Practice Chanter vs. Great Highland Pipes
“Great Highland Bagpipes” (GHB) is the name given to the large, loud instruments consisting of three drone pipes, a blow pipe, and chanter. Some beginners imagine themselves immediately picking up a set of Great Highland Pipes and learning and practicing their newly learned rudiments. Luckily for their friends and loved-ones, this is not how bagpipers learn the pipes. Pipers, who are known for their gallantry and consideration for the discerning ear of the public, have adopted the tradition of learning and practicing their music on a smaller and much quieter instrument called the “practice chanter“.
The practice chanter, or “PC” is designed to approximate the chanter of the Great Highland Pipes, however there are some notable differences. First, the PC is mouth-blown. There is no bag to inflate. While this means that the PC is much more portable, it also means that the piper must stop playing to take breaths*. Next, the holes that control the pitch of the chanter (the “notes”) are much smaller on the PC. This can make it difficult for the beginner piper to feel the holes beneath their fingers. To help alleviate the frustration this causes, many PCs have counter-sunk holes. This makes the holes easier to feel and more like those on the Great Highland Pipe chanter.
“Long” Length vs. “Regular” Length vs. “Youth” Length Practice Chanters
Practice Chanters come in various lengths. The “Regular” or “Standard” length practice chanter is the traditional choice. These length strikes a balance between portability, approximation of the GHB chanter. The “Long” length is meant to provide the piper with a closer approximation to the feel of the GHB chanter. The holes on the “Long” PC are spaced further apart which forces the piper to develop the “finger reach” necessary to play the GHB. There are sacrifices with the “Long” PC however in tone. The “Long” PC is often difficult to tune when trying to play with other pipers who are playing “Regular” PCs. Finally, the “Youth” or “Child” length chanter has its holes set closer together. This is meant to help a child learn the pipes without the frustration caused by small hands whose fingers cannot properly cover all of the holes at the same time. There are two main drawbacks of the “Youth” PC. First, the “Youth” length PC is very high-pitched and cannot be played with other pipers without significant tuning. Second, the piper who learns the rudiments on this length PC must overcome the challenge (and expense) of transitioning to a “Regular” or “Long” length chanter at some point and then to the GHB chanter.
Both the GHB chanter and the PC make sound when air, forced by pressure generated by the blowing of the piper, travels between two parallel pieces of material. The two pieces of material flex in response to the pressure and strike each other. This generates sound. The apparatuses that facilitate the two pieces of material are called “Reeds”. The reed of the GHB is made of a type of
woody material called “cane”**. The reed of the PC is made of plastic. PC reeds generally last about a year. I prefer Gibson brand PC reeds. The beginning piper should have at least one spare PC reed on-hand at all times.
See my links for sources of bagpipe supplies. I generally recommend Henderson Imports for their outstanding customer service and quick shipping.
*Circular breathing can be employed but this is not normally used by beginner pipers
**Plastic GHB reeds have come into some use in the past few years. They are terrible. We shall never speak of them.