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Dr. Boyd Schultz

PICCOLO FAQ

by
Diane Boyd Schultz, DMA
SFA Associate Professor of Music, Flute

In the last fifteen years the popularity of the piccolo has increased dramatically. Piccolo enthusiasts have demanded more published texts, method books, compositions, and competitions, and piccolo makers have responded by improving the quality and construction of the instrument. 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 hard wood such as crocus wood.  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 preferable 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.

What is the difference between conical and cylindrical bores?
A cylindrical bore has the same diameter throughout; a conical bore tapers slightly to the end.  The cylindrical bore instrument has a thinner sound in the bottom two octaves but improves in the third octave.  The conical bore instrument, however, has a more consistent and full-bodied tone quality.  The conical bore piccolo is preferred by most professional piccoloists.

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.  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.

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 or closing the teeth as both will create a thin, pinched tone.

Why do intonational tendencies vary from flute to piccolo?
Again 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.  Most novice piccoloists are surprised to learn that C3, C#3, D3, and G3 are flat on piccolo; indeed, many of the notes of the fact that each piccolo's basic intonation varies.  Listening well and working assiduously with a tuner will assist you in learning and correcting the tendencies of your particular instrument.

Why do I have such trouble playing some notes in tune?

Perhaps you are using flute fingerings for those pitches.  Many piccolo fingerings differ form the flute ones, and students of the piccolo should make every effort to incorporate them into their playing.  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.

How do I learn these specific piccolo fingerings?
The "Let's Talk Picc" column of Flute Talk magazine recently printed two good sources: Jan Gippo's alternate fingering chart and Morgan Williams' trill chart.  In addition, you can refer to Stephen Tanzer's A Basic Guide to Fingerings for the Piccolo.  Piccolo enthusiasts should be aware that a comprehensive publication devoted to principal and alternate fingerings of the piccolo is slated to appear in print by the end of the year 2001.  It is truly worth the effort to learn which fingerings work best on your instrument-- both you and your conductor will be pleased with the results!

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 distant 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.

Are there any method books specifically for piccolo?
Many flute methods and studies are well-suited to helping the piccolist achieve a flawless technique.  In recent years, though, many piccolo method books have become available, and they address specific problem areas and difficulties of the instrument.  One of the most popular is A Piccolo Practice Book by Trevor Wye and Partricia Morris (Novello, $33.95).  Clement Barone offers his Learning the Piccolo (Little Piper, $10.99) while French piccoloist Jean-Louis Beaumaudier has contributed his Exercises (Billaudot).  Other less recent methods are Jean Louis Tulou's Popular Method for the Piccolo (Ricordi, $10.95) and Towarnicki's Technical Studies for the Piccolo (P.W.M., $51.50).  This list is by no means a comprehensive one.

Which composer first included the piccolo in symphony?
Although the piccolo first appeared in the orchestra about 1700, the first separate and matured symphonic piccolo part came in 1807, when Beethoven wrote for the piccolo in the last movement of his Symphony No. 5.  In addition, he included it in the finale of his Symphony No. 9. By 1813 the piccolo was a regular member of opera orchestras.  Rossini used the piccolo in all of his operatic pieces and even gave solos to the piccolo in the opera overtures, but it was not until 1887, with the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, that the piccolo received its first orchestral solo.

Are there any books of piccolo band excerpts?
There is a new publication compiled by Nan Raphael called In the Limelight: Piccolo Solos and Technical Passages from the Symphonic Band Repertoire.  It is published by FLUTE.NET publications.  This book contains excerpts from seventy-five of the most often performed symphonic band works, and it also includes some of the most popular Db piccolo parts.


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