"An American once won a
Nobel Prize by making a rat hysterical, and the technique he used is exactly the same as
that which the reed makers are using on me."
Who among us, and this is a test, has not had the same or similar feeling as we searched for a reed that might not only provide good sound but last for a while? After we have gone through the box or the wee plastic baggie full of these things, selecting two or three that seem to show some promise, we then begin to "renovate" them. We sand, shave, open up with a poker, pinch the bottom, pinch the top, and then try to unpinch it! We wet it a bit. We dry it out. We raise it; we lower it. We even, for heaven's sake, massage it, hold it tenderly to warm it up, talk to it, beg it to respond, order it to behave, and swear at it. Throughout this process, we look at it a lot, examining it carefully and turning it this way and that as if our eyes could somehow will the thing to work. In fits of despair, we sometimes demolish it by snapping it in half, or stepping on it, or throwing it across the room. This can be very satisfying.
Even supposing the reed is whatever we classify as "half decent", we then have to get out that roll of tape or the gouger so that the individual holes on the chanter can be made smaller or larger to suit the idiosyncracies of the reed. Before playing, we have to pinch it so it's not too flat. Ten minutes later the darn thing is too sharp and has to be raised. We move some tape around, sometimes with a clear purpose and sometimes randomly so that we'll look like we know what we're doing when the Pipe Major glances over. Finally, it is "set". Two hours or two weeks later it gives up the ghost, shrieking like a banshee, completely unbalanced, brutally sharp or flat on the top or bottom hand, the possessor of the soul destroying "collapsing 'F'", or just plain ugly.
"Eventually, discouraged and mentally worn out, the rat went off its head."
Surely, this is what the mysterious but articulate "J.C.M." writing in 1948(!) in Volume 1, Number 1, of the Piping Times, was speaking of when he wrote an article entitled "This Reed Racket". Recently reprinted in the September, 1998, issue of that venerable magazine, the article shows clearly that in some respects the concerns of the pipers of 1999 are the same as those of players over 50 years ago.
This is not intended, nor should it be construed, as some kind of a blanket condemnation of reed makers. It is not. Reed problems today are fewer, I think, than they were a few years ago, as more people have learned the basics of reed manufacture and manipulation. In addition, most people (I think? I hope?) understand the difficulties of making and managing reeds. Nevertheless, as "J.C.M." neatly sums it up:
"One really good reed-maker could double the time we spend in actual playing and would raise the standard of piping by at least ten percent in a year."
Is it safe to say that, overall, reed manufacture, production and quality control have improved? What do you think?
Editor, B.C. Pipers Association Communications