A litmus test is a chemistry technique that measures something’s acidity, but the term is more commonly used to describe a question that uses a single indicator to measure something.
In today's application, the big question here is: ‘is my chanter reed the right strength for me?’
While teaching and running bands for years and years, I constantly butted up against a huge problem – players would always complain about how hard their reeds were, and being unable to produce good sound as a result. But I’d personally tried all of their reeds, and I knew they weren’t too hard, so what was the big deal?
Well, of course, the ‘big deal’ was that each and every piper on the planet has a different capacity for reed strength depending on a wide variety of factors. Are your lips strong? Is your arm weak? Is your diaphragm muscle developed? Are you in good physical shape? Have you been playing regularly? Do you have an injury or illness?
Put together, these factors contribute to an impossible-to-predict capability of each piper to blow any one specific reed.
Finally, after decades of teaching and struggling with this issue, I finally had a startling realization: “I know that this reed I am currently playing is comfortable for me. If I measure how long I can blow this reed with my mouth, I can determine how long others should be able to blow their reeds with their mouths.”
And thus the ‘Scotland the Brave’ reed-strength litmus test was born.
The Scotland the Brave Litmus Test
It works like this… With your lips on the winding of the reed, not touching the blades, play the first line of ‘Scotland the Brave’ at a normal playing tempo. If you do not play Scotland the Brave yet, play 16 beats of any tune you know. Another option is to hold a low A for 16 counts (or approximately 16 seconds).
You should be able to play the full 16 beats without needing a new breath. You’ll be very winded by the end, but you should be able to keep the reed going that long in order for it to be ultimately sustainable in your pipes.
If you cannot get to the second line of ‘Scotland the Brave’ (the full 16 beats), the reed is too hard. If so, move on to a different one. I strongly advise resisting the temptation to manipulate your reed to try to make it easier – 9 times out of 10, beginners and intermediates do more harm than good in this department. Just find a reed that passes the litmus test in its original state!
Meanwhile, if you are able to play more than the first line in one breath, that means that the reed is too easy. It might be tempting to hold on to an easier reed, thinking it will make your pipes easier to play, but beware – that way of thinking is a trap. Playing a reed that is too easy for you is likely to result in squeaks and squawks riddling your playing from overblowing, plus your reed is likely to be needlessly unstable, and you also won’t gain any reed-blowing strength or stamina in the long run. Move on to another one.
If you just make it to the end of the line before you run out of air – that reed is perfect for you!
And that’s the litmus test for you. Nowadays, when band members or students have me pick out new reeds for them, I always ask them to do this test before they plug the reed into their pipes. I can instantly tell if a reed will work for them using this method.