The bagpipe practice chanter is a double reed woodwind instrument in appearance somewhat like that of a recorder. Although it can be played as an instrument in its own right, its main function is as an adjunct to the bagpipe. In this respect, its purpose is twofold. First, it is the instrument which one uses to learn how to play the bagpipes, before one takes up the playing of the bagpipes. Secondly, after one has learned how to play the bagpipes, the practice chanter, as its name implies, can be used as a practice instrument.
Design and construction
The practice chanter is essentially a long, thin piece of wood or plastic (in two parts) with a small diameter hole bored lengthwise through the center. Air is directed into and through this bore hole and passes over a reed, the vibration of which causes the sound. On the lower portion of the chanter, holes are bored into the instrument at right angles to the central bore hole. These holes are then covered or uncovered to produce the melody.
Practice chanters come in various sizes and can be made out of various materials. There is a short size which is designed for the smaller hands of a child. Then there is a regular size (as in the photo at right), and a long or extended length version. The longer length chanters are long enough to accommodate a melody hole spacing identical to that of the bagpipe chanter itself. On some long chanters, the melody holes are also countersunk so that the outside face of the melody holes will have the same diameter as the bagpipe chanter holes.
The central bore hole can be straight or conical in shape. The conical variety will have a larger sound hole at the base and will produce a fuller, richer sound.
Practice chanters are typically made out of a hard wood (such as African Blackwood), or plastic. The Gibson and Dunbar chanters are made out of polypenco plastic. Since there is no danger of splitting with a plastic chanter, there is no need for a sole (see below). Such chanters come either with or without a sole. In the latter case, the sole is decorative only.
The practice chanter can be played either sitting or standing. Most instructors recommend to beginners that it be played sitting, with the sole of the chanter resting on a table. This is because of the danger that otherwise the student will develop bad habits by gripping the instrument too tightly, thus hampering speed and flexibility of the fingers.
In the photo at right can be identified the main parts of the practice chanter and their functions. At right in the photo we see the top section which consists of the mouthpiece (the uppermost portion) and the reed cover (the thicker portion). The yellowish ring at the base of the reed cover is a ferrule.
The mouthpiece is the part into which the player blows. It can be made of nylon, wood, or plastic. The thicker portion of the top section (the reed cover) channels the air over the reed causing it to vibrate, which is what produces the sound. The ferrule is purely decorative. It can be made out of ivory, imitation ivory, plastic, nylon, or a metal such as silver.
The reed (shown just to the left of the top section at the top) can be made of cane or plastic. A plastic reed is shown in the photo. The two blades of the double reed vibrate against one another when air passes over them. This is what produces the sound which is then channeled down into and through the bottom section of the chanter which is shown just to the right of the ruler (provided for scale) in the photo.
The bottom section of the chanter is the portion which produces the melody. The melody results from the covering and uncovering of small holes drilled into the core of the chanter at precisely determined intervals. At the very top of this section is the stock into which the reed is inserted. The stock is wrapped with yellow hemp the function of which is to create a tight fit between the top and bottom sections of the practice chanter. This occurs as a result of the hemp absorbing moisture during play and swelling up. At the base of the bottom section is a yellowish ring called the sole. On a wooden chanter, such as that in the photo, the purpose of the sole is to keep the wood from splitting.
Most instructors strongly recommend that students practice with a metronome. The metronome is a device designed to keep an accurate beat. Two different types of metronome are shown in the gallery photo below - a modern electronic metronome (left) and a spring-driven pendulum type (right).
Books designed for use in learning to play the practice chanter (or the bagpipe itself) are called tutors. The three most common tutorials are shown in the photo below.