Discover Your Bagpipe Chanter Reed’s “Sweet Spot”

Jun 02, 2024

If you’ve been playing your bagpipe chanter for any length of time, you’ll undoubtedly already have noticed there are a range of possible pressures you can play.

If you blow too hard, what happens? What do you hear?

If you don’t blow hard enough, what happens? What do you hear?

In between these two extremes is the range of ‘workable pressures’ for your chanter reed. 

Of these workable pressures, which is the best? You know you are supposed to blow perfectly steady. But exactly where – at what pressure – should you blow perfectly steady?

On all sorts of instruments, the more energy put through them, the more vibrant they become. For example, imagine the sound of a musician softly bowing a violin, versus intensely bowing it. Or, a slight pluck of a guitar string, versus a strong pluck. In both cases, not only does the sound get louder, but it becomes brighter, richer, and more intense. 

However, as we also know already, there’s a limit to how hard we can blow on a chanter reed before it starts misbehaving – we hear squeaks, distortions, gurgles, and all sorts of weird sounds once we pass a certain pressure on our reed.

So, let’s do the math here – what’s the ideal pressure? 

The ideal pressure at which we should blow our chanter reed (what we call the ‘sweet spot’) is the hardest possible pressure we can blow without risking unwanted sounds.

Sounds easy enough to understand – you should aim to maximize the energy and air you put through your reed. But, how exactly do you find the chanter reed’s sweet spot in real life, and how do you test your ability to blow steadily and consistently at that level?

Unofficially, the layperson’s way of learning to blow tone – which I employed as a youth, rather than using the manometer technique outlined below – is to continually experiment blowing as much air as possible through your reed when you play. When you hear an unwanted sound, back the pressure off a bit. You continually perform this test while playing until you’ve made blowing at the sweet spot pressure unconsciously competent.

However, with the help of the manometer, we can speed up the process of identifying the exact sweet spot pressure, and have a wonderful visual tool to help us maintain that pressure as we play.

On a water manometer, this is the process:

  1. Plug your drone into your manometer.
  2. Play a few notes to get steady.
  3. Play low G, and begin to punctuate it with high G gracenotes. Gradually increase your pressure until you notice that your chanter reed starts to produce ugly, distorted sounds when you play the gracenotes.
  4. Mark the spot on the manometer where the reed crossed over from sounding good to sounding distorted.
  5. Repeat several times to be sure you have the right spot.
  6. Practice and/or rehearse, ensuring the pressure of your blowing remains at that spot throughout. Obviously, the steadier, the better!

In a nutshell, this is how we find the sweet spot – test to find the breaking point where the reed goes from sounding great to sounding squeaky or distorted.

Why do we play G gracenotes on low G to find the sweet spot? Simple – this is the most sensitive fingerwork combination on the bagpipes, and is more prone to unwanted sound than any other. If the reed doesn’t squeak while playing this, it won’t be squeaking doing anything else.

Now, the final step is to practice blowing steadily right at that spot. This is pretty easy in concept – it’s not that much different than the manometer work we did in Phase 3. But, as with most things worth doing, it’s pretty difficult to master.

Sustaining steady blowing at the sweet spot

Most pipers find playing at the sweet spot to be very difficult! For many, we have been playing at such a low pressure for so long, that playing at the sweet spot seems impossible to maintain. 

In reality, it takes no more strength or air to blow at the sweet spot than it does to blow close to the ‘choke line’. Though it may seem counterintuitive to blow harder in order to conserve energy, I actually believe it may be easier to blow at the sweet spot (once you’re used to it), because the reed is more efficient at its optimal pressure. 

Regardless, with focused practice, you will become unconsciously competent at this skill. 

To step it up a notch, let’s repeat the process, but this time, without looking at the manometer

  1. Set up a camera (like your smartphone) to record your manometer on video as you play tunes or exercises. Focus on steadily blowing where you think the sweet spot is, without looking.
  2. Replay the video to see how you did. 
  3. Take mental notes on how to improve and try again. 
  4. Do this for the duration of one part, two parts, four parts, eight parts, etc.

If you can do eight parts’ duration, without looking, without dipping further than an inch below the sweet spot at any time, that’s a great sign you’re getting the hang of this! 

At this point, you are probably realizing this is going to be harder than you thought. This is very common, and has to do with another logistical technique issue we’ll address later in this chapter. 

For now, don’t stress too much about being perfectly steady, but instead focus on maintaining an average pressure that’s at the sweet spot, across several tunes. We’ll iron out the steadiness details later.

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