Practice Chanters: Size Matters (Thanks Ben Johnson)

September 21, 2008 on 6:59 pm by Michael Grey | In Solo Piping, Stories, Tips | 2 Comments

With competitions and general busyness most Saturdays I’ve come to be a chronic Sunday reader of Canada’s Saturday Globe & Mail – a favourite newspaper. Out on the back deck this afternoon, as the setting sun of the last day of summer sort of warmed, I came across an article of interest: one that made me immediately think of a bagpiping parallel (not an entirely uncommon thing to happen – I’m slightly embarrassed to admit).

So here’s the thing: the Globe commemorated the 20th anniversary of Ben Johnson’s discounted Seoul 100 metres gold medal. Like most Canadians who were around at that time I remember precisely where I was when Ben did the business: I was in the Band Mess of my piping alma mater, the 48th Highlanders of Canada Pipes & Drums

The 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band, the band I played with at the time, was being feted by the 48th. The 78th had played a concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall that night and the 48th, ever the classy group, had invited the band to a party in their Mess at Moss Park Armouries, a few blocks down the road from Massey Hall in Toronto.

As always, the 48th hosted a great party. The TV was on, too, and the men’s Olympic 100 metre final was the object of everyone’s attention. As the race set-up the chatter in the bandroom went silent (there’s was way over 100 people jammed in the modest-sized room); I remember this clearly – all eyes on the TV. The race was off and Ben Johnson was to win in magnificent style and incredible form.

I know the 78th crew thought this an indescribable topper to an already historic and unforgetable night – the whole of the room was in full-blown Canuck ecstasy.

Blah, blah, blah… my intention today, though, is to highlight a Ben Johnson training approach:

Ben’s training, like much of the training taken by the great Jamaican (or Canadian-Jamaican) sprinters, happened on pretty basic tracks – grass tracks, in fact.

Said Ben Johnson’s coach at the time, “Up to a certain point, the softer the surface you train on, the more springy your tendons can become. Both times when there was no track, we found almost immediately you could move to faster times when you got back on a track…”

So here’s MY thing: I have always been a proponent of “regular-sized” practice chanters. I was brought up on the “small” practice chanter. I always knew the “small” practice chanter as a regular practice chanter: the large, so-called full-sized chanters are a phenomenon mostly of the 1990s onwards. Today, “full-sized” or large practice chanters are the norm, just the way things are.

So here’s my pitch: your efforts making technique on a standard-sized practice chanter will set the stage for easy, articulate music on the bagpipe’s chanter; they’re the piper’s grass track.

Build your technique, memorize your tunes on the “regular” (non-over-sized) chanter. It worked for the MacCrimmons, it worked for G S MacLennnan and Willie Ross – and it will work for you.



  1. Mike;
    I remember that night! We cheered like crazy when Ben Johnson won. I was thinking of that when I saw a thing on TV commemorating 20 years since the event. Anyway, I have always played a small practice chanter,finding it much more comfortable. Gotta agree with you on that – something to be said for springy tendons- keep your fingers snappy!


    Comment by Brian — September 23, 2008 #

  2. Thanks, Brian – funny how those high emotion moments get burned in our memories! Mike

    Comment by mike — September 24, 2008 #

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