Chanter reeds with missing corners, splits, or chipped blade edges. Black mold spots. Discolored blades. All of these things can be seen in the hands of pipers from time to time. Know this: None of these things will happen if your chanter reed is cared for properly.
None of these things are normal or acceptable if you want to make pleasing sounds on the Highland bagpipe.
A brand new reed, fresh from the maker, ordered from your favorite bagpipe supply shop, will arrive (hopefully) with even, clean, bright blades of cane. There is no reason that a year or more of use will change that too much if you care for, handle, and store your chanter reeds properly.
Here are some general chanter reed care guidelines.
• Chanter reeds should be kept dry and away from wet conditions when not in use.
• Chanter reeds should be kept away from extreme temperatures, or extreme temperature changes, if possible.
• Chanter reeds should be “aired out” after playing sessions to dry some before being capped or placed in storage.
• The blades are delicate. Avoid any impact on the blades.
Chanter reeds should be held lightly and gently. Treat them as if they are so delicate, they will break if handled too roughly.
The cane blades of the chanter reed should be touched/handled as little as possible. The sweat, oils and dirt from your hands will soil the reed, hamper its performance and shorten its life. Always handle or hold the reed by the wrappings. Putting your fingers to the blades should only be done to manipulate its sound in the form of gentle squeezes if needed.
Care should be exercised when twisting the chanter out of, and back into, the chanter stock. Many a piper it is who has been too aggressive yanking their chanter out only to have the force smack the reed uncontrollably into the stock, or fall out to the ground entirely. Grab the bulb of the chanter and gently twist or “unscrew” the chanter from the stock. Slow down when the hemp is exposed and slowly draw the reed out of the stock taking care not to touch the corners of the reed against the wood. When putting the chanter back in, guide the reed into the stock opening without scraping it against the wood, then gently twist the chanter by the bulb back into the stock.
Unused chanter reeds should dry and kept in an airtight container away from light and extreme temperatures. Pipehacker.com has a great, quick project to make reed containers from PVC pipe. Keep the reeds in small zip-lock plastic bags. Old prescription pill bottles also make great storage containers. Make sure the reeds are not loosely rattling around in whatever container you use. Stuff cotton balls or tissue paper in the containers to keep the reeds from banging into each other. Reeds constantly exposed to air and moisture will deteriorate over time.
Invest in a chanter cap/drystock. Leaving the chanter in the bag, exposed to seasoning and wet conditions between playing sessions will dramatically shorten the reed’s life span, making it unstable session to session. Always take the reed out of the stock after playing and cap it after “airing it out.” (See "Care" above.) Your chanter reed might not seem “wet” after playing but, it has absorbed a fair bit of moisture, which needs to evaporate a bit before putting it away. Make sure your chanter cap has as airtight a seal as possible on the hemp. Any exposure to air will introduce the possibility of mold growth and dry the reed out. Plastic chanter caps have no way to wick away residual moisture on the reed. A dark, moist environment and an organic medium such as cane creates the ideal condition for mold and bacterial growth. A wood chanter cap will wick away moisture more effectively. Always leave your reed to dry in the open air a bit before capping it if you are using a plastic cap.