"What Does It Mean When I Hear About 'Blowing Tone?'”
Most pipers have heard their pipe major or piping instructor, sometimes quite forcefully, urge you to “blow tone”! But how many PMs can fully describe what the term means, or how to achieve it?
Many pipers think that blowing tone has to do primarily with how well the pipes are tuned, how “steady” one is when it comes to maintaining a constant pressure in the bag, or a combination of the two. However, good tone is a bit more complicated than either of those short answers.
Before we can discuss “tone”, we need to remember that the basis of a good sound is good pipe maintenance. Review the 13 steps to a good bagpipe sound, because good tone is a result of good maintenance and a logical approach needs to be followed. In short, maintenance comes first, then tone, and then tuning, in that order.
Let us also recall for a moment that a pipe chanter sounds its best when it produces the maximum number of harmonics, or overtones, those complex sound frequencies that accompany each note of the pipe scale. There is a mathematical relationship between the harmonics and the "fundamental" note being played. While each note of the pipe chanter has its own harmonics, so does each tenor drone and the bass drone. But simply making the chanter reed or drone reed vibrate isn’t enough. The air pressure that is driving the vibration of those reeds must be of sufficient energy to cause the reeds to vibrate to the richest and fullest extent possible, but without producing unwanted squeaks and other sounds. The maximum pressure that a reed can take without those unwanted sounds is known as the “sweet spot”. The goal of steady blowing is to maintain the air pressure during all the blowing cycle (squeezing, blowing, and the transitions) to always be at the chanter reed’s sweet spot.
Try this little experiment with your practice chanter: Blow just enough air into the chanter to make the reed produce a sound, and recognize that the resulting “tone” really sounds bad and unsteady with such little air pressure. Now, slowly increase the blowing pressure until the chanter sounds are musical and “in tune” to your ear. You will find that the practice chanter reed, like a pipe chanter reed, must be blown at a sufficient air pressure for a good sound.
But the pipe chanter is far more complex than a plastic practice chanter reed. For one, the pipe chanter reed is made of cane, grown in only a few areas of the world, and essentially produced by hand using many of the same techniques since Highland bagpipes have been played. Further, unlike a plastic reed, a cane reed requires warmth and moisture to vibrate most vibrantly. Too much moisture, however, will hurt the reed’s performance, at least temporarily. Drone reeds must be calibrated to the strength of the chanter reed currently being played, and must be kept dry or else they can’t be tuned, or stay in tune.
A piper who can blow a steady pressure, but somewhere below the sweet spot, will be unable to produce good tone, regardless of how “steady” a blower he or she is. Hint: any chokes of the chanter automatically mean that the piper is blowing unsteadily and at the low end of the pressure curve. Another clue to unsteady blowing is that the drone tops are swaying or moving a great deal. It’s difficult to be a steady blower if the drones are physically moving during play.
Thus, the foregoing discussion leads us finally to define “blowing tone” as steady blowing at the chanter reed’s sweet spot. Strive to maintain that pressure at all times, for once good tone is achieved, good tuning can more easily follow.