Reed making is often beset with problems. It's enough to drive us poor reed makers crazy at times. You can be happily making good reed after good reed when suddenly something goes wrong! You don't know what.
Everything looks the same. You haven't done anything different. You scratch your head. You look at the weather forecast to see if there is a storm coming. You notice the neighbour's cat McTavish looking at you through the window and wonder if the thing has put a curse on your reeds to pay you back for all the squealing sounds you have subjected the half deaf moggy to over the years. Eventually you find what is wrong, fix it and go merrily on your way. The point is that there is always a reason for the problem. You just have to know where to look and how to fix it. You are dealing with a natural organic product, cane. It sometimes behaves in a way that is unexpected and definitely not appreciated. Until somebody produces a synthetic reed that sounds identical to cane (this will never happen) we must learn how to deal with the material we have.
Like most reedmakers I have tried to remove as many variables as possible. My staples are made from brass tube and are all identical. The tongues are made from the same piece of cane ensuring that both sides have the same qualities. The equipment used to manufacture the blades incorporates a laser-mill produced template to ensure consistency. The only remaining variable is the cane itself, which can vary from very soft to very hard.
When I began reed making I decided to approach people within classical muse who play reeded instruments to get their perspective on this phenomenon. I rang the head of the woodwind department at the Royal College of Music. We spoke on many subjects relating to reeds and their instruments before touching on reed reliability. I was expecting him to say that all the reeds they received were great and that they never have a problem. Far from it. He said that on average they would receive 12 reeds from their favourite reed manufacturers and use only 3-4 of them.
It sounded very familiar. I was even more surprised to hear that he didn't consider this to be a problem. He just put it down to the ‘individual character of each reed'. All 12 reeds would work but the 3-4 chosen would display the characteristics favoured by the player. When you consider that a bassoon reed costs more than a Highland bagpipe reed and doesn't last as long, then you can see there is a big difference in attitude between those in the classical world and those who play the pipes.
One reason for this difference in attitude is the knowledge that classical woodwind players have of their reeds. Many make their own reeds and all have extensive knowledge of reed adjustment. This skill is taught hand in hand with learning how to play the instrument. I have even seen them trimming and scraping reeds during a concert, which takes a lot of confidence. This knowledge is sadly lacking in the piping community.
Of course the classical musician has an advantage over the piper. The formers reed is played directly by mouth and the shape of the opening of the reed can therefore be adjusted while playing, altering the tone. We however have to ‘hide' our reed in a chamber where it cannot be altered while playing and is subject to all sorts of climate changes.
This makes our job that much harder and, as many pipers do not have the necessary tools or knowledge to manipulate a reed as required to cope with this, it can lead to a lot of resentment and frustration.
The standard of reed produced today is as good if not better than ever. What must now be addressed is the educating of pipers in reed manipulation. The highland bagpipe has to be the most complicated instrument in the world to play properly and must be treated with a level of maintenance, care and knowledge to reflect this.
One problem all pipers have faced is the infamous F. Whether it be double toning or simply sharp or flat it seems to be the one note that causes more problems than any other. One of three things can be done to remedy this using simple tools such as a reed knife, sandpaper, pliers and a mandrel.
Double tone on F
This is very often caused by the mouth size of the reed being either too large or too small. By mouth of the reed I mean the tips of the cane looking down on the reed. After time you will get an idea of the ideal mouth size and should be able to tell just by looking at the reed. A mouth that is too large can be pinched by applying gentle pressure with pliers at the top of the staple or by squeezing the blades together with thumb and forefinger. A mouth that is too small will have to be enlarged with a mandrel.
This can be caused by either the mouth of the reed being too large or the reed being too long. If the latter is the case the reed will need to be shortened with a chisel. The reed will stiffen with shortening and may need to be eased to enable it to vibrate efficiently and be of the correct strength.
This is caused by too much cane on the tongues of the reed or the mouth being too small. If the reed mouth is good it may be too strong or tight and the tongues will therefore need to be lightened. If the mouth is too small it will need to be made larger with a mandrel.
If the reed is set too far in to the chanter the F can become unstable. The reed will need to be raised in the reed seat to compensate.
If the reed is not firmly seated with hemp the F may become unstable The correct amount of waxed hemp will have to be applied to the bottom of the reed in order to provide a suitable seat ensuring there is no contact between the metal and the wood.
When reeds are received from a reedmaker they won't necessarily be the correct strength or tune correctly in a specific chanter. This means that the reed must be altered to suit. Learning to do this without ruining the reed is one of the most important things for a piper to learn. Acquiring these skills may also save an awful lot of money.