Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Top Ten Piccolo Tips

By Cindy Ellis 
Cindy Ellis

  • Play piccolo and love it! One of the first things many new piccolo players do is try to hide the sound.  The pitch range of the piccolo is higher, therefore perceived by our ears as louder, than the flute. It is a mistake to ‘hold back’ because this causes fundamental problems with support and air speed. It takes a bit more courage to play realizing every note is quite audible to all: use this to your advantage in developing your musicianship. 

  • Get to know your tuner!  Intonation is critical for all musicians, even more so for piccolo players. The instrument is so self-pervading that it is simply harder to hear others when you are playing too. It is essential to work often with a tuner so that you are aware of your own tendencies and can be adjusting constantly to produce the best results.  It never hurts to check passages with colleagues back stage before a rehearsal so the two of you can hear in a more isolated acoustic environment. 

  • Invest in a Reliable Instrument!  Manufacturers today are producing high quality piccolos at all price levels.  Invest in a quality instrument with a good scale: that is, a piccolo that plays well in tune with itself.  Because the piccolo is a secondary instrument, it is tempting to spend the least amount of money possible. This can be rather short-sighted thinking. A good piccolo will hold its resale value better and serve you well in your performances.  Take your tuner with you to try instruments, checking the pitch of each D on the piccolo. The three octaves should play well in tune without a lot of adjustment.  I feel it is better to purchase an instrument pitched at A = 442 rather than A = 440 as many orchestras are tuning at the higher pitch level today.  Make sure the pads are nice and flat, and that they do not protrude down into the tone holes. Overstuffed pads are poorly designed:  Intonation can be severely affected if they are hanging down past the key cup into the tone hole.

  • Adjust your Embouchure! Roger Stevens played flute and Piccolo with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for 31 years, 16 years in the piccolo Chair and the remainder as Principal Flute.  He used to remind his students that the piccolo is a compromise. In his book “Artistic Flute Playing”, he says: “ The flute embouchure is of a size that is quite normal for the average human being: theoretically, the piccolo embouchure should be approximately half the size of the flute embouchure.  Since one doesn’t find ‘little people’ especially designed for piccolo playing, the player’s responsibility then is simply one of accustoming themselves to playing within the limits of the compromise.”  Downsizing the aperture, then, would be the appropriate adjustment needed to match the smaller size of the embouchure hole for the piccolo. Note the angle of the piccolo also: you do not need to hold it straight across, in ‘marching band’ style. A slight descending angle, echoing that of most flutists, is desired to keep the piccolo parallel to the bottom lip.

  • Place the Piccolo Higher on the Lower Lip!  As a result of the smaller size of the instrument, it is helpful to place the piccolo higher on the lower lip than your flute position.  Most of us place the flute on the edge of the lower lip, where the pink skin of the lip meets the flesh colored skin of the chin. It helps to place the piccolo just north of this intersection, on the lower lip, so that the air column will be projected slightly higher at the back wall of the piccolo’s embouchure Hole. 

  • Loosen Up! Many new piccolo players tighten up their lips, almost spitting the notes out as if they were trying to dislodge an errant piece of popcorn stuck in their teeth! Although the piccolo embouchure is firm, it is not overly tense: and absolutely no squeezing from the center of the lips or the corners of the lips! The embouchure only directs the air to the instrument: it does not produce the sound. AIR produces tone.  I think of coming forward at the point of the aperture, almost like you were blowing a kiss across the room.   This helps to decrease tension in the embouchure. 

  • Alignment!  It helps to align the embouchure hole slightly forward, rather than directly in line with, the center of the keys on the instrument. This helps keep the player from covering too much of the embouchure hole, again, due to the smaller size of the instrument. 

  • Low equals Flow, High equals Compression!  You will actually use more air blowing into the flute: it is a longer, bigger bore instrument. Low equals flow: Just think back how you have never seen a tuba player get red in the face when he or she plays: they just need to keep feeding air thru all that tubing: lots of air flow. Think again of our friends in the trumpet section: many of them seem to have a problem controlling too much air, and they can turn all kinds of interesting crimson shades just by compressing the air. Piccolo players frequently overblow if they try to use the same quantity of air as they do when playing flute.  Tone production on the piccolo is based on using stronger support but less quantity of air than flutists use. The tone will be harsh and brassy if you use too much air to produce the tone. Think of using a firm, concentrated air stream, thinking of speed and support (compression) rather than using a large quantity or volume of air.  Lifting the rib cage and sternum at the ends of to phrases to control the air helps keep the pitch from dropping. 

  • Get to Know Alternate Fingerings!  Alternate fingerings provide a wealth of opportunity to adjust pitch and change the tone colors of notes.  There are many great books (Steven Tanzer’s  and Jan Gippo’s come to mind). These are an absolute must if you are serious about becoming a piccolo player. Try to incorporate a new fingering every week until you become able to easily remember your choices for a given note.  It also helps to remember several choices per pitch, so that you have options from which to choose. 

  • Keep it light!  It often helps to keep the spring tension lighter on the piccolo than on the flute.  Keep your finger pressure light as well:  remember the hands are positioned closer together than you are used to on the flute. This can trigger the ‘grip reflex’, which is part of our hard wiring: when we become apprehensive about something, (sixteenth note runs perhaps) it is natural to grip the piccolo more fiercely in the hopes that this will give us more security. In fact, more finger tension will hinder our playing. Keep the fingers close to the keys and stay relaxed and supple in your motion.  Move the fingers from the knuckle joint down, don’t ever move the hands.  

Learning to play the piccolo is a wonderful extension of your skill as a flute player, and often leads to more opportunity in the job market as well.  Make it part of your daily practice  routine.

For more of Cindy, visit her website and Powell profile page: 

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