Keeping your Uilleann reeds in tune is both a challenge and a necessity. Cane is an organic material and as such will be affected by your climate – heat and humidity. I strongly urge every piper to learn how to make reeds. Knowing that you are able to replace a reed if damaged will make you less dependent upon makers and will in the long run help you to feel more relaxed about owning and playing Uilleann pipes, notwithstanding the fact that reeds are very expensive! It will of course take a lot of time, effort and ‘pain’ as making reeds is difficult but it will definitely be worth the effort.
There are sensible precautions you can take to make reed and tuning problems less severe such as, for example, making sure that you do not leave your pipes too close to sources of central heating or exposed to direct sunlight for long periods of time. What you cannot prevent or control however is the changing heat and humidity of a session in a pub, or elsewhere, where the comings and goings of people affect the atmosphere of a room. This will lead to changes in the performance of your reeds and you might have to initiate some on-the-spot adjustments to keep your pipes in tune with everyone else.
People often ask me how long a reed will last? This is like asking how long is a piece of string as it depends upon so many factors. I have always found that the worst condition for reeds is excessive atmospheric dryness. This can lead to severe problems such as the cane drying out, consequential warping, leaking at the sides, blades closing up and your pipes being rendered unplayable. If you do happen to live in an area with very low humidity you should consider making or investing in a humidifier for the room in which you normally play. What usually happens when heat and humidity rise is that pitch will also rise therefore making you play sharp of other instruments, your reed might also close up a little making you inaudible in a crowded session. You may also notice this change in pitch happening when you have picked your pipes up at home after a few minutes of playing from cold.
When you start a playing session it is very normal for the pitch of your pipes to rise after a few minutes of playing as your reeds adjust to the temperature of the room. If playing by yourself this is not a problem, unless your chanter goes out of tune with itself as a result. The most normal adjustment to make in the case of rising pitch or if your back ‘D’ becomes sharp against low ‘D’ is to re-seat the reed higher up in the chanter socket, also known as the reed seat. This is the ‘V’ shaped area in which the reed is housed at the top end of the chanter. The rule here is very simple, the further towards the top or open end of the V socket the reed is positioned the lower the pitch of the chanter. This action will especially lower the top note(s) against the lower notes of the chanter, so, if your top ‘D’ is sharp against the low ‘D’ carefully take out the reed and wrap a little more thread around the base of the staple ( the metal tube of the reed), this will make the reed sit higher up in the socket consequently lowering the pitch of the top notes against the lower notes. Conversely, if the top note(s) are flat against the bottom remove thread so that the reed sits further down in the seat. Very small adjustments here will have marked effects and experience will eventually inform you of what adjustments to make. Always exercise great caution when exposing and handling your chanter reed as they are very fragile.
The above method of adjusting the position of the reed in its socket is the simplest and less risky adjustment to make. There is really only one other thing you can do to adjust the reed and that is either open or close the aperture of the mouth. There are other things you can do but they are more risky and involve scraping and or trimming the reed. I would not recommend either unless you know exactly what you are doing. These methods of reed adjustment are beyond the intended scope of these notes and so I will not attempt to describe them. Opening or closing the aperture at the reed mouth controls: 1)The playing pressure of the reed. 2) The volume of the chanter. 3) Tuning of the chanter. 4) Tone of the notes produced. It is the ‘Bridle’ (the wire wrapped around the lower portion of the reed) which controls mouth aperture. You will understand from the above that with combinations of reed positioning in its socket and control of the mouth aperture you will have a fair degree of control over most tuning, pressure and tonal problems you might encounter. I will offer one further word of caution here, when pipes are despatched I guarantee that they are playing properly and that reeds are in proper adjustment, you should not interfere with the reeds unless you feel that you absolutely have to. If you think there is a serious problem please contact me immediately for advice before attempting any adjustments yourself. Excessive and unnecessary opening and closing of the mouth will eventually affect the tone and condition of your reed, so do not make any adjustments unless you absolutely have to for reasons already explained. If you suspect there is a problem with the reed; perhaps you feel that the tone is not right or that it is taking too much air despite the mouth aperture seeming okay, there is one other thing to check. The reed must be airtight and you can carry out a check by doing the following: Carefully take the reed out of the chanter, hold the mouth closed between your thumb and forefinger, suck through the staple – never put the reed in your mouth and blow over the blades to make it sound. If it is airtight then everything is probably okay and it simply needs adjustment as described in these notes.
If there is a very slight leak you should not worry too much but in the event of any leak at all then simply identify where the leak is – most probably in one or both of the side seams where the two blades meet – and seal it. To seal a leak take a glue stick, which you can buy at most stationers, (this is a sticky waxy like substance used for gluing paper) and rub this into the area of the leak, it will seal it quickly and efficiently. Check also that neither of the blades has a split in the mouth end. If your reed is split it is ‘dead’. Reeds are perfectly airtight when I send them out and so if your reed is developing a leak you might suspect too much dryness in your atmosphere. As mentioned at the beginning of these notes an excessively dry climate can cause serious damage. Frequent and or radical fluctuations in ambient heat and humidity, as well as over manipulation of the reed can also cause leaking.