How to choose a practice chanter
This article marks the beginning of a series aimed at helping you to choose the right instruments and everything related to them. Remember, if you have any doubts, you can contact us via email using the address found on this website, both for clarification and advice. Of course, the beginning of the series could only be dedicated to the first instrument that a piper in training finds in his hands: the practice chanter, a kind of flute used to learn the basics of both music and instrumental technique.
Two different models of practice chanter reeds and, at the top, a disassembled practice chanter.
Let's begin by taking a look at how a practice chanter is made. As you can see in the photo on the side, the instrument is composed of the main sbody, which has holes for playing the notes, a double reed, and an upper part that serves as a mouthpiece. The reed, which traditionally was made of the same cane material as the bagpipe reeds, nowadays is almost always made of plastic. For the record, I should tell you that cane reeds still exist, but they are not widely used because they are significantly more expensive than synthetic reeds and they also last less, although the quality of their sound is clearly superior to plastic reeds. However, since it is a practice instrument, it should be noted that the beauty of the sound is only important up to a certain point, while the economic savings and ease of use of synthetic reeds are certainly much more important.
All of this brings us to another problem: the choice of material. Currently, there are both plastic and wooden models on the market, usually (but not always) made of African Blackwood, like bagpipe chanters. Clearly, wooden instruments have a more pleasant tone than plastic ones, but they also cost significantly more and are much more delicate, which makes them not recommended for beginners or pipers who frequently travel with their practice chanter.
As far as I am concerned, but of course this is a personal choice, I have always thought that it is much more important to have a high-quality plastic practice chanter than a wooden one. If the practice is of high quality, in fact, even the sound of the plastic instrument is more than pleasant, indeed, it is probably even superior to that of certain second-rate wooden practice chanters.
I would never recommend one of those low-quality plastic practice chanters that are often sold to beginners, usually as part of a cheap "starter kit." In many of those cases, the quality of the instrument is so low that the lack of beauty in the sound is often the least of the problems, although I firmly believe that even a beginner has the right to use an instrument with a pleasant sound.
Starting to play a musical instrument is already complex enough, I don't see why one should do it with a tool that instead of producing music only produces noise... Not to mention that a good practice chanter can last a lifetime, so I find it completely illogical to torture oneself with such poor quality instruments just to save a few tens of euros, because that's what we're talking about, thus risking enthusiasm for learning to play. I believe it's very difficult to be enthusiastic about playing an instrument that is unpleasant to listen to.
Once you have chosen the material, the next step is to choose the length that suits your needs. In fact, there are essentially three types of practice chanters on the market: those designed for children, usually indicated with terms like kid/child/children/junior etc., those of standard length, and the long ones.
Now, I know that there is some confusion out there. Very often, you hear people say that it's better to choose a long model because, according to many, it would have the same hole spacing as the bagpipe chanter. Actually, this belief stems from a misunderstanding: long models do have the same length as the bagpipe chanter, but this has often nothing to do with the distance between the holes, which can remain almost unchanged between standard and long practice chanters.
We can say that in some models there is actually a bit of spacing difference, and in this case it depends on the manufacturer, but often they are minimal, almost insignificant differences. Besides, even between one bagpipe chanter and another there can be differences in hole spacing, and sometimes not even so small! As you can see in the image, the real difference between standard and long practice chanters is instead that the latter have an additional portion below the lowest hole. Only models for children have holes that are significantly closer together, obviously due to their shorter fingers.
So, you may ask, what is the difference between standard and long practice chanters? How do you know which type to choose? It depends on the intended use. Since it's common practice to rest the practice chanter on something while playing to avoid having to support an unnecessary weight that would affect the relaxation of the fingers, if you have the habit of resting the practice chanter on a table it's better to choose a standard model, while if you rest it on your legs the long model is much more suitable. Personally, I have always chosen long models because I think on the fact that we don't always have a table available to play on, while we always have our legs with us, except for particular cases. But, of course, in this case, it's also a personal choice.
One last thing to consider when choosing a practice chanter is the presence or absence of the so-called Sole, a plastic or metal disk at the base of many models. Far from being purely decorative, the Sole helps to keep the chanter stable while playing, and also makes it easier to prop up the chanter somewhere standing upright when not in use, thus avoiding the mouthpiece from coming into contact with unwanted surfaces.
Therefore, we typically stock only good-quality plastic practice chanters with a Sole, as they represent the ideal compromise between sound quality and practicality, while also being reasonably priced. These instruments can accompany a piper from the beginner stage to professional level without requiring a significant investment, which is better directed towards the quality of the bagpipe itself.
The same goes for models with decorative elements: while the eye may appreciate the aesthetics, unless you have money to spare, decoration on a practice chanter is not exactly the most important thing in piping.
Let's always remember that the practice chanter, as the name suggests, remains a practice instrument, so even though it's great to have a good quality one for the reasons we've already discussed, the bagpipe is the true instrument, and it's much better to seek quality there. Unless, of course, you intend to become a practice chanter player, which unfortunately many people tend to do, but that's a different story.
I'll end with a little curiosity: since we pipers are strange creatures with our own language, if you hear one of us say that they bought a new PC, they're unlikely to be referring to a personal computer... It's much more likely that they're talking about a new Practice Chanter!
Four models of practice chanters, both long and standard, from different manufacturers (Wallace and McCallum). Note the nearly identical hole spacing, especially in the Wallace models.
Two different models of practice chanter, long and standard, without the Sole