Have you ever played a reed that's too hard for you?
It used to be (and in fact, still is in far too many bands that don't know any better) a common rite of passage for pipe majors to arbitrarily hand their pipers a 'gut buster' reed to break in and play.
As it turns out, though, 'gut buster' could be a painfully literal description if we're not careful…
Here at the Dojo, we often talk about playing at the right level of intensity for you - just as a weightlifter needs to push themselves slowly and carefully, while maintaining excellent form, in order to lift heavier weights; as pipers, we want to tackle the highest level of difficulty possible while maintaining good form.
The penalty for operating at a higher intensity level than we're prepared for, in any pursuit, is usually injury. In piping, we usually equate 'injury' to mean ingraining bad habits. However, as every piper knows, piping can be a very physically demanding pursuit. And as it turns out, just like for weightlifters or other athletes, pipers can also risk painful physical injuries if they push themselves too hard, especially when it comes to reed strength.
A hernia, if you're unfamiliar, is what happens when you strain so hard that your tissue and/or organs force their way through the muscle wall containing them and push outwards through the defect.
Although most hernias can be surgically repaired, they can be very painful, and usually occur where the muscle walls are already weak, especially in the belly or groin. Men can be more susceptible to certain types of hernias than women, and obesity and older age can also increase your risk of developing one.
In 1986, piper David Kennedy wrote a first-hand account of his experience with a hiatal hernia, and a 2009 medical study, which examined an otherwise healthy 65-year-old piper with no history of heavy lifting who developed a hernia after playing his pipes, found that piping could have been the cause given that "playing wind instruments is accompanied by increased intra-abdominal and intrathoracic pressure".
In both cases, although the evidence was mostly anecdotal, the doctors and researchers involved warned that excessive strain during practice or performance could lead to physical injury (or worsening physical injury if you already have it).
"Not everyone is susceptible to hernias, but if you are, it's very possible that playing a reed that's so hard that it causes you to strain, can cause a hernia," says Dr Charles Elliott, a general practitioner and piper of more than 50 years' experience from Brisbane, Australia.
"I've seen pipers experiencing hernias from playing hard reeds – hiatus hernias (which cause heartburn), and groin hernias, and I've also seen painful hemorrhoids caused this way."
If you think you might have a hernia or be at risk of developing one, you should definitely consult a doctor – we're a bagpiping school, so you definitely shouldn't take medical advice from us! – but the best way to lower your risk of this happening in the first place is to make sure you play a reed that's the right strength (and therefore the right level of intensity) for you.
If you're not sure how to do that, here's a handy guide to our Scotland the Brave chanter reed litmus test, which is a good way to find a reed in the right ballpark for you.