Improvement in piping is about incremental progress. It’s frustrating when you work hard and you never seem to get any better, but the truth is that you’re improving whether you realize it or not. Try an experiment sometime: record something you’re working, then record it again in a few months, and compare. You’ll see progress, I promise.
Sometimes, though, change can come much more rapidly. Maybe it’s a new way of thinking about an embellishment or a tune. A statement from your instructor might just make everything make sense, or a bit of wisdom from a fellow player might make it suddenly click. That’s not to say that you’re ready to play for a gold medal, but there’s a steeper slope in your improvement curve that really helps your playing.
A change to your instrument can also help. Maybe a new chanter is the ticket: it has just the right tone, or the shape or hole spacing is just different enough that it fits your hands better. A new reed might do it too. I’ve had some chanter reeds that are a joy to play, that make the whole chanter resonate under your fingers like it’s alive. If you find one of those, hold on to it for as long as you can.
What did it for me recently was new drone reeds. For almost all of my piping career, I had played eZee drones. They’re a great reed, and they served me well for many years. At the beginning of this year, however, I decided to make a change. Based on a recommendation that they would work well with my pipes, I went for Crozier drone reeds with glass fiber tongues. [Note: apparently the glass fiber reeds are no longer available. From what I’ve read the carbon fiber tongues are equally stable but a little buzzier]
It took about a week of playing for the reeds to settle in, and they have been fantastic. In short, they have the holy trinity of requirements for drone reeds: they are easy to work with, sound great, and stay in tune.
They’re as easy to set up and adjust as the eZee drones, unlike some others that require a hex wrench and seem to need their own pit crew. At first I had trouble getting them in tune and almost gave up. I finally figured out that they have a much wider harmonic range than the Ezees, and I wasn’t used to hearing that when tuning. Once my ear developed a bit I was able to get them in tune, and when I did it was a “Holy geez” moment. My pipes have never sounded better.
There were two correlated benefits that came from these reeds. The first is that I really had to fine-tune my chanter to blend with the drone harmonics, resulting in a much more refined bagpipe sound. The second is that they are less susceptible to changes in blowing pressure, and I’ve had to learn how to blow to keep the chanter in tune with them. So changing my drone reeds has led to an overall improvement in my pipe sound.
It’s paying off in competition, too. I won the first competition I played with them, and that was the first piobaireachd competition in which my pipes were fully in tune at the end. In a more recently competition, the judge told me after the event that of the eight players in the event there were only two people whose drones started in tune and stayed that way, and mine were one of them.
So for me, this has been a great investment in my piping, and is a reminder that what has worked in the past isn’t necessarily the best option.