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Pearls of Wisdom from Robert Mathieson

Pearls of Wisdom from Robert Mathieson


The art of manipulating bagpipe chanter reeds has often been considered a black art. In three recent Dojo U classes, Robert Mathieson helps to dispel the notion that there is some secret to manipulating chanter reeds. The classes, as with all Dojo U offerings, are chocked full of practical information. Three pearls of wisdom, though, stuck out.

The first pearl deals with learning to find the pressure at which you play a chanter reed. Mathieson recommends taking the chanter out of the bagpipe periodically and blowing it. This will serve two purposes. Firstly, it will help to keep the reed moist. Your breath provides the ideal amount of moisture to the reed. Mathieson recommends against wetting the reed as it will, ultimately, shorten the lifespan of the reed. Secondly, it will help you to discover the reed pressure that it suitable to your style of play. As you repeat this process, you get a feel for your proper pressure. You can apply this process when selecting new reeds.

The second pearl is maintaining a consistent amount of moisture on the reed. Mathieson indicates that a “moving feast,” will shorten the life of a reed. By that, he means that letting a reed dry out and then applying heavy amounts of moisture. To that end, experiment with your moisture control system so that you are getting a consistent amount of moisture delivered to the reed. When you store a reed, make sure that your chanter cap, if you use one, will retain the moisture on the reed. Mathieson notes that chanter caps with holes in the top will allow moisture to escape. If you use a chanter cap with humidity control, experiment with the amount of moisture that you apply to the moisture retention crystals. If your crystals are too wet, the reeds can develop mold, which can weaken the cane under the spot and destabilize the reed. In addition, a case humidifier can help not only with maintaining consistent moisture to your reeds but also in maintaining consistent moisture to your pipes.

Finally, if you have old reeds lying about (and who doesn’t), use them to experiment. All too often, we are in position where we have to make last minute adjustments to our reeds and often, we have to take a knife to the reed in order to bring it back into the fold. Practice the various techniques for modifying reeds on your old reeds and note what happens. If the reed is too long, practice cutting a sliver off of the tips, trying to make a clean cut, and then put it in the chanter and see what happens. For every cut you make on a non-production reed, you gain experience, and confidence, that can be applied when you need to modify a reed for a performance.

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Selecting and Manipulating Chanter Reeds (Part 1)
Selecting and Manipulating Chanter Reeds (Part 2)
Selecting and Manipulating Chanter Reeds (Part 3)


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.