Sharing from Anddrew Douglas at Pipers Dojo: The following is another excerpt from Transitioning to the Pipes. Even if you're no longer a beginner, read this with a "beginner's mind" and you may find a big bagpipe breakthrough is around the corner by adopting this simple strategy to find a reed that's the right strength for you.
When you’re beginning, it can be really hard to get a reed that’s easy enough to use during the development process.
Because we’re still new to the process of blowing and squeezing, and maintenance, and posture, etc -- we really want to make sure we have a nice easy-to-blow reed that allows us to work on our instrument technique without well... passing out!
If you’re trying to learn bagpipes on your own, without a teacher by your side, there are a few things you can do to ensure you’re not starting with a chanter reed that’s too hard.
Good: Find an expert teacher or peer to help you for a few lessons at this stage.
Even better: find someone who knows the Dojo U method!
If you can’t do either of these: Go to a bagpipe shop in person and ask the piper there to help you pick and easy beginner reed. Do the litmus test (explanation forthcoming) right there in the shop to make sure it’s a good reed for you.
If you can’t do that either: Find an online retailer that has a good return policy (and quick customer service) to send you a “super easy beginner reed.” Order 6 reeds in the hopes that you’ll keep 2 or 3, and send reeds that are too hard back.
Once you have a nice easy reed, let’s confirm that it’s indeed easy enough. Here is the reed strength litmus test I still perform to this day to make sure my reed is the right strength for me:
The Reed-Strength Litmus Test
With my lips on the staple of the reed, I play the first line of Scotland the brave at a normal tempo (not too fast, of course). I should just make it to the end of the line before I run out of air!
If you have to give yourself a hernia to get yourself to the end of the line, the reed is too hard.
If the reed is too hard, move on to a different one. Don’t try to shave or carve the reed - you’ll do more harm than good (and waste money!)
Andrew is a prolific practitioner of the bagpipe, having been active at the highest level of pipe bands, solo competition, teaching, and creative endeavors for the past 20 years. He's also the founder and creator of Dojo U and of PipersDojo.com.