How hard should your chanter reed be to blow?
Despite what you may have heard in your travels with different instructors and bands in the past, the answer to this question is remarkably straightforward...
Your reed should never be 'too hard' to blow (as in 'difficult'). Your bagpipes should always be comfortable to play.
However, that doesn't mean that they should be 'easy' (as in 'a walk in the park'), either. No slackers allowed here!
Your ideal reed – and this will differ for every individual piper – should be as hard as you can play without any other aspects of your bagpiping dropping in quality as a result.
So if you can't blow a reed without sacrificing the accuracy and control of your fingerwork, the steadiness of your tone, your ability to tune your drones, or any other aspect of your playing for a reasonable amount of time, you can guarantee that your reed is too hard for you.
This is something I like to call the 'intensity threshold' – that is, the maximum level of any skill that you can push to without sacrificing any of your 'form'.
Weightlifting is often used as an analogy to demonstrate this concept (so rather than reinventing the wheel, I'm going to use it as well!). Any personal trainer will tell you that if you want to gain muscle and improve at the gym, the best way to do that is to lift as heavy a weight as you can without risking injury.
So what does 'injury' look like on the bagpipes? Well, for starters, and in very real terms, playing a 'gut-buster' reed (either because of your own machismo or because your instructor has a very misinformed mindset about reed selection), can physically injure you. You can cause actual muscle damage or even get hernias (if you're already susceptible to them) from playing a too-hard reed.
I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like much fun at all to me.
We can easily apply this 'intensity threshold' to other aspects of our piping too. For example, how fast do you think you should play your tunes? The vast majority of pipers launch into playing them too quickly, and in the process sacrifice the clarity and accuracy of their rhythm and fingerwork.
Even in this case, you’re risking permanent bagpipe injury. I know what you're thinking: how can playing too fast cause you an injury? Will I get a handsprain? Pshhhh, come on...
Well, here's what a 'tempo' injury looks like: bad habits. Playing too fast for your ability level will ingrain poor playing habits very quickly, and you'll be doing damage to your technique that will take years to undo – just like a bad injury if you were pushing yourself too hard on the weight bench.
Once again, the answer for tempo should always be: play as quickly as you can play without sacrificing form. So in this case, you should find the tempo which you can comfortably play all rhythms, notes, and embellishments perfectly accurately, and then use that as a starting pointing to keep pushing the limits of your threshold (i.e. increase the tempo, slowly and methodically).
Now, a common intensity dilemma for beginner and intermediate pipers if when you're being pushed to play faster than you're capable of at band practice. So what can you do in this case? The best approach would be to simplify your tunes – strip away some of the technique you're not yet capable of playing at that tempo, by removing embellishments and harder rhythms.
And if your pipe major is both happy to push you and not happy to let you simplify your tunes – it's probably time to move on to find a pipe major who cares about your 'bagpipe health' and development as a musician.
As your form gets better, you’ll be able to play with higher intensity if you wish to. You’ll be able to play harder tunes faster, and you’ll be able to play a bigger, badder bagpipe.
For rapid improvement, make sure you’re playing at the correct intensity for you at all times. Try to always stay in that perfect notch where the intensity intersects with your current technical ability.
If you're a Dojo student, make sure you've worked your way through our 11 Commandments of Mastery course, and then start looking at our Tune of the Week each week as part of the Bagpipe Freedom program.
If you're not yet a Dojo Student, we'd love to welcome you! You can take the 11 Commandments course, which covers the 11 essential mindset tweaks - including how to operate at the right intensity - you'll need to prepare yourself for mastery, or explore our monthly membership options and join us as a student, where you can work towards bagpipe freedom in a guided way with hundreds of other pipers around the world cheering you on!