Chanter Pitch: Why Grades 3, 4, 5 aren’t Grade 1
[Originally published as an Editorial]
It’s time that a piping judge sounded the alarm for lower-grade bands setting their chanters so sharp, so here it is: stop setting your chanter pitch so sharp! It’s insipid! Discussions range endlessly about why the pitch of the Highland bagpipe chanter continues to rise.
When I was in my teens in the late 1960s and early ’70s – just as tuning meters were coming into vogue – Grade 1 and 2 bands tuned between 468 and 472 hz. (as read on a Korg CA-30 tuner, not the CA-20, which is not an absolute scale). Since then, chanter pitch has climbed unabated. For a while it seemed like 480 would be the ceiling, but Grade 1 bands at the World Championships last August were in some cases set above 484. In truth, those bands sounded great. A top-flight Grade 1 band has the pick of chanters and reeds, 15-25 players who are experts in managing and playing their pipes and blowing tone.
They have a pipe-major and “sound men” who are able to stand back from the band and judge correctly whether or not the band sounds good. In short, good Grade 1 bands can pull it off. However, in recent years, judges of lower-grade bands have begun to remark how the general quality of sound in Grade 3 and lower has begun to exceed a comfortable listening level.
Even when the pipes are set well together, these bands sound shrill and grating. The top hands are thin and piercing, and harmonic blend with the drones is non-existent. The slightest alteration in blowing by any pipers results in screaming top-hand notes that demolish the overall performance in short order. For these bands, there is nothing to gain and everything to lose by continuing to chase the Grade 1 pitch. In defence of these bands, it is not always the number on the tuning meter that they are pursuing. They are simply buying the same chanters and reeds that the top bands use, and with good reason.
However, it is in their best interests – speaking in terms of competitive success and good taste – to pay attention to the pitch they are achieving and to make every effort to keep it in the 474-478 range. Of course, this can be difficult using chanters and reeds made to be played between 478 and 482. When a band comes out at 473 or 474 and receives comments like “dull pipes” on the score sheet, they sometimes mistakenly assume it’s because the pitch was low. More often it’s because in an inexpert effort to get a lower pitch by just lifting the reeds, they’ve acquired some flat notes – C, D, F, high A – which in its way is just as bad as being shrill.
Maybe it’s time an enterprising chanter maker started making two models: the “Four-Eighty-Two” and the “Four Seventy-Four.” No, I’m not joking. In fact, maybe 474 isn’t low enough. I run a high school pipe band in Aurora, Ontario, that in the spring of each year fields 25 pipers. We’re a non-competing-band playing at a Grade 3 or 4 level. We play pieces with our Concert Band, and in order to be in tune with them we have to tune our low A as close to B-flat (466) as we can.
We manage, with chanter alterations, to get to 469. Well, when those 25 pipers take to the field in spring at that pitch for our Annual Cadet Inspection, the sounds of glory just fill the campus. It’s loud, the top hands are vibrant and full, the boys have no trouble blowing them in tune, and the drone and chanter blend shakes the ground. It’s my own wonderful, personal refuge from the prevailing pitch of the competition circuit.
If our Concert Band ceased to exist tomorrow, our pipe band wouldn’t change a thing. So, the message from this piping judge to Grade 3, 4, and 5 bands is this: just as you wouldn’t think of playing the medleys the Grade 1 bands play, think twice about playing their pitch. The popularity of pipe bands will be better for it.
Jim McGillivray heads the piping program at St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario. He has won both Highland Society of London Gold Medals, the Clasp and the MSR at the Glenfiddich. He’s on the PPBSO and RSPBA judging panels and has been a contributor to this publication for many years.
Yes! I agree with you whole-heartledly, Jim. For the past four or five summers, I have taught bagpiping at the Vernon Army Cadet Summer Training Centre. As the Senior Piping Instructor for most of my tenure, and the Director of Pipes and Drums this past year, I have been responsible for setting up the Senior Pipes and Drums — the band who plays on parade. This band performs as an autonomous unit at times, but also in an ensemble with the Military (Brass and Reed Band). Vernon is an extremely hot, dry climate (as is the entire Okanagan Valley. In my first two years, it was very common for me to start tuning the band at 476 (where the Grade 2 band I had been playing with, started). Due to the heat and length of playing time, the pitch would often soar to 480 or higher in no time. This produced horrendous top hands, and made the ensemble with the Military Band sound abyssmal. I began to re-think my strategy, and over the next couple of years, I would tune the band progressively lower – first, to about 472-474, gradually taking the pipe corps lower. This year, I started the band at 467, almost without fail. The pitch would rise – but instead of the 4 or more cents it rose before, it was now creaping to 468 or 469. This is only about 2 or 3 cents sharp of our transposed” concert-pitch-equivalent
Another Yay vote here! I would go so far as to suggest similar advice for Grade 1 as well. I look at a band like the 78th today with gazzillion pipers and wonder what it would sound like with the old Sinclairs we were playing with Caber Feidh back in ’72; I know I used to feel the earth move with 13 of them!
how does one achieve a flater tone with a shepherd chanter and a reed that is balancing out at 480 plus
Bert: Chanters are generally made to be played within a certain pitch range, and it can be very difficult to achieve a pitch substantially flatter than the chanter was designed for. Unless you can find a reed that has been designed to go in that chanter at the pitch you want without a flat top hand, the only way to get a much flatter pitch in a given chanter is to raise the reed in the reeds seat, and then carve various holes larger — usually C, D, F, high A, maybe E and high G. This is required, because of course when you raise a reed in the reed seat, the whole pitch flattens, but the upper notes flatten more. That’s how I get Dunbars designed for 476 down to 469. You become quite expert with the Dremel tool… Cheers, Jim
Agreeing with Gerry Quigg, 13 players on Sinclairs but I would add those MacAlister reeds that took 3 to 6 weeks to brake in before you knew if you had a good one. Thats not happening today.