“The pipe reed obeys no laws. Like the most fickle woman, it rewards, if at all, the lavish attentions of an honest heart with but a brief and transient display.” – J.C.M., Piping Times, October 1949.
By Chris Apps
Contrary to ‘J.C.M.’s’ quote, the average pipe chanter reed, if well maintained, can last several months or even years. If your reed is wearing out within weeks something is wrong. I have heard comments like, “My reeds only last me two weeks!” or “After a short while my reed just starts chirping on me”. Both are justiﬁable causes for chagrin. If you’re finding you need to purchase a new reed every month or so this can be frustrating not to mention rather expensive. Not to worry. There is probably a reason and a solution. Here are a few causes for early reed demise and a few simple things you can do to help you reach a long lasting reed nirvana.
The chanter reed is getting too wet
It is important for a chanter reed to avoid excesses of wetness and dryness. Combine the two and a reed will soon give up the ghost and die. By installing a moisture control system this problem can be avoided. There a variety of moisture control systems available to pipers today. It is important to source the one that works the best for your set-up and regional climate. Climate is an important factor.
You would need little or no system if you play in a dry climate or at altitude such as in Denver, Colorado; if you are playing in the damp climate like the Highlands of Scotland the opposite is probably true.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember not to use a moisture control system that will take all of the moisture from your bag. A cane chanter reed needs some ambient moisture in order to relax the ﬁbres and give a ‘warm’ sound. A dry reed is very likely to sound thin and sharp on the top hand and have a tendency to ‘chirp’.
The chanter reed is being blown at an excessive pressure
In order to understand this properly it is vital to be aware of the ideal way to blow an individual chanter reed/bagpipe. When a reed is first introduced to a chanter it must be mouth blown and roughly balanced between High A and Low A to produce an octave. This can be done by ear or with a meter. Once the octave is established it can be played in the pipe. The reed must now be played at a pressure which maintains this true octave.
The pressure at which the high A plays true is the reed’s correct pressure and all the notes of the chanter must be played and tuned at a corresponding pressure. Pay close attention to the sound of your High A whilst playing. A very pleasing High A sound will be achieved by blowing a reed at just the right pressure. If the High A plays at, say, 32in of water then the pipe must always be blown at this pressure. If the reed is over-blown it will become sharp and thin, especially on the top hand.
Excessive pressure will also over-tax the reed and cause a premature demise. I often use the analogy of running a car engine at maximum revs: it will soon burn out.
• From the January 2015 Piping Times.
* Chris Apps is a renowned reedmaker. He was born and grew up in England but has lived in the US state of Missouri for many years.