Question: How long should a good chanter reed last?
What is your answer?
This question was recently put forth to the Dojo U Exchange page on Facebook and generated some fairly consistent answers.
“A year, more or less.”
“I go through 3-4 a year.”
“Right around a year.”
The general consensus in our informal survey seems to be that folks will assume a year, give or take, of maximum performing life for almost every chanter reed selected. Other readers might assume the same. But what if the assumption itself is what is giving the reed a stamp of expiration? What if I told you that you can get 3 years or more out of a good reed?
The notion of “a year or less” for a good reed is holdover, again, from an earlier age of reedmaking. Once upon a time, pipers would subject their reeds to all manner of abuse to bring it to playable condition. If you managed to get a year out of a reed you were damn lucky under those conditions.
Essentially, the psychological perception of “longevity” (minimum or maximum) will determine how long the reed will truly last, not because of some built-in expiration date of two cane blades, but because the perception inspires behavior that make the reed’s expiration a foregone conclusion.
A few years back at a workshop class, Roddy MacLeod talked about the reeds he has going (a good 4 or 5, each in chanters!), all of which were about 3 or 4 years old. He shared a story of his chanter reed falling into his bag at the Glennfiddich one year which broke his heart. The reed was 7 years old and had won him more than one top solo prize! He said it was like losing a child. I asked Angus MacColl in a different class at the same workshop, who was, at the time, playing a reed that was 3 or 4 years old, “How do you keep it playing well for so long?” His answer? “You don’t play it.” It’s a semi-cheeky response that has a bit of truth. A good reed played constantly will likely not last, at least not at the level it needs to be for the top solo competitions. Several good reeds, played off and on, could very well be immortal and will last seemingly forever. For players like Angus, the best reeds are kept in reserve and brought up to condition for the big competitions, and are treated like royalty for years.
Those exchanges rattled my piping brain because at the time, I too believed that 6 months to a year was the outside maximum for a good chanter reed. Shortly after that, I pondered the notion that any new reed I selected henceforth, should last at least 2 or 3 years. So I went through my stash of reeds and selected one that I still play to this day—3 years later. A while back I recently selected another reed which is now going on 18 months. I recently popped in a reed that I had saved, which had been played for an entire year, was lying dormant, and is now playing (again) quite well (it is 5 years old). I was playing another that was approaching a year, and clearly had the potential for immortality, before I took off a good chunk of the corner. In the past I would not have given a thought to instantly squishing it and tossing it in the trash. But damn, if it still doesn’t sound passable and would do well for a short outdoor gig or as a practice reed. So I’m saving it. The point is, a good reed is a good reed. Selected well, it should last a long time.
The Danger of the Disposable Mindset
When you approach a reed knowing that you will only be playing it 6 months to a year, you are essentially considering that reed to be disposable before it’s selected. In the United Sates particularly, this “disposable mindset” pervades all aspects of life. We tend to ascribe less value to things we know we will throw away later, mistreating and perhaps taking less care of those items. As such, you might be willing to put up with some imperfections in a new chanter reed if you know it is destined for the bin after a few months. You might take more risks in manipulating it, be a bit rougher with it to bring it to peak performance for a time. All of this behavior will naturally shorten the reed’s life. This is typically referred to as a “self-fullfilling prophecy.”
Things might be a bit different if you play in a pipe band, particularly at the upper grade levels. Peak sound is key and playing robust, fresh reeds is the best way to get it. Many bands might have players swapping in new reeds after only a few months of play. But for solo players, we just want a reed that gives us the quality of sound we need.
When you approach your chanter reed knowing you are going to play it for 3 years or more, you think about it a bit differently. You target different qualities in the reed that are essential to that kind of longevity. You take greater care in selection. You might look for thicker blades, more body, better construction, stronger balance and response. You might balk at too much physical manipulations and changes, taking discriminating care when touching or putting a blade to the reed. This approach naturally keeps the reed closer to its pristine state, thereby lengthening the time it will perform at peak. You also might not play it constantly once it is broken in.
The Multi-Reed System
The trick to keeping a reed for a good long time is, as Angus said, don’t play it. But if you’re not playing it, what are you playing? Therein lies the strategy: Have several reeds, perhaps in several chanters if feasible, including a “beater reed” that serves your needs for daily practice. Alternating your practice by alternating your playing time on each reed develops your “ear” as well as keeps the reeds in good playing order for when you need them.
Let’s do the math. If you’re giving a reed 12 months, let’s figure 250 to 300 days of playing time on the reed (discounting for time off, vacations, sickness). Play that reed one out of every five days of playing, alternating with two other reeds, and you have already extended the life of each of those reeds to 450 to 540 days. Treat one better than rest, play it less frequently, resist intense manipulation, and you will get significantly more life out of it before it shows signs of expiration.
Now, all of this presumes that you’ve taken care to select a well matched reed for you, moisture is controlled, your reed is stored and contained properly, and you are practicing good maintenance. Many pipers achieve great success though with swapping in reeds annually. A new, crisp chanter reed certainly does sound nice, and if that’s your bag, go for it. But there is no reason that today’s reeds, cared for and treated well, cannot serve you significantly longer than what is conventionally assumed. Understand your behavior, the decisions you make, and how they influence your choices and life of your reed. Make adjustments in your approach, and you will be sounding great for a healthy amount of time.
Selecting and Manipulating Chanter Reeds Part 1 With Robert Mathieson
Selecting and Manipulating Chanter Reeds Part 2 With Robert Mathieson
Selecting and Manipulating Chanter Reeds Part 3 With Robert Mathieson