The popularity of the piccolo has increased dramatically in recent years. Though the instrument is small, its power is great. Poor piccolo playing can ruin the sound of an entire wind ensemble or orchestra; thus, it is beneficial to understand the instrument and its proper playing techniques. Below I have listed and answered the most common questions I receive about piccolo playing.
Should I buy a wooden or metal piccolo?
Piccolos these days are made either of silver or a hardwood such as grenadilla. Deciding which you should buy really depends on your particular playing situation. Metal piccolos, since they have more piercing and strident tones, are best suited for outdoor performances with wind bands. In addition, the metal piccolo is better suited for marching band because weather conditions are less damaging to the instrument. The wood piccolo, because it is less shrill and more sonorous in tone, blends better with the sounds of an orchestra or chamber ensemble. One difference is that the wooden piccolo’s headjoint does not have a lip plate like the metal piccolo does. The other option is a piccolo made of plastic that can have either a metal or plastic headjoint option. For students needing a piccolo for both marching and concert season, a piccolo with a plastic headjoint and body is often the best and most economical option.
Does a headjoint really make a difference?
Yes! The headjoint accounts for most of the sound and response of your piccolo, and for this reason, you should try more than one headjoint when purchasing an instrument, if possible. Try different headjoint cuts and carefully select the one that is best for your style of playing. When testing head joints, use the same musical examples for each trial and enlist the help of someone whose ears you trust. While the metal piccolo headjoint is fairly standard, wooden piccolos have more options such as wave, modified wave, or standard.
Do I play the piccolo like I do the flute?
The piccolo embouchure needs to be firmer than the flute embouchure (remember, you are playing an octave higher than on the flute), but if the embouchure is too tight the sound will not be pleasant. If you use the “smile” embouchure where the lips are pulled upward and tightly against the lips, you will definitely make a buzzing sound on the higher pitches. By keeping the lips and corners forward, the lip opening very small and round, the throat relaxed, and the air stream constant, you will achieve a good tone–although it will take time to train the muscles of your embouchure. Avoid covering too much of the embouchure hole, pressing the headjoint too hard against the face, or closing the teeth since each of those leads to a thin, pinched tone. The headjoint needs to be slightly higher on the bottom lip when playing piccolo.
Why do I have such trouble playing some notes in tune?
The answer lies in acoustical principles. The flute has a cylindrical body, and the conical bore piccolo tapers slightly to the end, thereby accounting for the differences between the two. Listening well and working assiduously with a tuner will assist you in learning and correcting the tendencies of your particular instrument. While flute fingerings will work on the piccolo, there are many fingerings better suited to the piccolo. Seemingly “alternate fingerings,” these fingerings should almost be considered “principal fingerings” because they ensure good intonation, smooth finger changes, a beautiful sound that blends well, clean attacks, and reliable soft playing.
Do I have to practice piccolo since it is so similar to the flute?
Some basic techniques are similar, but it is best to think of the piccolo as a separate instrument. In order to be proficient on the instrument, you must produce a good tone throughout, play well in tune, learn alternate fingerings, develop flexibility, and articulate cleanly. These skills cannot be achieved by practicing flute alone. Instead, you should continue your flute practice and add piccolo practice to the end of the session when you are warmed up. Over time you will be able to play for longer periods of time without fatigue or tension. Since the piccolo sounds an octave higher than written, it is helpful to play in octaves with a flutist to build confidence while playing the piccolo.
Dr. Diane Boyd Schultz is Professor of Flute at the University of Alabama, Flutist of the Capstone Wind Quintet, and Principal Flutist of the Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra. She has performed and presented at festivals in Russia, the UK, and throughout the United States, including the British Flute Society, the National Flute Association, Interlochen Arts Camp, Midwest Clinic, and Texas Music Educators Association. She was a Rotary International Foundation Scholar to McGill University in Montréal Canada and holds graduate degrees from the University of North Texas.
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