Yes, practice chanters are most commonly used in practice, but this isn’t a license to skimp on quality. After all, musicians may not move on to playing bagpipes for up to two years, and that’s a long time to be sentenced to an instrument with inferior sound and performance. Furthermore, pipers use practice chanters quite often, even long after they’ve mastered the pipes.
Fortunately, a well-made practice chanter isn’t out of most musicians’ budgets. The range will be between $50 to $200.
Look for Recessed or Counter-Sunk Holes in a Practice Chanter
One important feature musicians will want to check for are recessed or countersunk holes. This recent innovation makes fingering much easier.
Poorly made chanters often have small holes, and these are nearly impossible to feel while playing. This frustration will certainly slow down a piper’s progress.
Find a Quality Practice Chanter With a True Scale
Poorly-made practice chanters are likely to be incapable of playing a scale in tune. This problem will not only make practice sessions miserable, but it will affect a musician’s future progress on the pipes. This is because learning to identify the chanter’s scale by ear is an essential step toward playing bagpipes.
Evaluating the scale of a practice chanter will be challenging for a beginner. This is because the chanter’s nine-note scale–from low G to high A—contains intervals which vary from the familiar Western diatonic scale. These variations ensure that all the notes harmonize with the drones on a set of pipes.
Further complicating matters, the absolute pitch will vary among instruments from different makers. Two well-made chanters may have true scales, but sound out of tune when played together. For this reason, musicians who will be taking group lessons or playing with a band should ask their instructor’s opinion on an instrument which will work with others in the group.
If musicians have the good fortune to pick out their practice chanter in person, they can try several brands. Each will have a slightly different sound, but good volume, a warm tone and a true scale are essential.
Standard vs. Long Practice Chanters
Practice chanters are available in three sizes: small, standard, and long. The small chanters are made for children. Adults will purchase either a standard or long chanter. Long practice chanters are a few inches longer than standard chanters and have become popular because the spacing of their holes resembles the fingering of a bagpipe chanter more accurately.
The standard chanters are traditional and will serve as good preparation for a full set of pipes, but the long practice chanters seem to have surpassed them in popularity. Some claim the long practice chanters are more resonant, though the difference in sound between instruments of the same brand is virtually unnoticeable. The extra few inches of long chanters conveniently allows musicians to rest the instrument on their knee while playing.
Blackwood Practice Chanters and Polypenco
Practice chanters are either made of wood or a very durable machined plastic known as delrin or polypenco. Blackwood chanters are not all high-end instruments, and polypenco chanters are not synonymous with cheap.
Polypenco chanters are actually a good option. They are more affordable, virtually indestructible, and immuned to splitting and cracking. Though polypenco chanters are certainly less expensive, musicians should still be prepared to pay at least $50. Even when purchasing a non-wooden chanter, it’s important to shop from reputable makers such as Walsh, Gibson, Dunbar, Kron, and Naill.
Wooden practice chanters are generally made from a hardwood known as African blackwood. It can’t be stressed enough that in a practice chanter’s case, wood does not equal quality. Many sharp-looking wooden chanters are mass produced and sold at lower prices to entice spontaneous musicians in gift shops, at highland games, or in online stores. Unfortunately, these will most likely cost buyers more in frustration than the money saved is worth.
As with any instrument, careful research should be the first step before making a purchase. Musicians set on owning a wooden chanter should certainly avoid practice chanters made from lighter colored woods such as rosewood or caucus wood.
Before committing to a wooden practice chanter, musicians will want to remember that these require a bit more maintenance than polypenco models because temperature, humidity, and moisture can all cause wood to swell or shrink. When the wood on the inside of an instrument expands at a faster rate than the wood on the outside due to the warmth and moisture from a player’s breath, a crack may develop. For this reason, it’s very important to purchase wooden chanters from makers who offer warrantees or stand behind their work. Naill, Gibson, Walsh, Kron, and Dunbar are all excellent options.
Many blackwood chanters are offered with polypenco mouthpieces. For musicians who aren’t set on purchasing an all-wood instrument, the combination can work well.
Ornamentation on a Practice Chanter
The ornamentation on a practice chanter is one area which has absolutely no effect on the instrument’s sound or performance. Silver ferrules, imitation ivory soles, and engraving are all nice to look at, but drive the price up significantly.
How to Find a Good Reed for the Practice Chanter
Because the sound a chanter makes is created by the vibration of a double reed, the quality of this tiny reed is every bit as important as the quality of the instrument itself. Musicians can invest under $10 in a nice reed and, with care, it should last for many years.
Some trustworthy brands of reeds include Abbott, Gibson, Walsh, and Watson. Certain reeds sound best in particular chanters, so musicians should ask for advice when making a purchase.
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