by Jonathan Brahms
When I first started playing piccolo many years ago, it was a difficult introduction because I had been taught to play the flute with a very relaxed embouchure, so it was impossible for me to get a sound at all. When I asked how to go about practicing piccolo, I got either no advice - or bad advice - such as practice flute for three hours, then, do the whole routine again on piccolo - which was far worse than no advice. Although I am not a full-time, professional piccolo player, I have been working at piccolo on and off for quite a few years now, have taken piccolo lessons with top players and have worked through some of these obstacles satisfactorily, so if possible, I would like to make it easier for others. I hope that some of these ideas will be useful.
Some of these ideas came to me via the lessons I took with those piccolo players, others, I developed on my own through experience, that is, practicing, performing, discussing, listening, asking, thinking and experimenting, which we must all do in order to become advanced players. Still others came from my flute work. With some input from others, you now must find the ways and means that work for you. These ideas are not Gospel and they might not work for everyone - nor will everyone need them - but they work for me – and I still experiment too. Generally speaking, when we learn to play an instrument, we must adapt what we hear from our teachers and colleagues for ourselves because we can only play with our minds, bodies and talents – so try these on for size – take what you like – and leave the rest.
First of all, consider why we practice. This may be sound obvious, but generally speaking, we practice to create, maintain and improve our abilities. We practice to learn pieces of music. We practice to sound good and to feel confident about those abilities so we can perform at our best at the time. If you are doing something that prevents you from sounding good and feeling confident about your ability, whenever you play, stop doing it - or change what you are doing!
Those of us who love to play and are ambitious about our playing must learn is that one of the best things we can learn in order to improve is to know when to stop practicing! This will change, but you must heed the signals your body sends, no matter how soon it sends them!
Remember that we are all different physically (chin, lips, strength, tongue, jaw, lung capacity, etc.) and have different personalities, different artistic goals, different teachers and different instruments. What works for one player may not work for another and what comes with difficulty to one person may come to another with ease. The idea is to keep listening, asking, experimenting until you find what is right for you, in other words, take what you like and leave the rest because in the long run, there is no one way and we have to find our own way. You should feel perfectly entitled to reject advice from even a good teacher/player after giving it a good try, if it does not fit or makes no sense to you.
There are several hurdles that intermediate level flutists face in becoming piccolo players. The first is that no one warns us that piccolos may be hazardous to our embouchure and ear health. Piccolos appear to be cute and cuddly, so small and sweet, but the truth is that they are practically weapons, dangerous to us and to others who are close by. We just take them out of their cases like newborns, not suspecting how difficult they (like newborns) can be.
The second obstacle is that intermediate level flutists know enough to be dangerous to themselves, that is, while young flutists know the fingerings for the third octave of the piccolo they do not necessarily know how to support sound, nor do they have the embouchure strength or flexibility to manage in the third octave - at the start.
Nonetheless, due to circumstances (for example, someone must play piccolo in band or orchestra), they take on parts that are too high, far too soon and of course, immediately get into trouble. Once the embouchure is tired, it must rest for a day or two and then, before it is back in shape, suddenly, the same person is asked to play a high part, again, without preparation, so the problem is perpetuated and people begin to dread and avoid the piccolo.
In addition, beginning piccolo players are not consistent enough about practicing piccolo, which is part of the solution to the fatigue problem. Other pitfalls are that instruments for beginners are usually of a discouragingly low quality. To compound the preceding factors, most flute teachers are not serious piccolo players and cannot guide flutists in becoming satisfactory piccolo players.
Just taking a piccolo and trying to play it without expert preparation and guidance is similar to walking into a gym and without knowing how to lift at all, or without at least first stretching, attempting to lift the heaviest weights available. Understandably, you are not going to succeed and very likely going to hurt yourself.
Some general and specific ideas follow - take what you need to build your own playing on and leave the rest!
Above all, enjoy! Piccolo is a great instrument!
General Piccolo Ideas
Like athletics vs. normal daily physical activity, playing the piccolo requires a more intense level of muscular activity, but will not hurt your flute playing if done carefully, sensibly and consistently. On the contrary, it will enhance your flute-playing!
Most flutists complain about how the embouchure feels after working on the piccolo – too tight. Ironically, the more you work on the piccolo (intelligently, that is) the less it will impact your flute playing negatively. Conversely, the less you play the piccolo, the more it will impact your flute-playing – negatively following the rare occasions upon which you play. The only time my flute-playing suffers is when I get caught up in piccolo and play the flute too little! I believe this is because the opening between the lips becomes too small to produce a resonant sound on the flute. Remember, your piccolo work also impacts your flute playing positively – it gives you flexibility and strength and should give your flute sound more depth and brilliance – when done with structure and carefully. By structure, I refer to order and proportion of piccolo time to flute time. When you have developed your piccolo playing, it will hardly be a strain at all to go back and forth. Sometimes I get busy on the flute and drop my piccolo work. When I go back to the piccolo, I immediately note that I have a more interesting sound and more support on flute.
Playing piccolo is an inseparable part of playing flute seriously or as a profession. The great flutists are often great piccolo players; they achieved this by practice, not magically and not overnight.
Whatever you do with the piccolo, try to enjoy it. Try to love it for it is a lovable instrument. What I love about the piccolo is its character and sound – its sweet, cheerful, woody, “naïve”, innocent sound, outdoors and magical qualities. The piccolo’s small, high sound reminds me of spirits, fairies, elves, spells, birds and in general, magic and childhood. The piccolo has tremendous presence – it is ear-catching.
I am fortunate for I do love the piccolo. I am grateful for the place of the piccolo in my flute life. It adds variety, it is a technical challenge, it enhances my flute playing and gives me more performance opportunities. Generally speaking, given a choice, I would choose to play a first flute part over piccolo, but given a choice between second and piccolo, I would choose piccolo. Given a choice between a big piccolo part and a so-so first flute part, I would choose the piccolo part!
If you hate it, learning to master it will be much harder and no fun. Flute players who hate piccolo are usually those who don’t own one, avoid practicing piccolo, find themselves forced into playing difficult parts in unexpected situations or do last-minute work – and then complain that their embouchures hurt. Or Try not to be one of them.
Especially, do not be one of those flutists who do not carry their piccolo with them so that they can force others to play piccolo by creating a fait accompli. That is truly un-collegial. That said, if you do enjoy the piccolo and are always eager to play it, but enjoy the flute equally, you run the risk of missing out on playing good flute parts because you will be depended upon for your good piccolo-playing. To remedy this, in an amateur/school ensemble situation, ask for a private meeting with your conductor or director and in advance of your performing season, negotiate your availability on piccolo for a good part or three on flute. If you can’t, then make lemonade from lemons - ask for “compensation” for the loss of a flute role in the form of a piccolo concerto appearance or your choice of an ensemble piece with a piccolo part you are dying to play.
A good piccolo embouchure is not built in a day. Accept that becoming a good piccolo player is going to take several months to one year of consistent, careful, focused work. Work up to a given note, for example D3 but not above for a week or so, until you are comfortable and do not tire. Then, go to Eb3 but not above, and so on, until you gradually reach the high C.
If you don’t maintain your piccolo embouchure, you will lose it. If you want to play piccolo really well, not just passably, you must play daily, or at least a few times a week once your technique solidifies. However, once you have built a piccolo embouchure, it will last longer between practice sessions. You will find that once you understand how to play the piccolo, you can go back to it more easily – but if you are playing demanding piccolo parts – you should be practicing regularly and carefully. If you are a track and field athlete, you can’t expect that practicing one event, eg, sprinting, will prepare you for another, eg hurdles – but these abilities do contribute to each other.
Accept that the piccolo will sometimes affect your flute embouchure negatively - but much less if you play more and integrate your piccolo practice with your flute practice. When this is done, the differences will contribute positively to each other.
Always listen to and respect your body and mind, which, by the way, is part of your body. They both tire after periods of intense work towards both technical and artistic ends (and loud sound) and need breaks.
Just because you play the flute, does not mean your ability will translate immediately to the piccolo. Be patient – this is difficult to do right. Go slowly. Should a violist expect to play violin easily? Should a contrabassist expect to play cello easily? Yes and no. Even if they could, no one expects them to switch instruments while in the middle of a performance. What we do is difficult and must be taken seriously.
Be aware that the flute and piccolo are built differently. Flutes have cylindrical bodies and piccolos have conical bodies. The structure of the head joints differ as well. This changes their response; you will find that you must occasionally apply exactly the opposite strategy to deal with the same note on the piccolo as you do on the flute.
Some people play the piccolo as if it is a small flute and some play it as if it is a completely different instrument. This meaningless debate rages on. You can choose whatever you come to believe for yourself, but for practical purposes, relate piccolo to flute as if one is the extension of the other - after all, composers and arrangers do. Since in performance situations, one often must switch quickly from one to another, this makes sense and should dictate how to practice. If your flute and piccolo sound come to resemble each other, this is a good thing!
Developing a specialized physical ability requires a judicious blend of focused work - and rest. That means rest not only after you have finished your daily work, but rest within the daily work. Since you mention fatigue, I am going to assume that you are both doing too little of some things and too much of others. If you really want to develop your piccolo playing, not just get by, you must be fairly consistent about your piccolo practice. That means, while being flexible, practice piccolo most days. There will be days in which your performing and rehearsing circumstances determine that you cannot to touch the piccolo and others where you play it too much, but generally speaking, outside of special circumstances, be consistent. Take a day off to refresh occasionally too. It is best to warm up carefully and slowly most days, but not all days. You will find that when you do not play too much or too little, you hardly have to warm up at all. The muscles will be ready to go within a minute or two. When your embouchure is tired, you should let it rest. The need for a long warm-up is like trying to awaken when we have not slept enough. The muscles or brain is reluctant because they have been used to or past their limits and are not yet ready for more activity. If you don’t overdo the activity, you will need less recovery time.
Developing as a good piccolo player means the same things as developing as a good flutist, but even more so, because the piccolo is more exposed and harder to control. Above all, good piccolo playing means developing the ability to play softly in the upper register, to play in tune and to blend. You cannot develop these abilities if your embouchure is tired or if you do not understand support.
Don’t let the piccolo be a “serial killer” by not practicing serially. This means to alternate flute and piccolo, not to practice flute until you are tired, then the piccolo. Do not practice flute until you are done with everything, then, practice the piccolo. You will be too tired, mentally and physically; the piccolo demands even more support and minute adjustments than the flute.
Practice the piccolo within the context of your flute practice for several reasons. First of all, unless you are playing a solo concerto or a work for piccolo and piano, etc. the job requires that you go back and forth, so practicing this way will enable you to do so painlessly. This will teach you many things.
Always end your practicing when you still sound good. This way, you will need less time to rest and less time to warm up at your next practice session. The instant you feel bored or tired, take a break or stop for the day.
If possible, take one day a week off. You will sound and feel fresh and rested the following day. If you don’t want to take off an entire day after a concert or long rehearsal, wait until late in the next day to practice. This way, your embouchure has more time to recover.
Take one-off lessons with as many full-time, professional piccolo players as you can afford. Not just one because each one’s approach is different. Find the right person for you, then, take a few lessons. This will give you plenty of ideas and feedback. Unless your flute teacher is a serious piccolo player too, they may not be able to help you with piccolo.
Learn special fingerings. This is even more important for piccolo than for flute as several frequently-used notes, right in the middle of the piccolo are very faulty. There are alternative-fingering books available.
Study and perform original piccolo repertoire. There is more and more of it being composed. There are excellent pieces in all styles. One piccolo piece on a flute recital adds variety. It is always good to have a piccolo piece ready at a flute audition.
Being a decent piccolo player, who owns a good instrument, always has it on hand and is ready, willing and able to play it on the spot makes you more attractive to orchestras because versatility is needed and valuable.
If you are serious about playing and enjoying the piccolo, obviously, you need a decent instrument that is in perfect working order. Do not buy on your own. The input of a professional player is absolutely necessary and indispensable. Pay someone good to pick out an instrument for you. Their expertise and experience is worth every penny.
Some metal instruments are excellent if they are made of silver by a fine builder but generally, wood is best. Fine, high-end piccolos cost in the $4,000 - $5,000 range Mid-range piccolos cost $2,000 - $3,000 Fine builders are Powell, Haynes, Keefe, Burkhart, Zentner, Hamig and others.
A good budget solution is to buy a Yamaha wooden piccolo and replace the head joint with one made by a high-end builder. Fine head joints cost from $600-$700 and make all the difference. Fine head joints are made by Keefe, Spell, Tanzer and others. The builders of complete instruments usually sell their own head joints separately. Consider used instruments too.
Do NOT practice high parts in your chair on stage around others. Find a corner of the auditorium where you will not hurt people’s ears.
Be a considerate colleague. Buy a few pairs of inexpensive swimmers earplugs and distribute them to those who sit closest to you.
Between judiciously transferring your flute exercises and easier etudes to the piccolo and studying excerpts and original piccolo compositions, you have a great deal to work on. However, when you are ready, take a look at the published piccolo primers. There are several – but it is not WHAT you play that will allow you to develop as a fine piccolo player, it is HOW you play it!
Specific Piccolo Suggestions
Integrating Piccolo Into Your Flute Practicing Day
Order of Work: Best – Worst Results
Worst: Start day on piccolo, then go to flute
Equally Bad: Practice flute until you are finished, then practice piccolo
Best: Warm up on flute and piccolo together, alternating throughout practice time
Second Best: Warm up on flute, then practice piccolo, then return to flute
Regardless of how much piccolo work I may be doing, in principle, I always start my practice day on the flute or integrate piccolo in my the warm up if I have time. Each day is different, but I find that when I am working intensively on both instruments, a practice day naturally breaks down into 2-3 hours of flute and about 45 minutes -1.5 hours of piccolo (with many small or large breaks, not straight through).
Get used to tuning and tune daily to A – 440. Even when practicing alone, using an electronic tuner, always tune your first and second A’s to A-440. If you are used to tuning, it will be quick and easy when you tune accurately at a rehearsal. You will also become familiar with the way your instrument responds at the pitch at which you usually play. To develop flexibility, tune to A-441 and A-442 occasionally. After you finish practicing, cleaning and re-assembling your instrument, tune it so that it will be ready when you start practicing the next day.
Pulling Out the Head Joint
Crucial – Pulling out the head joint. Pull out the head joint around 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch or to whatever degree your line-up requires. You should find yourself playing pulled out this far most of the time. The more you play, the stronger you will become and find that you must pull out more because you are able to create a smaller opening between the lips and/or you blow faster. The less you play, the further in you will have to push the head joint because you will not have the strength to naturally create a higher airspeed.
Head Joint Line-Up
Crucial - Line-up: Most players roll the head joint out, that is, the hole is slightly in front of the keys. If you are big, have full lips or a receding chin, this becomes more necessary, so you do not cover the hole too much with your lower lip. The danger of turning out too much is that your first octave will have no substance. The first octave tends to be too high, so turning out will make this tendency worse. Because the second octave tends to be flat, by doing so, you will end up with octaves that are too narrow.
If you have thinner lips and a chin that does not recede, you can have a straighter line-up, that is, the whole is lined up with the keys or turned slightly in, behind the keys. This will give you a clear and focused first octave but the danger is that you may cover too much and find that the sound is disappearing on you, that you are very flat in the second octave and cannot play the third octave reasonably easily. Find a compromise position that lets you play reasonably well in tune with a good sound over all three octaves. I personally use a series of perfect fifths extending from the first to the second octaves, played softly, to gauge whether I am lined up correctly, listening for good intonation and sound and the correct amount of resistance. Too little resistance and a fuzzy sound means the hole is too open; too much resistance and too cutting or small a sound means it is too covered. The most telling test intervals for me and my instrument are A1-E2 and Bb1 – F2 because they combine short and long notes, and contrast a note that tend to be sharp and a note that tends to be flat. The smallest possible movements will correct your position if you are off. When you can play both tones, you are all set to tune to A-440 and then play.
Experiment by turning the head joint forwards and backwards using the smallest changes - they make big differences. Use a tuner or an electronic A-440 for a reality check. At a MP/MF level, you should let your jaw drop and open your lips to tune the lowest A and raising and pushing your jaw slightly forwards for the second A.
If you become a serious picc player, at some point, you will start acquiring a head-joint collection because different head-joints help you accomplish different goals. I have noticed that I do not line-up my various head-joints the same way, even though obviously, my chin, lips, teeth and the way I play have not changed. This is because each head-joint is different and since you need to adopt it to your own face, you can line each head-joint up differently.
Placement on the Chin/Lower Lip
The piccolo rests slightly higher on the chin than the flute does. Danger – the higher you place it, the less mobility the lower lip has and the mobility of the lower lip is crucial to playing in tune and with a good sound. While placing the piccolo slightly higher that the flute, don’t exaggerate. Do not press the piccolo into the chin too hard, as this will cause your lower lip to cover too much of the hole which could result in the disappearance of your sound. It will also reduce the freedom of the lower lip. Experiment with using your bugler muscles – on the sides of your mouth - to pull outwards before you place the piccolo on your chin. Then, place the piccolo and let them relax. If your chin is very fleshy, pulling outwards (both right and left) in both directions using the bugler muscles will thin out the flesh on your chin and you will cover less. This is not for everybody, but it is worth a try. Also try rolling the top edge of the hole towards you once you have placed the picc on your lip.
Air Stream Velocity – A Pet Peeve
Some knowledgeable and experienced players suggest that air column speed on the piccolo should be greater than for the flute. With all due respect, I disagree. This is one of the most dangerous ideas I have ever heard. Faster than what? Faster than how we blow on the flute? I assume that someone beginning piccolo is at least an intermediate-level flutist. How does an more or less experienced flutist develop tone? By playing, listening to the results and experimenting! That is exactly how one should go about it on the piccolo. Besides, there are quite a few sharp notes on the piccolo, mostly in the first octave. Should one blow faster there too? Of course not – you may end up playing too high and tuning too low to accommodate the overly fast velocity. I feel that just thinking about generally blowing faster will result is a tenser embouchure and in a thin, shrill, shallow sound. I suggest the opposite – that the slowest possible air column is best because it will result in a more sonorous sound. To do this, you must know how to support, which is an involved subject, dealt with later. Your primary criteria in determining just how fast to blow should be pitch, beauty, sonority and clarity. Those are our cues for determining the right air speed, not a generalization such as “blow faster”. Be careful that by slowing your air, you do not go flat on certain sensitive notes.
Stand or sit erect and open with your chin tucked in, but your head up as if you are looking up at a conductor. Don’t collapse over or around the piccolo. If your head is down, you are likely to cover too much and play flat. Keep the piccolo parallel to the ground, not drooping downwards. Keep an eye on your right elbow. Do not let it drift out and away from your side. If it does, it could cause tension in your right wrist. Keep your right elbow pointed down and gently pressed against your right ribs. Keep the part of your chest directly below your neck elevated.
Sitting versus Standing
Most of the time you will sitting when playing, so practice while sitting in order to learn to use your body best in that position.
The piccolo has a small embouchure hole, so tighten the lips and compress the air column in order to speed it up, right? Wrong! On the contrary, use the embouchure muscles to keep the opening between your lips as open as possible. It is a subtle difference, but subtle changes make big differences. Do not compress the air column or blow steeply downwards except when you must. Do not drill the air into the piccolo or use a laser-like air column except when you must – to get the highest notes out (even then, remember, they don’t require much air as long as it is moving at the right speed and the right angle). This will cause fatigue and a shrill, thin sound. It could hurt your ears and those of the people sitting next to you.
More on Embouchure
Use the muscles on the sides of your mouth slightly more than you would with the flute in order to lift the air column a bit higher. We do this a great deal on the piccolo.
Use your lower lip more, especially raising and bringing the middle of the lip forward, also to raise the air column.
Do not tighten your upper lip across your teeth – on the contrary, let air circulate under the center of your upper lip. Try to let it into the pockets that may form on the sides of your lower lip.
Warm the Instrument Before You Play It
If you play a wood piccolo, warm it before playing it unless you are in a warm climate or room. Do not blow or breathe warm air into it as wood takes some time to warm up. When you blow into it, you are warming the inside faster than the outside. Since the introduction of heat causes expansion, this may cause a crack. When practicing, I place the inside my shirt until it is warm. Symphonic players usually slip the piccolo into a jacket pocket to maintain its temperature.
Develop a beautiful sound in all registers. The piccolo has a sweet, woody, lyrical voice. Its message can be tender, touching and poignant (listen to “The Drunkard in Spring” section of Mahler’s “Song of the Earth”). It must also be brilliant but sonorous and resonant, neither shrill, harsh nor strident, since we must be able to sing on the piccolo as expressively as any vocalist.
Allow some noise in your sound. Do not work for a totally pure sound. Assuming you already have enough core or edge in your sound from the flute, this will NOT cause a white, noisy or breathy sound; leaving some noise will only add color, sweetness and depth to the sound. Playing with slightly less tension will also give you more endurance since it is less fatiguing.
There are many extraordinary piccolo artists but there are very few solo piccolo recordings. Try to find them because you will need good examples to develop your own concept of a beautiful sound. One cannot hear enough of the instrument on symphonic recordings. To hear and emulate truly wonderful playing, look for Sir James’ recording of the Leibermann Piccolo Concerto, Julius Baker playing the Vivaldi Concerti and entire piccolo cd’s by Zart Dombourian-Eby, Nola Exel, Lawrence Trott and Jean-Pierre Beaumadier. Even Jean-Pierre Rampal recorded the Vivaldi Concerti.
The ability to hear and match someone else’s pitch and timbre (tone quality) is what good piccolo and flute playing is all about. You will have to work at it a great deal if you want to play in tune. Intonation is like “the sound of one hand clapping”. It doesn’t seem to be problematic until you are playing with someone else. It doesn’t matter how right you are or think you are - it is the result in rehearsal or performance that counts.
How to Learn to Play In Tune:
Good intonation depends on good sound and good attitude.
Good sound is important because when sound is good, it is usually in tune or close to it. Good sound is also important because we don’t really play completely in tune, we just give that impression. It is the cohesiveness of our sound over almost three octaves that is either convincing - or not, rather than the exact position of each note, which can more or less be adjusted if/when exposed.
The components of playing in tune are how well you hear, your instrument, if you know how to adjust, if you are willing to adjust to others and in many cases, if others are willing to adjust to you.
In order to play in tune, you must have an internalized concept of “in-tune-ness” in your own ear. You must be able to hear when pitch relationships are too great – or sharp, too small – or flat - or dead-on. Some people are born with this ability, some have to do develop it and others will not be able to. Most of us can improve if we work at it. First, we apply these relationships to our own playing and then apply our playing to that of others.
In order to play in tune, you must be able to hear - and adjust. Practice raising and lowering the pitch on all tones (except the highest ones) until you know what sharp and flat sounds like. Do so with your voice, do it on a guitar, do it on the flute, but do it regularly. If you do, you will develop the ability to know where you and where others are, pitch-wise.
Learn to accommodate each other’s instruments. If you have more control over a certain note, adjust it. If you don’t, ask for more flexibility from the other player.
In order to play in tune with others, you must practice playing in tune with others! Do not use a tuner for this. Two players can tune to the same tuner and still sound out of tune with each other. Use your ears and embouchure to tune, not to the tuner. When you are used to doing this, you will find that suddenly there are far fewer problems at rehearsals. Invite another player, of any instrument to play slow scales and arpeggios with you. Tune carefully to one note to begin, choose a key and tune every degree of that scale or triad. Play unisons, play octaves. Take your time. This is like working out with plays on a sports team. Your ability to hear and adjust is improving. Then when you have a real game, all your practice will pay off. You can also sound the tonic of a scale on a piano or tuner, then play the scale slowly, tuning each note by ear.
Good attitude is about flexibility and your ability to either accommodate someone else’s limitations or to concede your own, do whatever can be done to improve them or ask for others’ help in accommodating them.
We get used to the faults of our instruments; we get used to our own faults and insist that we are just fine when we really are not. Others do the same. Then, in a rehearsal, we find something is out of tune and our first impulse to point a finger at someone else. Unless you are dealing with someone who does not work at intonation and/or is not at your level, it does not matter who is right until you are both in tune. The best professionals will work on difficult passages before and after group rehearsals. This is part of what makes them professionals.
Select a simple, short tune and play it in several keys by ear. Do this several times a week. Play slowly and adjust! If you can take a tune through 12 major or minor keys, using the first and second octave, you are on the way to having good intonation. The point is not to just play, but to play in tune! Gradually add the third octave as your embouchure becomes stronger. For starters, try something as simple as “Three Blind Mice” or Taps and Reveille, They are not simple when you take it through all the keys. Or, try “Close Your Eyes” by the Beatles, “Un Bel Di” an aria from “Madame Butterfly” by Puccini, etc. Any interesting melody will do, just not too long nor too complicated. Melodies that modulate are especially challenging, but keep it simple at first.
The Piccolo Itself
Explore your instrument with a tuner and find where you are sharp, flat and dead-on. You will find some surprising differences from the flute! Some low notes and long notes (more keys closed) will be sharp. High notes and short notes (fewer keys covered) will be flat. Drop your jaw to lower the pitch by slowing down the air. The notes from E2 – and on - tend to be flat. C2 and C#2 are disaster areas for flatness. Raise your jaw and use your lower lip to raise the air column in order to raise the pitch. Learn the special fingerings, for these notes in particular.
Develop your ability to raise and lower pitch by holding a note and raising and lowering your jaw. This should sound as if you are playing a slide whistle. Do not overdo this, not for long stretches of time, nor upon every note. Concentrate on the first two octaves. Do this very sparingly in the third octave.
Your ability to hear and adjust your pitch in exposed places is what will make you welcome and appreciated in orchestra.
Drugs and the Piccolo
If your embouchure hurts, take an over-the-counter remedy (aspirin, Tylenol, etc) which is intended to reduce swelling and alleviates pain. This will help your recover more quickly from over-use of the embouchure muscles. If you have a long rehearsal or concert on piccolo and you know it will be a strain in advance, take the remedy in advance. Do not take these drugs every day! Save them for when you really need them.
Support is too big a subject for even this posting, but whatever you* think support is, support a great deal. If you don’t, your embouchure will have to make up for it, which is another cause for fatigue. If you have access to an alto or bass flute, use them to alternate with piccolo. If you don’t, alternate with your concert flute. The slower air column and greater support required for the bigger instruments will teach you to blow more slowly, sonorously and to support on piccolo. If you haven’t a clue as to what support is, ask your flute teacher and every singer, wind and brass player you can about what they think it is.
Support is one of those areas that mean different things to different people and can be accomplished in different ways. Experiment until you find your way. When you have, you will experience less embouchure strain and fatigue because you will be assisting the heavy lifting that piccolo requires with the larger muscles of the abdomen rather than the smaller muscles of the embouchure.
*What support means to me is the habitual, constant intense use of the abdominal muscles and those in the back below the ribcage to reinforce and intensify blowing. Some people feel that they press outwards and downwards. I use these muscles to press inwards and upwards while playing. Both my stomach and my chest expand when I breathe. I get the best results in terms of strength and capacity when I allow the lower ribs to expand when inhaling.
Develop a quick, narrow vibrato because this will help your intonation match others and it is characteristic of the instrument. You should have complete control of speed and width of the waves, but generally, play with a quick, narrow vibrato.
Take on the 3rd octave gradually. Any idiot with fast fingers and a tight embouchure can race around the third octave. It takes a real musician to be able to play both expressively, beautifully, with real dynamics and in tune over the complete range – almost 3 octaves - without tiring – in the same piece. Do not practice sounding like a “demented banshee” (Patricia Morris). The piccolo has a wide range of roles and character. High, fast and loud is only one demand that composers make – but the most fatiguing. The ability to play high, fast and loud will not help you when must play exposed, delicate solos, softly and in tune, often, minutes apart.
This may be hard, but play your scales and arpeggios only up to a given note until it is secure, for a few days, week or more, then, another half-step until you reach C3. If you do this patiently, you will find that you have developed a secure high register. Try one day on and one day off for a while. Then try two days on and one day off, then three and one four and one, etc, until you are comfortable playing daily. Do not play piccolo if your embouchure protests or if are just too tired to support. That day off will make all the difference. Remember why we practice! Basically, we practice to sound good and to feel competent. This may be sound obvious, but we in our haste to improve, we forget sounding good because we feel that we will gain something by practicing more, even if we don’t sound good. We practice to improve our abilities and we practice to maintain our abilities. If you are doing something that prevents you from sounding good, stop doing it!
Using Flute to Learn Piccolo Parts
Not everyone agrees with me here, but for myself, using the flute (or even alto flute) to learn piccolo music is valuable and positive for two reasons – the flute allows you more time and because it is different from the piccolo. Some fine players say you should not because the other instruments are different – I agree, they are different – and that is why I use them! Just as we learn passages by modifying them – because they are different from the original (for example, changing legato to articulated or vice-versa, change of register, playing backwards, etc.), we can achieve more comfort on piccolo by applying the demands of another instrument to the musical requirements of a piece or passage that we are trying to absorb. The different demands are what help us iron out what may be sticky on the piccolo - and vice versa. In a related example, I love to play the solo from Daphis & Chloe on piccolo as far as it goes register-wise - it is so much easier! Or Afternoon of a Faun on alto flute – it is so much harder! When I go back to the intended instrument, it feels much more comfortable because the music has come home after an interesting journey.
A pitch measurement tuning device is now an indispensable part of a serious musician’s equipment. Use it sparingly because humans and traditional instruments do not play perfectly in tune, we play within an acceptable range of “in-tune-ness”.
By using a tuner, we mostly learn how imperfect an instrument the piccolo is and how much the human ear will accept as “in tune”.
The point of using a tuner is to learn the piccolo’s tendencies and your tendencies. If in the process, your hearing improves, all the better. We play with our ears, not our eyes, so use your tuner actively, not passively. This means listening to the note on the tuner, turning off the sound, then playing that note without looking at the meter, listening carefully, adjusting, and only then, looking to check. This will help you develop your hearing. Do not look at the meter and play because you will be training yourself to be passive and dependant on an external source instead of listening or having an internal reference.
The idea is to get used to listening, knowing where you are in relation to others and matching to the greatest extent possible. When your colleagues are doing this too, good ensemble will be the result.
Playing in tune is crucial but cannot be developed separately from the other components of your playing. You cannot play in tune without a good sound, great support, the ability to hear where you and others are and adjustment technique.
Remember, the tuner does not play the piccolo, you do. The tuner goes off when the rehearsal or performance begins. It is your ears and embouchure that are the real tuners.
Tune the second A (above the staff) if nothing else - daily once you and the instrument are warmed up. Doing this will give you a sense of security because by doing so, you will get to know yourself and your instrument according to an objective, reliable, external source. You will have to use your lower lip to raise the pitch for the tuning A2 no matter what you are tuned to because if you are to play in tune with yourself, this is where the note lies, unless you are playing forte. Pull out your head joint enough – around one-eighth of an inch. Find out where your line-up is, mark it somehow and stick to it until you find that it is not working at that placement. You should be able to play the C2and C#2 in tune – not flat – at a piano level. These are horrendously flat notes, especially at a piano level. If you can’t, your head joint is turned in too much. Turn out the head joint minutely to find the spot where you can do this.
Use the tuner for a short amount of time daily on scales and arpeggios and trouble spots. Use it creatively too. For example, let it sound the tonic, third or fifth degree of a scale while you play the entire scale or arpeggio slowly, listening and adjusting.
If you can’t afford a tuning device, find a well-tuned piano, tune your second A to it, then use the sustaining pedal and match your other pitches to it. If you can’t find a well-tuned piano, use any piano. If you can match your pitch on the piccolo to your pitch on the flute or a piano, or a tuner, you will soon be able to match the pitch of the flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons or saxophones that you play with in orchestra or band. No piano? Find another person to work with.
When you finish practicing, clean the piccolo and tune it again so that the next time you play, even if your embouchure is cold, the instrument will be ready.
Don’t let using the tuner upset you. Don’t obsess over what the needle indicates. It hears far more than humans hear and far more than musicians need to hear – but it can’t make music. A tuner will give you a different reading as you tire, if the room temperature changes, if you place the instrument in a slightly different place. Some notes will always be grossly out of tune, some will always be dead-on. Accept that playing within a certain tuning range is acceptable.
Protect Your Hearing!
Protect your hearing when you practice in the third octave! Custom ear plugs are best but are expensive. You can use swimming ear plugs, stereo headphones while practicing at home, cotton, tissue paper or even toilet paper, but use something or you may eventually pay a heavy price – ear aches, headaches, hearing loss.
How do you increase your endurance?
1. By stopping while you still sound and feel good
2. Very gradually and carefully
Play for 20 minutes, rest for 10 and repeat. If you are active as a flutist, 30-40 minutes a day on piccolo will be sufficient to stay in shape and learn new parts without overdoing it.
When you tire from practicing piccolo, stop as soon as you feel fatigue approaching and do something else that does not involve playing. You could drink something warm (without caffeine, which dries us out), do some calisthenics, read something, or some unrelated chore. The idea is to stop BEFORE you experience fatigue. Once you feel twinges on the sides of your mouth or waves of heat passing through your upper lip, it is too late! Paraphrasing the great American cyclist Lance Armstrong, if you practice up to your limit, you are increasing your strength. If you play beyond your limit, you are breaking it down.
Presumably, your flute playing is more solid than your piccolo playing, so let the piccolo learn from the flute. Go back and forth a lot, even on just one note, then the same for scales and arpeggios.
Learn parts on the flute and then transfer them to the piccolo. This will prevent your piccolo embouchure from tightening and strengthen your flute embouchure. It will help develop flexibility and prevent injury. It will show you how the two instruments are similar and how they are different. It will do miracles for your ears and ability to adjust. This is the one most important piece of advice I can give you!
What Not to Play (for study material)
I would use the Telemann Fantasies only for fun. Playing Baroque music is helpful because like the piccolo, the Baroque flute only goes down to low D but never goes above high A, so Baroque music is good piccolo material because it is good music and stays within a certain range. However, unlike the flute, the piccolo is simply not a Baroque instrument! This means that whatever Telemann has written in the third octave is either going to be overwhelming loud or you will have to spend a great deal of effort playing it softly enough to be aesthetically acceptable, instead of singing your heart out, which you would on the flute! The only repertoire the Telemann can lead to is the Vivaldi Piccolo Concerti – which, by the way, are not even originally for piccolo, they are for sopranino recorder. With the exception of audition material and solo opportunities, Baroque music is a dead-end for the piccolo; it is enjoyable, but not what the modern piccolo is really about at all.
The value of the Reichert exercises is that they take a tune through all keys in both major and minor versions. This is extremely important for your ear, technique and reading, but of limited value for intonation and actually counter-productive for stamina at the start, because until you know how to adjust your pitch by using your jaw and lips to vary air speed and blowing angle, it will do you no good to play in all keys. In addition, the Reichert exercises all encompass two octaves. If you are experiencing fatigue now, I would hold off on two octave exercises whether scales, arpeggios or phrases until later when you have far more endurance. Start with scales that traverse a perfect fourth or fifth, then one octave. To start intonation work, far better to take “Hot Cross Buns” or “Three Blind Mice” or any narrow range melody through all keys.
To summarize, the Telemann Fantasies make for enjoyable playing. The Reichert exercises are useful material, but only if you use these phrases selectively and at the right time - later. If you want to be a symphony or band piccolo player, the Telemann will not help you get there because it does not present you with the challenges of difficult keys, modulations, registers, tempi or the kind of phrases that you will encounter in symphonic or band material. You will find that kind of material in the beginner-intermediate etudes, especially the easier Andersen etudes. When you are ready for it, it would be more productive to work on Thomas Filas’ High Register etudes and piccolo polkas.
Sit on a flat, straight-backed chair. Place another chair facing or a low stool in front of you. This is to place the piccolo or flute on, as if you are in an orchestra or a band. Place a towel on the chair so that you can put down the instrument you were playing quickly without damaging it. Play your middle A on the flute. Play a low A on the piccolo. This is the same note. Match your two A’s in pitch, vibrato, dynamic level and timbre. Use your jaw to raise and lower the pitch in order to develop your sense of sharp and flat. You will need to adjust instinctively when performing, without thinking. This will help you develop that ability. Go back and forth until you can hit the note dead on, without searching. Do the same on all other possible notes. Don’t overdo it. You don’t have to do all notes every day. The highest notes on the piccolo are impossible to tune anyway. Work on the ones that fall within the area of the most use. Alternate this with playing the same note on the staff. The piccolo will always be an 8va higher, but there will be more similarity in timbre because you will be playing the same partials (overtones).
Scales – Start with 3 note scales, then 4, 5 and 6 note scales. Play these short scales through each key, meaning start them from every degree of every scale. Or, just play one scale per key, starting from the first note of the key. Go back and forth with the flute. Sing and play, play and sing.
When you feel ready, play 1 octave scales. Do not play 2 octave scales until you have much more endurance.
Be careful not to overdo legato playing in the third octave as this is very fatiguing. Use legato over shorter distances. Use tongued notes more, until you have developed embouchure strength.
Arpeggios – Play triads before playing 1 octave arpeggios. Beyond one octave, add the third and fifth of a triad before going all the way to the double octave.
Play a melody through a few keys – or go over your first books, eg, “40 Progressive Pieces for the Beginning Flutist” edited by Louis Moyse, Gariboldi’s 30 Easy & Progressive Etudes, etc. Play those simple pieces in other keys, transposing by ear, as you go. Singing them helps.
Work on or play through a relatively easy etude
Work on an orchestral or band part
Half an hour daily on piccolo is PLENTY to start. Go to an hour if possible when you have plenty of time in between exercises (not to mention strength and concentration) – an hour is a LOT for a beginner.
You are done! A little bit of piccolo work every day goes much farther than working a lot on rare occasions.
Jonathan Brahms - 2003