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Thoughts on Piccolo Intonation

Cynthia Ellis | April 2011

   Good intonation on the piccolo is very important. Not only is the instrument at the top of the pitch ladder, it has a potent sound and therefore is almost always heard. Thankfully, in an orchestra one piccolo is usually the whole section. However, there are a few times, such as in Mahler symphonies, that the entire flute section will be playing piccolo in unison. Since many marching bands have the entire flute section playing piccolo or have a piccolo section comprised of several players, blending tone and matching pitch becomes a top priority.
   The best way to approach piccolo intonation is to become familiar with the intonation tendencies of the instrument. Piccolos seem to vary more from instrument to instrument than flutes do, but there are some very basic guidelines to observe. First, make sure that the instrument itself is in good working order. The cork in the headjoint should be in the proper position, and the pads should not be protruding into the key cups. Check to make sure that the trill keys on the backside of the instrument are opening at the proper distance as well. The headjoint should be pulled out from the body about ¼ of a millimeter. If you have to pull out much more than this, check the headjoint cork placement.
   Make sure that the piccolo is placed correctly on the lower lip. The piccolo is placed slightly higher on the lower lip than the flute to compensate for the smaller embouchure hole. The placement is actually on the pink part of the lip. If you find yourself playing flat overall on the instrument, your lip may be covering too much of the embouchure hole. The ratio for covering the embouchure hole is about the same as the flute. The bottom lip covers about one-third of the hole and the remaining two-thirds of the hole is open.
   Experiment with not pressing the piccolo too tightly into the chin. Flexibility is compromised if the lower lip is compressed by excessive pressure. One last reminder about the physical setup is that the piccolo should be balanced in the hands, not held by the fingers. Hands provide a stable framework so the fingers can remain light and smooth. No white-knuckle death grip is allowed. A stable balance keeps the instrument from rolling in the hands.
   The alignment of the piccolo headjoint in relationship to the piccolo body is another issue that can affect pitch. Make sure that the center of the embouchure hole is aligned slightly in front of the center of the left-hand key stack. If the headjoint is turned inward toward the player, the overall pitch may be flat and the tone muffled. If the headjoint is aligned too far away, the pitch may be sharp, and the tone will be breathy, spread and shallow.
   The lowest register, from D1 to D2, is fairly reliable, but novice piccolo players often blow this register flat. Make sure to use a well-supported, fast-moving air stream. Blowing too far down into the embouchure hole can result in flat pitch, so remember the air has to be directed across the hole, then down. One of my teachers used to remind me that a fast air stream is a supported air stream. As a string player moves the bow, the piccolo player moves the air stream although the string player has the advantage of seeing the bow move. The goal is to move the air constantly through the notes.
   The middle register, D2 to D3, tends to be fairly stable in general, until the last three chromatic notes: C, C# and D. In general, these notes tend toward the flat side. Alternate fingerings are a good choice for solving these problems. I prefer: C: No TH/1204/1034; C#: No TH/0034/0234; D: TH/0234/0234.
   These fingerings and many more choices for these notes are listed in Jan Gippo’s book, The Complete Piccolo. An interesting observation is that these notes on the piccolo may have the opposite pitch tendencies from the flute. When playing, remind yourself that the piccolo is a separate instrument from the flute. Develop a new mental file containing separate information just for the piccolo.
   The third octave holds a few pitch surprises as the piccolo’s tendencies are once again opposite of the flute. For instance, F#3 is a note that can be a little flat on piccolo and a little sharp on the flute. Try: TH/1030/0230 to raise the pitch. High G also tends to be a low note. The fingering no TH/1234/0230 solves this tendency. High A speaks beautifully without the right hand little finger (putting this finger down will lower the pitch a little bit). The topmost three pitches, A#, B and C, will all speak better without the right hand pinky just as on the flute.
   Use your tuner and check out each note on your piccolo to know your personal ballpark tendency, so that you can adjust to make the proper correction. Another problem though is overcompensation. Too often we think the note in question might be out of tune and make unneeded adjustments. For instance, C3 has a tendency to be flat, so piccolo players use a higher fingering to bring it up. Suddenly this note is now too sharp, as the correction has gone too far. Try not to tune intellectually. Listen to what is actually happening and adjust to the sounds around you. I have used three different alternate fingerings for the same pitch in a given piece, depending on the color, dynamic and blending requirements. Stay flexible in order to provide what is appropriate for that particular time.
   It also helps to remember some basic rules of pitch for the instruments you are blending with. Clarinets tend to go sharp when played softly and flat when loud, exactly the opposite of the flute, and in many cases, the piccolo.
   When tuning in an ensemble, be willing to change your pitch slightly to match a colleague so you are working with and not against your neighbors. This is why matching pitch is sometimes called favoring as you bend to meet in the middle with another player. Don’t be stubborn and refuse to move your pitch in a group. Be ready to adjust at a moment’s notice.