Checklist for a comfortable Bagpipe
Here are some things that every piper should ask themselves when they take their pipes out to play!
1. Are my Joints Airtight?
You can do this by taking your middle joints and just giving them a quick turn test in the stocks. Do this with your blowpipe and chanter as well. They should take some effort to remove but not too much. You can also check your tuning pins as they should be moveable but not wobbling or rocking on the joint. Ensure that the tuning pins are looser than your stock joints since this will result in the entire drone turning in the stock when you tune it. If a joint is loose, simply add some more hemp to ensure an airtight seal is made. Beware the joint being too tight as this might result in cracking or warping. How tight is just right? Think of the strength it takes to open a pickle jar!
2. Is my blowpipe airtight?
Before checking the bag for airtightness, its important to ensure that your blowpipe is not leaking air. Debris can sometimes become stuck to the bottom of the blowpipe or other times the valve will just wear out. The fix will be obvious once you have discovered the issue. With the blowpipe airtight, you're ready for step 3!
3. Is my bag airtight?
Most pipers will be able to tell if their pipes seem unnaturally hard to play. Before messing with reeds, this should be the first thing you check. Cork the stocks and listen to see if you can hear air escaping the bag. Your bag should stay airtight for 30 seconds or so with hide bags and about a minute for synthetics. If your hide bag is leaking, you'll need to apply seasoning to the inside of the bag. Follow the directions on your seasoning bottle as each brand has slightly different instructions.
4. Is my Water Trap Efficient?
A water trap that restricts air is killing your instrument from the start. While you definitely need a water trap in your pipes, you don't want something that is blocking all the effort you put in from getting to the bagpipe reeds. this can also be a case of the blowpipe not having a big enough bore. In most cases you'll want a system that puts air toward the back of the bag as to affect the chanter reed as little as possible. Test the trap and see where the air flow is being blocked the most and experiment with what kind of improvements you can make to the efficiency. Also ensure that the trap does not slide against the bottom of a stock as this can lead to unsteady drones.
5. Is my chanter reed comfortable?
This will be pretty easy to identify. If the reed is very hard when you first blow it, don't be afraid to shave it. You can take some cane off with either a sharp knife or small file. Remember to keep the strokes small and even. You cannot replace cane on the reeds so always test after every few strokes. It should also be noted that the more cane you remove will not only make the reed easier but will also sharpen the pitch of the chanter. If your reed is too easy and is squealing and chirping, then you'll probably want a new reed. While you can partially fix an easy reed with a mandrel or "reed poker" it will be better to just invest in a new and slightly harder reed. You should test the reed in the pipes with the drones corked to eliminate the possibility of the drones being the issue. Your chanter should not be hard for you to play, but recognize when it is an "endurance of the player" problem and not a "reed strength" issue.
6. Are my drone reeds calibrated correctly?
Drone reeds will change over time. Very rarely can a piper "set it and forget it" with reeds. Before testing, it should be noted that your reeds must be seated firmly into the drones and are not hanging or wobbling out of their seats. To test your drone reeds, you'll need to have your pipe chanter in the stock. Cork or stop the bass and middle tenor drones, leaving the outside tenor drone and chanter on. See if you can stop the drone reed by overblowing your pipes with a bit (but not too much) effort. You'll not want it to shut off too soon as that would mean the reed is too easy. However if you cannot stop the drone reed by overblowing, then your reed is too hard. Follow the steps below for what you should do:
My reed is too hard: Pull the rubber bridle of the reed down towards the end of the tongue. This brings the tongue closer to the body of the reed. Do this in minimal increments as you could go too far and make the reed too easy.
My reed is too easy: Push the bridle of the reed up towards the drone. This raises the tongue from the body of the reed. Do this in minimal increments as you could go too far and make the reed too hard.
In most cases, if you see the tongue move as you adjust, you've probably gone to far with your adjustment. Once you've got your outside tenor perfect, remove the chanter and cork the stock. Do the same thing with the other two drones, one at a time, and make sure they cut off at the same pressure as your outside tenor. This will mean that your drones are air efficient and stable where they don't take much difficulty to play.
As for where your drone sits on the tuning pin, you can adjust the tuning screw on the bottom of the reed to change the position of the drone on the tuning pin. This adjustment will differ in designs of the reed with all the different brands out today. Check the instructions to make sure you are moving parts correctly. Your tenor drones should sit at the same place. Your top joint on your bass drone should be sitting longer than your bottom joint to increase resonance and ease of strike ins.
Now that the Instrument is in full working order, here is some food for thought on how you can make your playing even more comfortable.
1. Blowpipe Length, Bag Size and Covers:
If you are constantly struggling with your pipes and pushing them up underneath your arm, then your blow-stick might be too long. It is also a possibility that your bag is too big. Your overall posture should be streamline with the back of your head, shoulder blades, tailbone, and heels all in a straight line. You can check this using a mirror or camera. You shouldn't be compensating for your pipes by hunching, standing with your chin tucked in, or head cocked to the side as this can present problems in later playing. It is easier to correct this with a change of blowpipe, but sometimes the bag must be replaced to make it most comfortable. Try an adjustable blowpipe first since you can change the position and length at any time to find what is most comfortable to you. This is especially recommended for younger players who's posture will grow and change over time. As bags are concerned, you may also want to look at your bag cover. Is the bag cover loose and floppy around the body of the inflated bag? In this case, a new and different cover will help but you may also want to look at gripping patches, zippers, and Velcro. These are sewn onto the cover to help the fabric grip onto your bag and clothes and prevent sliding.
2. Drone Cords:
While this is quite an easy fix, it is surprising to see how many pipers do not account for this in their instruments. Your drones should fit onto your shoulders at even lengths. If you have a giant space between the tenors or one drone is drastically off center, then you are disrupting and changing the flow of air to each drone. Not only does it look bad, but it also can hinder your posture. You can use the length of the drone top to measure the distance consistently. I try to space mine about 5 to 6 inches between the three drones with about 3 to 4 inches of cord hanging from the outside tenor drone. This should ensure a clean look and an aid to your posture.
3. Chanter Tape:
There are many different kinds of chanter tape out on the market today. Firstly, you'll want something that does the job right. Tape that won't need too much replacing over time and is thin enough for fine adjustments. Avoid overly thick tape as this can lead your fingers to some confusion as to what is a hole and what is a section of tape. The thinner tape makes it easy to identify where the holes are placed. Also ensure that the tape overlaps itself once so it won't slide around since tape sticks best to itself.
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