Squeezing the chanter reed

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By David V. Kennedy

The question a piper may ask is: “Why on earth would one want to squeeze the blades or the staple of a chanter reed?”’ And this is certainly a valid question. After all, didn’t the reedmaker assemble the reed correctly? Didn‘t he tie the blades onto the staple in the right place?

Aye, the reedmaker probably did everything correctly. So what’s the problem?

Well, the problem for me with some reeds I have used (and they were good  reeds) has been two-fold:

1. A rattling high A or G.
2. Inaccuracy in the pitch of the notes in the scale; not all the notes but enough to be bothersome.

Of course, we all know about ‘taping’ the holes to bring a note down to pitch and this often does suffice. But I’ve not been able to control rattling and croaking high A’s by the usual methods i.e. scraping the reed, changing the make of the chanter and trying the reed in that chanter, trying to play a really dry reed (almost impossible to do!), and setting the reed in its recess in various places so as to correct the off-pitch notes, and, hopefully to eliminate the rattle. I have not tried re-tying the reed, because it’s time consuming, and can be tricky; and anyhow, it may make no difference to the problem.

Use a mandrel
Putting the ‘squeeze’ on a reed horrifies many worthy pipers. But if it’s done carefully, if can be undone with ease with little detriment to the reed, simply by opening up the reed again, using an old fashioned icepick or a mandrel. These are interested into the staple until the desired spacing is achieved.

I do the squeeze by taking a small pair of non-serrated pliers and gently squeezing the staple at the top of the bindings. By looking down vertically at the reed-blades you can see them come together. I like to do this when the reed is partially moist and in playing condition; because I believe that the spacing so attained will be more or less permanent, whereas if it was squeezed dry, it would open or close more depending on what kind of a reed it was in the first place.

Squeezing the staple in this way, of course, weakens the reed: it becomes much easier to blow but, in all probability, will immediately go off pitch. In which case, I have to tape up the holes, usually the F and the D. If too much squeezing has taken place, the reed will be much too easy and will ‘clap up’, and the steadiness of the drones will be affected. With experience, one can put the ‘squeeze’ on the staple such that the reed will sound good and the holes will need no tape. But the caveat here is that squeezing and opening a reed can be done but a few times, otherwise, the bindings become frayed and loose, and the blades become disoriented on the staple.

Occasionally, a reed will need scraping and/or sanding down plus a gentle squeeze on the staple but this will depend on the piper’s strength of blowing, and, sometimes, the soundness of the bag.

My experience with squeezing the blades between the fingers or ‘milking them down’ is that, in the long run, it’s a waste of time. With any reed worthy of its name, the blades will spring back to their former position in a very short time. The ‘squeeze’ has to be put on the top of the staple.

Another type of squeeze which has been suggested to me is to open up the bottom of the staple; but frankly, I’ve not understood just what this is supposed to do to the reed or to the tone of the chanter.

Gurgling high As
Some pipers will say: “Don’t touch the reed; just blow the croak out.” I believe that this would work but I just can’t stand the sound of gurgling high As or Gs for 30 hours or so of playing until they finally smooth out to a true note! We have few enough notes to play as it is, without sacrificing a couple to rattles and gurgles.

Don’t expect a true, fine, upstanding note after you have squeezed the staple for, say, the first two times. The reed should be played for about 30 minutes straight. It may start off with a ‘thready’ high A or G … but eventually it will produce a note with just a trace of a ‘croak’ and after more playing it will play without even that trace.

This whole business of getting a ‘comfortable’ reed to play takes time and effort: it is a ‘cut and try’ proposition … unless you are one of the strong blowers, in which case two shingles tied together would be just as good as a well finished, correctly balanced reed!

I expect to get a lot of opposition to the suggestions in this article; but | shall be the first to avoid ‘squeezing’ if someone can tell me another tried and true way to get the gurgle out of the high A and G.

Meantime, suas leis a ’ teannchadh … up with the squeezing.

• From the April 1980 International Piper.