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Taming the Little Beast: An Introduction to the Piccolo

by Leonard L. Garrison


I. Buying a Piccolo. There are two basic types of piccolos: (1) metal, cylindrical-bore instruments (respond easily but have an unrefined sound; good for beginners, marching band, and occasional players); (2) wood, conical-bore instruments (sweeter sound and more dynamic flexibility; should never be used outside because they crack easily; for advanced players). Some instruments combine a wood or plastic body with a silver head. Advanced students interested in the piccolo might consider the Zentner piccolo, retailing for under $2000. Professional instruments, made by Burkart, Haynes, Hammig, Keefe, Powell, and others, go for more than $3000.

II. Care and maintenance.
Wood piccolos are susceptible to cracking. If you own one, never play it when the temperature is below 65° Fahrenheit. If the temperature is below 70°, warm the instrument gradually by placing it in contact with your body or hands. Then, gently blow warm air into the instrument before playing. In ensemble playing, when you have long rests, keep the instrument warm (you can keep it under a jacket). Because the tone holes are small, water blocks them more often than on the flute, which leads to embarrassing wrong notes. Keeping the instrument warm will alleviate this problem, but always have cigarette paper on hand to dry out clogged tone holes. The best is gumless paper made by OCB. If you frequently double on flute and piccolo, buy an instrument stand with a solid base (Blayman is a good brand). An instrument is more secure on its stand than on your lap.

III. General approach.
Don’t be shy; it isn’t possible to hide with a piccolo. Play like a soloist. Rely on a well-supported airstream. Relax the lips, puff the upper cheeks slightly, and keep the mouth and throat open for resonance. With a tight embouchure, the lips may buzz and the tone becomes strident. Think of a less pointed and more rounded sound. Warm the tone with vibrato. In general, use a fast, shimmery vibrato rather than a slow, wide one. Imitate a violinist instead of a cellist, for string players realize for high pitches a faster vibrato is appropriate. Don't jam the instrument into your chin; relax left-hand pressure. The “undertone” problem is a danger in the middle register of the piccolo. The player must focus carefully and make sure that the airstream is fast enough. An essential accessory to piccolo practice is a pair of earplugs, especially if you practice high, loud passages. An audiologist can fit you with special earplugs that reduce exposure to the ear drums without changing the quality of sound.

IV. Warming up.
Never start your day with high C’s on the piccolo; your neighbors will call the police, and your lips will never recover! If possible, play the flute before you play the piccolo; the “little flute” should feel like an extension of the “grand flute.” Choose a warmup that takes you gradually from the low to the high register. If your lips start to buzz, go back to low notes. Keep the embouchure supple and the airstream fast. Try the following warmup, transposing to A-flat, A, B-flat, etc. Start on G1 and continue through G2, which takes you to G3. Play slowly, legato, with a beautiful tone and vibrato; listen for good intonation.
piccolo warmup
V. Intonation.
This is the most difficult aspect of playing the piccolo. Practice with a tuner frequently, but never before you have been playing for five minutes (wood instruments take longer to warm up). Instead of watching the tuner while playing, use it in these ways: (1) do a blind test (start the note first, then glance at the tuner); (2) use the tuner as a sound source and play major triads against it (remember to place major thirds 14 cents flat). Develop piccolo instincts. Be aware of stretch tuning. The high notes of pianos are tuned sharp to the middle notes because the human ear favors this. Thus, the high register of the piccolo might have to be slightly sharp. The intonation tendencies of the piccolo are different from those of the flute; furthermore, the intonation of individual instruments differs greatly. In general, the following notes are flat on piccolos:
flat notes

These notes tend to be sharp on piccolos:
sharp note
VI. Fingering.
The piccolo has spawned much creativity in the invention of alternate fingerings, and every professional player has favorite tricks. Here are some differences between piccolo and flute:

  • because of the short tube length of the piccolo, avoid “1 &1” B-flat whenever possible; this fingering is dull in tone and flat in pitch; use thumb B-flat or lever;
  • third-octave C-sharp is extremely flat on most instruments; your "regular" fingering should be LH 23 / RH 234;
  • unless you are playing very loudly, leave R4 on for high E; this note does not respond as easily on piccolo as on flute when this finger is left off;
  • for better response on high A-flat, add R2 & 3 (this might make the note flat, however);
  • keep R4 off for top B-flat, B, and C.

For more goodies, see piccolo fingerings.

VII. A Note.
The Golden Age of the Piccolo was the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. During this period, every band had a featured piccolo soloist. Much of this music was written for piccolo in D-flat. If your band has old parts, you must transpose up a half step (for instance, if the part is in A major, the band is probably playing in B-flat major). D-flat piccolos are no longer made.

VIII. Repertoire.
The most famous works are the three Vivaldi Concerti. In addition to works specifically written for piccolo, most baroque flute or recorder pieces work well. Until recently, there was a dearth of serious music for the instrument. Most of the literature was from the turn of the century, consisting of polkas, variations, a character pieces. In the late 1980's, composers started to take the piccolo seriously, enriching the repertoire. A select list is given in piccolo repertoire.

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Copyright ©2006 by Leonard Garrison; last modified 3/26/06.