A frequent question I receive about practice strategies concerns what percentage of your practice time should be split between pipes and practice chanter.
I think most people would like to hear that they should play their chanter a lot more that their pipes, but the truth is exactly the opposite.
Beginners and intermediates will spend most of their time on chanter because they are learning the basics. Beginners don’t even have pipes yet. At that stage they are learning their first tunes and figuring out fingering and technique, and all of that is best done on chanter.
Once you’re past that stage, you should play your chanter when you have a specific reason to: memorizing a tune, improving technique, or trying to refine the expression of a tune. Too many pipers default to chanter because it’s easier than pipes, and they fool themselves into thinking they are doing more good for their piping than they actually are.
When I was actively competing and trying hard to improve, I played my chanter a lot. But it was for very specific reasons. I was learning lots of new material, including piobaireachds and band tunes, and I was working very hard on my technique, playing exercises that would eventually become Rhythmic Fingerwork.
I would spend 45 minutes playing these exercises three or four times a week. This was done in addition to my bagpipe playing, not instead of. As my technique got better (and it did very quickly with all that exercise playing) I discovered I was able to finesse my expression better than I could before. So I also spent time on chanter playing tunes into a recording machine then listening back to see how I could further improve my music. That was fun, because, while I was no Gordon Walker, my fingers would now do mostly what I wanted them to do. (I often find when I’m teaching, that what often appears to be an expression problem is really a technique problem. The player — and sometimes they are very good players — just doesn’t have the facility with the technique to play the required expression.)
The above was all work that was best done on chanter, not pipes, though I was continuing to practice my pipes from 45-90 minutes 5-6 days a week during the competing season.
These days, things are much different. All that chanter work many years ago was like money in the bank, and I still live off the interest. Today, I play my chanter only when I’m learning new tunes, teaching classes, or running a chanter practice. All of my serious playing gets done on pipes.
Often I even learn new tunes on pipes. You know that first 10 minutes of your practice time when your pipes are unsteady and your fingers are cold and you play through some tired old 4/4 marches to get things going? Use that time better. Set up a music stand, put the sheet music on it, and use that first 10 minutes to memorize tunes. If you’re blowing in a new reed, shut your drones off and learn a tune while you’re doing it. Memorize while you blow in that reed.
The message I’d like you to get here is that my practice was on chanter or pipes according to what I needed, and that has changed over time. Your practice should be about what you need to improve your playing. It may be on chanter; it may be on pipes. But don’t take the lazy way out.