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The Thirteen Steps, Part IV
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The Thirteen Steps, Part IV

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The foundations of great bagpipe sound can be summarized in the video, "13 Steps to Great Bagpipe Sound." In Part IV, we'll explore Steps 9 through 13.

In Steps 1 through 4, we have checked our bag, joints, and reed seats. We've calibrated our drone reeds against our chanter reed, we know that they are taking just the right amount of air. In Steps 5 through 8, We've found our chanter reed's sweet spot, we've practiced steady blowing using a manometer and have worked on our mental blowing exercises. We've warmed our pipes up for fifteen minutes and we've let them acclimatize for fifteen minutes by setting them down.

Now, in Steps 9 through 13, we will tune our instrument.

Step 9: Balance the chanter using the "graduated tuning effect."
Step 10: Tune one drone to low A using the "blow trick."
Step 11: Tune the other drones to the first drone.
Step 12: Repeat Steps 10 and 11 as the chanter changes in pitch over time.
Step 13: If needed, fine tune the chanter notes using the blow trick.

Step 9: Balance the Chanter Using the "Graduated Tuning Effect"

The chanter on our instrument uses a conical bore. This causes what is known as the graduated tuning effect. To tune the chanter, start by balancing low A against high A. Mouth blow the chanter and note whether high A is sharp or flat in comparison to low A.

If high A is sharp, raise the reed in the reed seat. This will cause the high hand to drop in pitch relative to the low hand. You may need to add more hemp to raise the reed in the seat. Conversely, if high A is flat, lower the reed in the reed seat. It may be necessary to remove hemp in order to lower the reed in the seat. Remember to make sure that the reed is properly seated whenever adding or removing hemp.

If you are not sure, experiment. The smaller problem is balancing low A and high A. The logic is simple. If high A is sharp, raise the reed, if high A is flat, lower the reed. As with calibrating drone reeds, this can be challenging at first. But...

"You going to sound like a broken record," you are thinking.

Yes I am. It gets easier with practice. Take your time, move the reed just a little bit and retest. You will soon get a good handle on how much you have to move your reed to get it balanced.

Step 10: Tune One Drone to Low A Using the "Blow Trick"

Cork off or stop your middle tenor and base drones. Use a manometer, keeping your pressure steady at the sweet spot. Test low A against the outside tenor. To test which direction to move the drone, back off on the pressure a little bit. The manometer will drop slightly. Ask yourself, "did the tuning improve or did it get worse?" If the tuning was better, that means that your chanter is sharp relative to the drone. Move the drone down on the tuning pin to sharpen the note (toward the bag). If the tuning was worse, raise the drone on the tuning pin (away from the bag).

Then, repeat the "blow trick." You will, as Andrew notes, start making smaller and smaller moves until the drone is in tune with low A on the chanter.

Step 11: Tune the Other Drones to the First Drone

To tune the other drones to the outside tenor, start with the bass. Cork or stop the middle tenor. Then play high A at the sweet spot. Try to ignore the chanter as best as you can as you as you tune the bass to the outside drone. Bring the bass into tune with the outside tenor slowly. Listen for the increase in the quality of the tuning. Once you bring the bass drone into tune with the outside tenor, take it down or up the pin (depending on which way you are going) to make sure that the tuning cannot get any better. If it can't get any better, bring the bass drone back into tune. Proceed to the middle tenor.

Step 12: Repeat Steps 10 and 11 as the Chanter Changes in Pitch Over Time

As the chanter changes pitch when you play, revisit the tuning process. Bring the outside tenor into pitch with low A once again. Then bring the bass drone into tune with the outside tenor. At this point, you will know which direction to move the bass drone, it will move in the same direction as you moved the outside tenor. Then bring the middle tenor into tune.

Step 13: If Needed, Fine Tune the Chanter Notes Using the Blow Trick

If you find a note on your chanter that doesn't blend with the drones, you can use the blow trick to test the note against the drones. If you back off on the pressure and note that the note blends better with the drones, add a little tape to flatten the note. Tape increases the distance between the reed and the hole on the chanter, thus flattening the note.

As Andrew notes, "beware of using too much tape." Tape will cause notes to be noticeably quieter. Tape may also cause other problems such as chirping. Minimize the use of tape, but you absolutely want to use for fine tuning purposes.

Take Action

Weapons Training - Chanter Tape Tricks
Steady Blowing in Depth, Chanter Reed Types, Tuning Drones
Chanter Tuning
The "Blow Trick" [Vintage]

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Mark Olson Mark Olson is a software engineer in Omaha, NE. Over the years, he has played numerous musical instruments including the bagpipes, guitar, piano, flute, and saxophone. As a young man, Mark competed as a solo piper. Due to the demands of raising a family, Mark had to forgo his musical pursuits. While he regrets the fact he gave up the bagpipes, he is proud of the fact that both of his sons have grown to be fine young men. With the nest now empty, he has picked up the pipes once again. If he gets his chops, and his groove, back, he plans to compete again as a solo piper.

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