“How do I make sure I don’t mess up my strike-in?”
This is a common question and worry for the band piper. The ubiquitous “attack,” that instantaneous and simultaneous drone sound and subsequent “E,” is a crucial part of a band’s performance. A smooth strike-in by every piper is essential. The answer to this troubleshooting question though is not just something the band player should care about.
It is something important for every Highland piper who wants to produce a quality sound on their instrument.
Controllable and Predictable
Naturally, the bagpipe “strike-in” process is a series of coordinated physical motions within a certain timeframe that produces a desired result. A smooth strike-in is a physical process as well as a mechanical, instrument-based one. Reducing the worry over misfiring strike-ins starts with an efficient bagpipe that performs in an expected manner. A missed strike-in is really nothing more that a “surprise” or, something you did (should) not expect. You will eliminate those surprises by making sure your instrument is efficient and in good working order and controllable in predictable and expected ways.
Diagnosing Instrument Issues
An air-efficient, well-maintained and stable instrument is as important to the strike-in as, well, having drone reeds. If misfiring strike-ins is a persistent worry, the first step to eliminating them is to diagnose instrument issues. Mysterious air leakage, even in an otherwise well-maintained bagpipe can sneak up on you and create all manner of aggravation. If airflow through your instrument is not efficient, air will sneak through places and adversely affect that point when you’re pushing air through the bag to sound the drones and start up the chanter.
If you’ve spent any time here at Dojo U, you already know the importance of these 4 questions and how to get each of them to “yes.” There is a reason this bit of advice appears as the first thing you should do to diagnose any bagpipe issue. They are the starting point to ensure your instrument is as efficient as possible. Just about every instrument-based issue can be resolved by making your instrument perfectly air efficient.
That being said, there are some occasions where you may have addressed all the 4 questions above, and addressed them superbly, but your instrument and/or reeds are still not cooperating on your strike-in. This is where you zoom in for a closer look on smaller parts of your instrument to determine if you truly have an efficient instrument.
Cracks in your drones. Sudden strike-in problems may be traced to hairline cracks that have developed unnoticed in the wood of your drones. They will generally not be an issue to the overall quality of your sound, but they can introduce problems when trying to produce that sound. The small bit of altered airflow through the drone can certainly affect the performance of your drone reeds, particularly on the strike-in or stop. Loose ring caps on the drone tops, like cracks in the wood, can also affect airflow. Examine all parts of your drones regularly for cracks and other irregularities and take the necessary steps for repair if needed.
Drone reeds. Today’s synthetic drone reeds are like little machines that require regular maintenance and upkeep. The constant wet/dry, expand/contract cycle in your bagpipe can, and does, have an impact on the performance of your drone reeds. Minute amounts of air leakage can sometimes cause synthetic drone reeds to misbehave in odd ways. Just like cracks can alter airflow through the drone, irregularities in the drone reed can alter the airflow over and through your reed. Even though they may be perfectly calibrated, there could be other aspects of their performance that are affecting your strike-in. You many have answered “yes” to question 3 above, but if you haven’t changed the hemp on your drone reeds in a while, it might be time to do so. If the hemp has been on a while, it might not be evenly gripping the reed seat. That can introduce an air leakage spot that is barely detectable, but will affect the reed’s performance. Change the hemp on your reed and reseat. Sometimes a bit of teflon tape around the threads of the tuning screw/pin of your synthetic reed will eliminate undetectable air leakage and thus put your drone back into optimal playing order. Fill any gaps in the inside base of the tuning screws with putty or silicone just to be sure. Misaligned tongues will also cause a drone reed to misbehave. Reed tongues should be straight and aligned with the plane of the flat on the reed body.
Drone tuning. Sometimes a drone set to tune too high or too low on the tuning pin alters the airflow just enough to affect performance of the reed. All synthetic drone reeds are designed to perform optimally at a particular column of air through the drone. Make adjustments to the bridle and tuning pin/screw to bring the tuning of the drones to their necessary point (at or near the hemp line for tenors; two to three finger widths from the ferrule for the bass). Tuning screws on synthetic reeds should not be turned too far out or in. Extreme lengths on the tuning screws alters the amount of air flowing through the reed enough to cause them to respond in unexpected ways as air passes over them. “Unexpected” is the choice word here. Your drone reeds should be performing in a predictable manner at all times.
Drone calibration. I know, you answered a resounding "yes!" to question 4 above. But if your calibration is to a chanter reed that is too hard for you to play, your drones will be set too open to get a predictable, controllable performance on the strike-in. Your chanter reed choice is possibly the linchpin of your ability to produce great sound on the bagpipe. Not only must it sound good, it must also be a strength that is suited to you. Finding that ideal chanter reed has been discussed before. If you've zoomed in on all other issues and misfiring strike-ins are still an issue, then it might be time to swap your chanter reed for one with a reduced strength.