired.
Strength is related most obviously to the amount of opening or "elevation" of the lips of the reed. The greater the elevation, the more air the reed uses, the louder and flatter it plays, and the harder it is to blow.
The blowing-in procedure is called "training" the reed. The theory is that by leaving most or all of the cane on the reed but merely reshaping it, you end up with a longer lasting reed which is less prone to changing tuning rapidly while you play and during periods when you are resting.
Pretty soon, within just a few days, the reed becomes less and less changeable as it warms up, and generally easier to blow.
Of course all this presumes a well assembled reed made of good quality cane.
New reeds are strong for 3 common reasons:
This is an otherwise well-made reed. The training procedure will handle this reed just fine. Before you start a session, give the blades a pinch closed at the upper part of the thick lower section to make it a bit easier. About every 5 minutes you'll notice it getting harder again. Stop, take the chanter out & pinch the reed again. Do this every time you find it getting harder. One more time when putting away end of session. In all but very dry climates it may be preferable to store the reed outside the bag, especially for pipers playing every day.
Pinching also seems to sharpen those flat f's, which can be caused by an oversized chamber between the blades just above the copper staple. This naturally happens when a new reed swells in the moisture.
Another trick is to fashion a metallic bridle or collar around the base of the blades to hold them against swelling out of position as the moisture hits them. Some pipers use elastic or tightly wound string, but these have a disadvantage of continuing to pull even when the blades are in their ideal geometry. A metallic bridle can be set slightly snug when the reed is dry with its desired amount of elevation, and will of course strongly resist further opening as the new reed swells with moisture. After the first 1/3 to 1/2 of the usual break-in period the bridle is removed. Usually Highland pipe reeds do not play well with bridles, being prone to squeals and a restricted sort of tone.
You can't assume that the blades can be thinned in any one area, or even uniformly all over. Other traits of the reed must be checked. A few common cases:
It is possible that the top end or "eye" of the staple has not been squeezed down as small as usual. Also the blades may have slid around the staple as they were being tied on, a very common occurance. In both cases this holds the lips more open which makes the reed strong, and also makes the reed chamber larger than was assumed by the chanter maker. The latter can lead to a flat F. If the cane is good such a reed may easily be turned into an excellent reed.
In a minimal case, a little more than the usual training may suffice. Beyond this, especially if the staple is merely too opne, a slight squeezing of the upper staple (with a protective tool such as an ice-pick, nail, or specially-made reed mandrel inside to minimize the squeezing) should be done to reduce the strength to normal starting strength. This should raise the flat F noticeably.
If the lips have slid around the staple, the reed should be retied. The blades should be thoroughly wet, soaked for at least 10 minutes (as they are when reeds are initially made), and the exposed part of the blades securely wrapped with hemp or thread to prevent their slipping out of position. (They will probably close; don't worry, they will return to an open configuration shortly.)
The main binding is removed, and the blades are carefully repositioned onto the staple. It is extremely important not to leave the staple farther in or out of the blades. On tiny Highland chanter reeds, even 1/16" change can throw notes out of tune.
The blades are then re-bound to the staple, very tightly with waxed thread, hemp or dental floss. Each wrap must be snugged firmly against the wrap below so as to make as airtight a binding as possible. The binding must stop exactly at the top end of the staple, at which point the edges of the blades must come together in an air- tight seal.
The remaining binding is then wound back down over the first layer (it can be done in an open spiral) and tied off. The upper parts of the blades are unbound to prevent permanent deformation and the reed is left to dry for a day or so. The binding can be coated with varnish or nail polish to seal it. The reed is now new and ready to break-in again.
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