Once upon a time, choosing a good chanter reed was a lot like choosing ripe melons in a marketplace. You poked, squeezed, scrutinized, and fondled until you found the one that satisfied you, leaving a lot of underripe and rotten ones behind.
Modern reed makers though have streamlined the craft so that nearly every reed on offer is worthy of play. Nevertheless, we still need to be discriminating when choosing our chanter reeds. Choosing the “right” reed for you though, requires self-knowledge and a bit of judgement.
Choosing the Right Reed
Absent special considerations such as needing a solo reed, a band reed, or a practice reed, without fail, most pipers will always choose reeds that are too hard for them to play. The “it will get easier to play when broken in” idea about reeds is a holdover from an earlier age of reed making. Once upon a time, all good reed makers made their reeds the same way and (mostly) by hand. It was an inexact science and the resulting reeds ranged from brain-hemorrhaging to gut-busting. If you were lucky, you found one that was easier than the rest but for the most part, making a reed “easy” or “breaking it in” required a set of techniques akin to black magic. Pinching, scraping, cutting, and even soaking in water were all tricks that pipers of that era employed. That notion (that you can always “break it in” to make it easier) sticks with us today, but it is really not true any more. Today, reeds are crafted with machined tools that make every reed uniform. Altering a few settings on the tools can adjust the thickness and curvature of the cane blades and give us easy, medium, and hard strength reeds right off the makers block. No more voodoo!
The upside to modern reed-making techniques is that there is less need to tinker with the reeds and thus more playing time at optimal performance. Some skills to alter the reed are still needed, but mainly for subtle changes in the reed’s sound quality. One of the other benefits to modern reed construction is that the reed’s strength, and thus its “sweet spot” where it is vibrating fully, won’t change all that much from the time it is new to the time it dies.
If It’s Too Hard to Play, It’s Too Hard to Play
A good reed with good cane that is well crafted will not change much in strength, even after it is broken in. What does that mean? It means that if you’re playing the reed by mouth and your face is turning red and you’re about to lose control of bodily functions, then guess what? It is not going to get any easier once you put the reed and chanter in the bag. If the reed is too hard for you to play when you first put it in, it will remain too hard. The reed you choose needs to be playable at the start. It should only be a bit harder to play than what you are comfortable with, but don’t expect a radical swing in strength. You should be able to play it, and for a reasonable amount of time. Yes, the blades are new and stiff and will take a bit of extra “umph” to keep it going, but all it will do over time is vibrate more freely and thus have a sweeter, more stable sound once broken in. The amount of effort you expend to play it at its “sweet spot” is not going to change much.
Measuring Your Tolerances
Finding this ideal strength point is tricky. You will need to be aware of your own tolerances as well as know the difference between how hard you blow the reed by mouth, versus blowing it in the bagpipe. The only way to know this is through time, experimentation, and a batch of reeds. But there is a way:
Find a reed that you believe is “perfect” for you and that you feel you can blow comfortably—call this reed 1. Reject reed 1 and find a noticeably easier one—call this reed 2. This will give you a good indication of where your tolerances lay. If this new reed requires little effort to play, then you have found the working area of tolerance. Find the reed that sits within the strength of reed 1 and 2 and you have found your ideal reed. You may find that reed 2 seems more perfect but might be harder to play than reed 1. In this case, reed 2 becomes reed 1 and you then find an even easier reed that then becomes reed 2. In general, any reed that you consider perfect, consider it too hard and find an easier one. Keep picking reeds that shrink the tolerance area between reeds 1 and 2, until you do, in fact, find an ideal reed, where the strength is clearly perfect for you.
Other measures such as “inches of water” are not really useful for gauging strength. Every piper is different and every reed will vibrate differently depending on conditions. While at Dojo U we advocate using a manometer to diagnose and improve blowing, what is important is your ability to blow the reed at the “sweet spot” all the time. Where that is on a manometer in terms of “inches” is immaterial, as is the strength of the reed that puts you there. For you, if that is an easy reed, great. If that is a hard reed, awesome for you. Knowing this for yourself though, will require some practice, some patience, and some experimentation.