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Let’s talk chanters!

I’m always interested to see and hear the chanters that the top Grade 1 bands are playing….and I’m always amazed to watch lower-graded bands scrambling to follow suit. The difference between what a top-level Grade 1 band requires in a chanter, and what a Grade 3 band should be looking for, is like night and day.

First of all, the personnel in Grade 1 bands are not “average”.  For the most part they’re pretty awesome. They hear things “ordinary” pipers don’t hear and they have superior control and command over their instruments.  They are able to detect small differences in sound and to make the right adjustment in order to blend in.  They are also able to find the “groove” that the band is riding in and to stick there throughout a performance.  That’s why they’re in Grade 1! 

Blowing at a Grade 1 level is something not everyone is able to do. Most Grade 1 bands place “blowing” above “fingers” in determining the suitability of a piper for the band.  The best fingers in the world will not overcome bad blowing. Jim McGillivray once said, “You blow with your ears!” and I believe this to be true.

Assuming that a band has all excellent tone blowers, those in charge of the sound are able to do things that bring out the very best qualities in the overall band sound.  They probably place the highest priority on the following three qualities in a chanter:

1. Pitch
2. Harmonics
3. Projection
They are willing and able to deal with other issues provided the basic goods are there.  We’ve all see specific note holes carved or taped as these bands adjust the pitch of individual notes on a given day.  Many bands have routinely altered other aspects of the chanter in order to achieve optimal sound.  It’s like comparing a stock engine to a modified engine.  The “tweaks” aren’t always obvious until you put the car out on the track.  I’ll continue with this metaphor and state that too much horsepower is a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.

For the sake of drawing a line in the sand, I think that bands in Grade 3 and lower (street bands included) should be looking at something entirely different when selecting a chanter for the band.

1. Efficiency & Stability - I’ve put the two of these together as they’re so closely related.  A chanter has several internal bores, each playing an important role in the efficiency and stability of the chanter and in the production of sound. 

Choose a chanter that is efficient and does not require an excessive amount of air to produce an even sound up and down the chanter.  Yes, the reed plays an important role however you will experience a significant change in efficiency and stability using the same reed in different chanters.  Choose the chanter that has some tolerance for uneven blowing.  Some chanters are extremely sensitive to changes in blowing while others are more forgiving. 

2. Note-for-note true-ness - Again, I am amazed at lower graded bands that have tape on every hole of the chanter!  Certainly the chanter manufacturers couldn’t have gotten things that wrong!  If you’re reaching for more than a few pieces of tape, I think you’re doing something wrong.  My thinking is that by reaching for tape or the carving tool, we’re not teaching people how to blow properly.

I’m going to pause here and open myself up to criticism.

I always try to teach my students to blow at “12:00 o’clock”.  What I’m trying to get across to them is that each reed/chanter combination has a range.  Blow too softly the reed won’t sound.  Blow a bit harder and you produce a flat sound.  Blow perfectly and this is where the reed/chanter is happiest and you’re blowing up to pitch. This is where you want to be neither under-blowing nor over-blowing.  Blow harder and you’ll produce a too-sharp sound.  Blow really hard and your reed will stop sounding altogether.

If I have a player that is over-blowing, I can compensate by taping down his/her chanter.  But I’m not teaching the piper how to blow at 12:00 o’clock.  If they consistently under-blow, I sink the reed (which alters the balance between the top hand and bottom hand) and again need to reach for tape.  Again, I haven’t taught the piper how to blow correctly.  So, I’m not saying “don’t use tape”.  I’m saying “teach them how to blow tone first and then use tape for fine tuning.” 
Let’s get back on track…

3. Projection - You want a chanter that puts out a good top-hand sound especially.  Too thin and the sound doesn’t carry.

4. Harmonics - The sound should be vibrant and rich.  I dislike sterile, antiseptic sounding bagpipes.  They’re just plain uninteresting. Yes, there is a difference between plastic and wood chanters however we’ve already experienced a band winning the Worlds with plastic chanters, so let’s leave this alone. Plastic chanters are capable of producing excellent harmonics. Listen to the sounds against your drones.

5. Pitch - Yes, you want a reasonable pitch, but you don’t want 490 hz at the cost of all the other qualities.  Stop chasing the pitch.  Work with the chanter, reed, and the weather to establish the right pitch for the day.

The last area that I’ll mention is the overall ease of set-up. Choose a chanter that you know and understand inside and out.  You should be able to achieve your desired overall sound without excessive work. The day of a performance or contest, your set-up should be short (a maximum of 30 to 45 minutes) and without unnecessary stress on yourself or your pipers.

So, how do you arrive at the right decision and attain the necessary skills? You need to spend time with the best tone people you can find.  You need to pay attention and you need to experiment on your own. Become a student of the chanter, reed, and the instructor. You can't learn this out of a book and you can't learn this standing on the sidelines. You need to keep an open mind and take in as much information as you possibly can. Then you need to jump in the deep end and start paddling!
The Bagpipe Place School