1. Why is learning on a low-quality practice chanter detrimental to your playing?
  2. Practice Chanter Reeds
  3. Full-Size or "long" practice chanters
  4. Things to look for in a quality practice chanter
  5. Practice chanters I recommend

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?

  1. 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.

  2. 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 to learn.

    *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 on.


    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.

  3. 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 chanter business!

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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 owner.

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:

Gibson Abbott Watson Walsh

Gibson

Abbott

Watson

Walsh

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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 chanter
  • 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.

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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 woods.
  • 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.

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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 Thistle.

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 right away.

In conclusion...

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 frustration.

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Copyright © Kevin J. Auld 2005-2006, All rights reserved

 

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