What´s wrong with my chanter?
If you bought a cheap Pakistani chanter, chances are it´s not perfect. Most of these chanters have at least one flaw, such as a loose part, rough finish, or perhaps a minor crack. If the problem affects the functionality of the chanter, then there is cause for concern, but not too much; after all, what do you expect for $20? If the chanter is reasonably airtight and produces a reasonable semblance of the bagpipe scale in conjunction with a serviceable reed, then you need not worry. Some tonal problems can be solved by adjusting or replacing the reed. Sometimes there is nothing at all wrong with the chanter or reed, in which case the squirrelly notes, raspy sounds, cutting out and the like are caused by faulty blowing or incorrect fingering. The causes and solutions for all conceivable problems are too numerous to list here. Most problems can be fixed with a bit of patience and ingenuity. In any case you should seek advice from your instructor before destroying a perfectly good instrument. Don´t be afraid to ask questions.
Why is my chanter hard to blow?
There are several things that can make your chanter hard to blow. It could be one or a combination of the following:
- You may be too weak, due to lack of practice. Generally lung capacity is not the problem; typically the lips give out long before the lungs do.
- You may need to put an elastic bridle on the reed. If the chanter sounds very loud, harsh, raspy, or low in pitch over the entire scale, a bridle is probably indicated. Use a small dental elastic, doubled over, placed around the plastic blades about half way up. The nearer to the lips the bridle is positioned, the easier and higher pitched the reed will be. If you overdo it, the reed will shut off with minimal pressure. The elastic bridle will sharpen the pitch overall. Experiment.
- You may be leaking air through a crack or loose joint. Add hemp if necessary. Make sure the mouthpiece is screwed on properly, if it´s removable . Plug the top section with your hand or a cork and suck the air out to see if it will hold a vacuum. Usually you can locate leaks easily because water will begin dripping out through them after a few minutes of play. For information on methods of repair, consult your instructor or The Pipe Major´s Handbook, by Royce Lerwick. Or just get a plastic chanter and never worry about cracks.
- The reed may be defective. Check to see if the blades are lined up properly. Reeds can be re-tied or replaced. You should have a spare on hand anyway, since they aren´t very expensive.
Does my chanter sound flat (or sharp) to you?
If the chanter is flat overall, try using an elastic bridle as explained above. If high A seems flat in relation to the lower notes (train your ear so you can hear the difference), you should insert the reed deeper into the socket. Pushing the reed in deeper sharpens the high notes relative to the lower notes, and vice-versa. If possible, just twist the reed in a bit for minor pitch adjustments. You might have to add or remove a bit of hemp to the reed to make it fit at the optimum position. A tiny adjustment will have a considerable effect on intonation. Always make sure the reed is snug in the socket, so it doesn´t fall out, and straight, so it doesn´t scrape against the inside of the chanter top.
Oops! I busted my reed.
Most novices destroy reeds long before they wear them out. Practice chanter reeds are often damaged by scraping them against the inside of the top section. When disassembling or reassembling the chanter, be patient, go slow, and always set the reed firmly and straight in the reed seat. Incidentally, the orientation of the reed makes no difference. The blades are not much narrower than the inside bore, however, so make sure you get it in there straight.
Hey, there´s a crack in my chanter!
All practice chanters require at least a minimal amount of maintenance. Wooden chanters, especially Blackwood ones, require the most care to prevent cracking. The main problem is that the inside of the chanter top is subjected to constant cycles of wetness and dryness. This eventually causes the wood to split. Some cracking is normal, even expected with Blackwood chanters. Minor hairline cracks most often occur in the top section, inside the bore under the ferrule. If you´re lucky, the cracks will be small and will not extend all the way through the wood. The main concern is that the chanter top be airtight. Leaks can also develop at the point where the mouthpiece screws onto the top section. If necessary, cracks can usually be repaired with epoxy, or with tape in less extreme cases.
Uhh...I can´t get my chanter apart.
In many practice chanters, as is the case with most bagpipes, the sections are fitted together by means of yellow string, known as "hemp." Hemp allows the joint to be kept optimally snug (hence, airtight) while allowing for wear due to friction. The hemp is subjected to considerable moisture and is therefore subject to swelling. This swelling can cause the parts to jam, or it could even cause the female section to crack. You can minimize the swelling and prolong the life of the hemp by impregnating it with beeswax before wrapping and coating the outer strands with paraffin after wrapping. Paraffin not only repels moisture, but also lubricates the joint. The hemped joint can afford to be a bit loose when it´s dry. It will tighten up after a brief period of play. You should keep it tight enough to stay put (so the part doesn´t fall off and break), but allow for a bit of inevitable swelling. On a practice chanter I like to leave a bit of a gap between the top and bottom sections, so that a little hemp is showing when the instrument is assembled. This facilitates removal of the top section should the parts jam, and it also allows for a snug fit as the rest of the hemp gradually deteriorates from moisture and wear. Another way to preserve the hemp and prevent jamming is to disassemble the chanter and allow it to dry out a bit after playing. Wet hemp dries out pretty fast in the open air. Left sealed, the joint could take hours, even days, to dry out completely, especially in humid regions.
Okay, so you´ve allowed your chanter to get stuck. What are you going to do? The prudent thing to do is to be patient and allow the chanter to dry out for a while. Don´t try forcing it with a pipe wrench or vise grips, and above all, don´t get in the habit of gripping the bottom section at the end, near the sole--always twist the sections apart with both hands together at the joint, with one hand holding the ball-shaped portion of the bottom section, and the other hand gripping the ferrule of the top section. Otherwise you can easily overstress the wood and break the chanter.
The top of my chanter keeps falling off. What should I do?
Hemp deteriorates over time and eventually needs to be replaced. Loose parts can be made snug by simply adding a strand of new hemp to the old. Start and finish the wrappings with a couple of tight half-hitches, and apply paraffin for lubricity and moisture resistance. When re-hemping the chanter entirely, you should take care to anchor the first few turns of hemp with tar or cobbler´s wax (black wax), otherwise the hemp will rotate on the tenon when you try to twist the sections apart, making it virtually impossible to disassemble the chanter without damaging the reed. Apply the hemp tightly and uniformly, taking care to avoid gaps or "troughs" between the strands. If applied correctly and maintained properly, the hemp should be serviceable for several months, even a year or more.
Should I clean out the mouthpiece?
You can if you want, but I never do. Some mouthpieces are threaded and removable, but I recommend you leave it alone. The threads strip very easily on wooden chanters, and this can lead to significant air and moisture leakage.
How should I store my chanter?
You can leave it assembled (take it apart to let it dry out after playing, and then put it back together). If you want to make the chanter more compact for storage or transport, (especially if you have a full-sized P.C.), you can leave it disassembled. The top section stopped up with a rubber cork makes a convenient storage compartment for the reed. The reed will rattle around a bit, but that shouldn´t hurt it. It probably doesn´t matter, but I would position the reed in the top section in such a way that the fragile lips point towards the rubber stopper. Don´t leave you chanter in the car. The chanter itself may survive, but the reed will certainly melt.