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Piccolo versus Flute
The assumption that any flute player can pick up a piccolo and play it easily is misguided. A different approach has to be taken with the piccolo to play it well.
Because of its smaller, lighter keys, the piccolo has to be played with lighter fingers to avoid pushing keys/rods out of adjustment. The more compact key arrangement does make it easier to play quick passages because the fingers don’t have as far to move, but take care to not let your fingers run away from you and get ahead of your tongue and air stream. Men with larger hands may find the opposite to be true when their fingers run into each other, slowing them down, and an adjustment of hand positioning may be necessary.
A lighter, quicker tongue is necessary on the piccolo because of the smaller aperture the air is moving through. Be careful to enunciate the notes with a clear and light “T” that uses the tip of your tongue. Greater breath control is also necessary because of how easily the piccolo can be over or under blown. You may also find yourself in the unusual position of needing a breath before you actually run out of air, particularly when playing long, soft passages. This is a phenomenon that double reed players are familiar with- when only a small amount of air is needed to produce the tones, your body may need more oxygen sooner that your instrument needs more air. Regular practicing of long, soft notes will help you find what that threshold is so that you can regulate how much air you take in.
The piccolo is, sadly, generally considered to be a shrill instrument. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be. When playing the piccolo, be sure to keep a relaxed, open mouth and embouchure. A shrill tone on the piccolo is most often caused by the player blowing hard and tightening the embouchure to get the high notes rather than focusing on tone and air support. Use your abdominal muscles for the extra air support necessary rather than tensing your mouth and/or over-blowing. Think warm air and warm tone colors. Just as on the flute, long tone practice on the piccolo will help to even out your tone and give you a familiarity with placement of each note. Practice those long tones all the way into the top register so that each note speaks clearly and sweetly. Be sure to use ear plugs when doing so though- hearing damage is a real possibility when practicing piccolo for extended periods of time.
Vibrato can be used to sweeten the piccolo’s sound but it is a different vibrato than that used on flute. Piccolo vibrato should be narrower and quicker to stay in tune and to cooperate with the higher frequencies and overtones.
The instrument itself will affect how shrill or how sweet your tone is. Wood piccolos will have a sweeter tone than metal; and a conical bore will give you more control over sound and pitch.
The piccolo is a temperamental creature that will overreact to any change in air speed, air support, room temperature or placement on the lip. Never assume you are in tune just because the original tuning pitch was correct. Also keep in mind that the piccolo is pitched an octave higher than the flute and if you don’t play piccolo often, your ear may not be as familiar with the frequencies and overtones in that register. You have to learn to hear those higher notes in tune. Regular long tone practice will give you a feel for the instrument and familiarize you with its quirks. Practice with a tuner under different conditions (i.e. cold room, warm room) to discover what it “feels like” to play each note in tune. Adjustment for particular notes may be necessary and it will be helpful for you to know which notes those are and learn to adjust without even thinking whenever you come to one of those notes in a piece.
Piccolo intonation is also affected by your personality, mood, and by the nature of the music you are playing:
In general, you can expect to run sharp if
- You have a very outgoing personality, unafraid of what others think
- You love the part you’re playing
- You are playing loudly
- The part you’re playing is high and fast
- The notes are short with space between for lots of air
You can generally expect to run flat if:
- You are a shy person who is worried about playing wrong notes
- You dislike the part you are playing and/or don’t want it heard
- You are playing softly
- The part you’re playing is low and drawn out
- The passages are long and you are running out of air support
© 2005 Maria Ramey