- Why is learning
on a low-quality practice chanter detrimental to your
- Practice Chanter
- Full-Size or
"long" practice chanters
- Things to look
for in a quality practice chanter
- Practice chanters
Many begining bagpipe students (or their parents)
are so excited at the idea of learning bagpipes that
they rush out and buy the first (or least expensive)
practice chanter that they find. They may buy it from
a local music shop, an online auction, a booth at the
highland games, or even from a reputable Scottish importer
or piping supply shop.
The chanter pictured to the right is a typical example
of many people's first chanter. I had one once. In fact
I think I still have it, although somewhere along the
line it got broken in half. I can't quite remember how.
Maybe I just got too frustrated with it and broke it
over my knee.
Chanters such as these are often made in Pakistan (current
politics aside) and are generally of very poor quality.
They may look attractive, with their shiny bits of metal
and high-gloss finish, but they are trouble! Take a
close look at the chanter pictured to the right. You
may already have one of these in your posession. If
you do, consider it a lesson learned and then go out
and purchase a quality instrument.
The purpose of this article is not to make anyone feel
bad for buying a cheap practice chanter - but to explain
the problems of learning on a practice chanter such
as this, and how to instead choose a high-quality instrument
that will give you years of playing enjoyment.
Attempting to learn or play music on an instrument
of poor quality is a dead-end. Any instrumentalist will
agree that when you play on a quality instrument, life
is great. When you play on a bad instrument, life can
seem very hard indeed. (Life = playing good music)
Why is learning on a low-quality
practice chanter detrimental to your playing?
- Ear Training - ear training is a process
by which a musician learns when her instrument is
either in or out of tune. Teaching your ear the correct
and 'true' bagpipe scale right from the beginning
is a huge advantage. If you learn on an instrument
that is chronically out of tune, your ear will become
accustomed to that incorrect sound. Consequently,
learning to hear correct tuning is made more difficult.
Bagpipes are in constant need of tuning and training
your ear to hear the slightest deviations in pitch
and tone is essential, right from the begining.
- Hole Size and Placement - Many poorly designed
practice chanters, and practice chanters which are
twenty or more years old, have holes which are flat
to the chanter, making proper finger placement difficult
*Note: I am not saying that all old chanters are
of poor quality. Quite the contrary. Many old chanters
are very well made and good-sounding. But I am of
the opinion that they are more difficult to learn
Most quality practice chanters these days have finger
holes that are 'countersunk' or recessed, and placed
in such a way as to closely resemble the hole spacing
of a bagpipe chanter.
This is important because when the time comes to begin
playing the actual bagpipe and its chanter, it can
be quite a stretch to cover those big holes. Pipe
chanter holes are much larger in diameter and are
often spaced differently than on the practice chanter,
especially on the bottom hand.
Beginners often have trouble finding and covering
the holes completely. Recessed holes are much easier
to feel and will cut down on the frustration caused
by fingers slipping and making strange noises.
To the right is a snapshot of three chanters. The
middle chanter is a pipe chanter, the other two are
practice chanters. The one farthest to the left is
an older practice chanter made in the 1960s, the one
to the far right is a modern practice chanter with
recessed holes and accurate finger spacing. Click
here for a closer look.
- Frustration - the bagpipe is a demanding
and exacting instrument. The technique required to
execute bagpipe fingerings and embellishments is considerable.
Trying to make good music on a bad instrument is a
maddening experience and frustration with a shoddy
chanter may cause someone to just plain give up. Even
an accomplished player would have a hard time producing
a decent sound on a low quality practice chanter.
Countless times I have switched chanters with a student
and watched their eyes go wide with amazement at how
easy and enjoyable my practice chanter is to play
compared to theirs. Sometimes that is all it takes
to convince someone that they really do need to get
a new chanter. Maybe I should go into the practice
Practice Chanter Reeds
The most important part of any woodwind instrument
is its reed. The practice chanter is no different. There
are many quality practice chanter reeds on the market
today and it is well worth the seven dollars to choose
one of these reeds.
A good reed can make even a low-quality practice chanter
sound decent - and much more enjoyable to play.
Not all reeds work in all chanters. Sometimes they
need to be manipulated - sanded, clipped, etc. These
things can be done by your instructor or piping shop
Below are some reeds that I have had good results with
and that will sound good in a variety of practice chanters.
Some Quality Reeds:
Full-Size or "Long" Practice Chanters
Full-size practice chanters have often
been considered a step-up from regular chanters. You
can distinguish a Full-size chanter by its length -
usually several inches longer than a regular-size chanter.
- The hole spacing is often closer to that of a pipe
- The tone is usually better and more resonant
- They are often made of African Blackwood, insead
of polypenco and are generally of better workmanship.
- They can be more comfortable to play sitting at
a table because they are long enough that you can
rest the end on the table without having to slouch.
- They can easily cost twice or three times what you
would pay for a regular-size, polypenco chanter.
Things to look for in a quality practice chanter
- Price - in this instance, you get what you
pay for. A quality practice chanter should cost somewhere
around $50-$75. The higher end models will be in the
$100-$200 range. A $25 practice chanter is usually
not worth the trouble of getting out your wallet.
- Maker - A practice chanter is a musical instrument.
If you consider the workmanship that should go into
making an instument, a practice chanter should be
no different than a flute or violin. Pick a chanter
from a reputable maker that values his/her work. Do
some research online or better yet, ask your bagpipe
instructor or piping supply shop owner what they recommend.
I make some recommendations at the end of this article.
- Sound - Each brand will sound a bit different,
but a quality chanter should have a warm, rich tone,
robust volume and a true scale from top to bottom.
- Looks - Inspect the chanter for manufacturing
flaws like loose bits of wood or plastic in the holes
and sawdust up the bore. You also want an instrument
that you will be proud of. A polypenco practice chanter
is really a utilitarian model, but it can still look
nice. As a general rule, stay away from chanters made
from light colored woods. Go for the dark brown to
naturally black wood - not heavily stained or laquered
- Smell - It's true. Cheapo practice chanters
smell funny. The orange-colored chanter pictured above
will have the sickly sweet smell of Cocus Wood. Stained
Cocus wood smells like a mix of cedar, bacon and glue.
If only websites were scratch-and-sniff.
Practice chanters I recommend...
One chanter I recommend is the Gibson "Standard"
chanter. It has beautiful tone, nicely spaced, countersunk
holes and I have had nothing but good results with it.
99% of my students play the Gibson practice chanter
and after trying many brands, my entire pipe band purchased
matched Gibson practice chanters to enhance our rehearsal.
For photos, description and sound samples, visit www.gibsonpipes.com
. They can be purchased locally at the Tartan
Other reputable brands of chanters are Naill,
Dunbar, Walsh and
Kron. There are probably others I am
missing here, but these makers are known to produce
good quality chanters. Another very popular chanter
is made by "Tru-Tone". The
last time I checked, Tru-Tone chanters were on the less-expensive
end of things. However, a Tru-Tone with a good reed
can sound just fine and may be a good starter chanter
for someone not wanting to drop $55 on a practice chanter
Bagpipes are an ancient and beautiful instrument. They
are also said to be one of the most difficult to learn
and to play. The practice chanter is your first step
on the road to learning the pipes. Shouldn't that first
step be made in a comfortable and well-made shoe? To
continue my metaphorical message I'll say that I hope
your bagpipe journey is a long and rewarding one.
Pick the right tool for the job.
I believe that the move from the practice chanter to
the bagpipes should be as comfortable as possible. If
you are even the least bit serious about learning to
play the Great Highland Bagpipes, do not buy a poor
quality practice chanter. You will save yourself much