Years ago, I was looking through some workshop notes that an old friend of mine, Bob Worrall, had given out. Bob had a section called “Practice Chanter Champions.” It was about people who try to become good pipers by playing their practice chanters a lot. I don’t recall much about the contents of the chapter, but the title was enough to stay with me. I’m continually reminded of it in my job teaching pipes to high school kids.
Sometimes one of my boys at St. Andrew’s College will leave his pipes in my teaching room for days on end, even if he has a playing test or band gig coming up. At first, I figured these guys thought I was stupid: they could leave their pipes under my nose and I wouldn’t figure out that they weren’t practicing. But then I noticed that if I opened the case up, the pipes were there, but the practice chanter and music weren’t. They were presumably practicing, just not on the pipes.
I now use analogies to dissuade them of this. I tell them that trying to be a good piper by playing only the practice chanter is like trying to be a good hockey player by shooting a tennis ball against your garage door. Or like trying to make the PGA tour by playing a round of mini-golf every day. Or like trying to make the NFL by throwing a sponge football around with your sister.
They laugh heartily at this.
You can be a good practice chanter player by playing the pipes all the time, but playing the chanter does not make you a piper. The physical demands of the bagpipe are immense — strength, co-ordination, and the pure skill required to do several difficult things at once. I often hear my boys play tunes very well on chanter, but then they move to pipes and play ahead of the beat, with inaccurate and missed technique, and out of tune. Worse yet, they make strange sounds: squeaks, skirls, chokes and gurns on low G. Their fingers don’t work so well and they blow unsteadily. “Sir,” they say, “my pipes are making funny noises.”
I laugh heartily at this.
Don’t get me wrong: there is a time and place for the practice chanter. But if you want to be a piper, that won’t do it: ya gotta play them pipes!