My Practice Chanter Doesn't Work

Copyright 1997 David C. Daye

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I recently received a rather common query by e-mail:

>I have located your website because I seem unable to obtain a 
>proper note from my practice chanter. I have a musical background on the piano.

You have my condolences! This will be rather frustrating for you for a period of time, as it is for any accomplished musician. I on the other hand have played pipes easily for over 30 years, and am learning the keyboard (piano-accordion) at 45 years of age. As long as I don't have to move my hand I can play as fast as any piper. Then, disaster!

>However, I have bought 4 reeds and still cannot play bottom G, I'm sure
>I've got all the holes covered (perhaps I'm naive).

OK, first take the chanter cap off, remove the reed, and look down the bore of the working (lower) part of the chanter at a light source. Verify that there is nothing blocking the bore. Wood slivers from badly drilled or cheap wood, lint or fuzz, even household spiders can get in there. Anything significant can temporarily spoil the day.

If the bore is clear then the chanter is almost certainly workable. (It may however have tuning or tone that are less than inspirational to an accomplished musician.) This thing is barely a musical instrument, it's just a straight tube with finger holes. Practice chanters in general are not at all unstable, sensitive, or hard to reed. The whole point of a practice instrument is to be exceptionally reliable and the basic design is indeed stable and reliable.

Next inspect the reeds and verify that there is no lint or other foreign objects lodged between the blades. Insert the blades fully inside your mouth so that your lips are past the blades, holding the binding on the tube. Blow gently and you should hear a nonmusical, high-pitched sound. If there is no sound at all, the reed is very bad or else clogged. Take care if you need to remove anything from between the blades. First hold the reed upside-down (metal tube up) and gently squeeze the upper side edges of the blades so that the opening becomes more open. The object may fall out of the reed; if not, blow down through the tube and see if this clears the reed. A feather or a toothpick can be inserted from the bottom (through the metal tube) to push the lint or object out of the top of the blades.

If the reeds are clear and make sounds, and chanter blockage is not the problem, reassemble the chanter and take ordinary household or electrical sticky-tape and seal up all the finger holes. If the reed is bad you'll still have the usual troubles. Try all your reeds. If you have one or more good reeds, it's just leaky fingers. This is very frustrating, but very common especially to adults who are new to pipes. Even experienced woodwind players have trouble with this because they are unaccustomed to covering holes with the flats of the fingers.

A better strategy here is to take the notes in a different order from the tutor. Learn the top hand notes first, from E to high A. Then move to the bottom hand notes, top down, from D down finally to low G. An extra day or few at this stage will make no difference to your progress long-term. Some people's fingers are less sensitive at first and they need extra time or a different sequence to learn to feel the holes and seal them properly. This has no implications for future playing ability. Once the scale is working, you can return to the method shown in the tutor in the first lesson or two.

If the bore is clear and you can't get a good low G with the finger holes sealed shut, you might be blowing too weakly or too strongly for the reed. Click here to go to "diagnostic sounds" section which illustrates this for the practice-chanter. Try a range of pressures from very weak to quite strong and see if a proper note can be made with all the holes taped this way.

If you can get a good note but the required pressure is too strong for comfort, the reed can be made easier by wrapping some thread or a very fine elastic band (may be available from a dentist or orthodontist) lightly around the blades about halfway up. Click here to see a small diagram. Carefully working the wrapping higher, at some point the reed will become easier to play. If you're lucky it will be well behaved well below a comfortable strength, and you can use the reed this way indefinitely. If you're unlucky, the binding will make the reed prone to squeals and/or stopping, in which case the reed is just too strong for you.

You may have simply bad reeds or reeds which don't suit that particular chanter. Some vendors have concerns about health but you should be able to convince a reasonable one to let you test reeds. First, you're not putting them directly into your mouth. If he's still worried, offer to bring along some whiskey and rinse the reeds after checking, or find another vendor. At any rate, bring the chanter along with all the holes taped. Blow a low G, if that works, peel off the one piece of tape for E (3rd hole from the top in front) and see if it makes something approximating an E, then peel off the thumb hole tape and see if you get something approximating high A. If so, you've got a reed which at least works. This should get you started learning and quickly to the point where you can finger well enough to test reeds the usual way in a few days or weeks.

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