Practice Chanters: Picking a Good One
The Great Highland Bagpipes are loud, very loud. And they can take a lot of work to play - so all pipers, new students and old students alike, have and play a practice chanter.
Bagpipes have three drones and one chanter - the chanter is where your hands go, and it's the pipe from which the melody comes. But they're big, and the reeds that play in them are very loud and take a lot of air. So when learning tunes and for a lot of practice, pipers use their practice chanter.
Your practice chanter is a learning tool, certainly, but it's also an instrument unto itself. You don't have to spend a fortune to get a good one, but you also want to avoid buying something that's more glorified firewood than a musical instrument.
I remember when a friend's daughter was learning to play violin. She was very young, and my friend wasn't sure she'd stick with it, so he got the absolute cheapest violin he could find - a $21 construction of thin-veneered balsa wood and guitar strings cut-short. His daughter went to violin lessons for three weeks, but still sounded terrible when practicing at home.
Frustrated, my friend asked the teacher how long it would take before his daughter could make something that at least resembled music. The teacher responded: about as long as it takes you to spend more than $21 on her instrument". He purchased an $80 instrument, and her playing immediately improved. More importantly: his daughter finally began to enjoy learning to play music. Previous to holding a decent instrument, the experience had been one of frustration and disappointment for her. A cheap violin in the hands of a virtuoso will produce something far more beautiful than a Stradivarius in my own hands ever could. (I don't play violin). So I'm not saying you have to spend a fortune on a luxury practice chanter. But spending a little more to get a decent instrument is certainly advisable.
THINGS TO AVOID:
this list is not exhaustive nor authoritative, but these are good general rules of thumb
-Avoid any practice chanter that costs less than $40, that's generally a benchmark line, quality practice chanters simply aren't produced for less than that (typically).
-Avoid rose wood chanters, they are usually mass-produced with little attention to detail. I've had students show up with rose wood chanters that hadn't even been bored-out completely. Aside from rarely playing very well, (notes out of tune, leaking air, etc.) they usually have rough interiors, which soak-up spit and get moldy quickly. Most luxury chanters are made from wood, but specifically hard woods such as African Black Wood, Cocobolo, Purple Heart, etc.
-Beware the, "black wood," chanter, sometimes sneaky sellers take a cheap rose wood practice chanter, paint it black, and put it up for sale as a, "black wood," chanter - I mean, it is wood, and it is black, but it's not African Black Wood, you see...
THINGS TO LOOK FOR:
-Plastic is good, it seems counterintuitive, but most chanters that are both affordable and of good quality are going to be made of dense plastic. Often polyoxymethylene, which is often shortened to, "polypenco," or simply, "poly". You might see these referred to as, "poly practice chanters".
-Buy from a reputable source, ask pipers you know - the local pipe band, bagpipe groups on Facebook, etc. If the source is reputable, they probably only sell quality products
*Side-note: if you're embarking into this crazy bagpiping world, you should consider joining the Bob Dunsire forum, arguably the largest and best online forum for bagpiping enthusiasts
-Does it come with a reed? if not, buy one, you'll need one, (might not be a bad idea to buy a spare or two)
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT:
-Does it have, (and do you want,) a spit-trap? these are sometimes referred to as, "water traps". I suppose this is less yucky-sounding than, "spit-trap". Moisture control systems are sometimes built-in to chanters, sometimes they're removable, and sometimes chanters don't have one at all. It's not a requisite, but give it a little thought
-Sizing, practice chanters usually come in three sizes:
Junior/child sized, appropriate for people with hands the size of an average 6-10 year old child.
Standard, as the name implies, this is, "normal," and can work for a young teen or centenarian.
Long, these chanters vary a bit, but in general they are simply longer than standard sized chanters. In my personal experience, most pipers eventually end up getting a Long chanter. Some folks prefer the sound over Standard sized chanters. Usually the finger-hole-spacing on Long chanters is closer to that of a full-sized bagpipe chanter, which can be an advantage for practice.