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Embouchure Tips for Flexibility and Endurance

Cynthia Ellis | April 2014

    Flutists who decide that they want to specialize on the piccolo will need to learn a slightly different skill set for their piccolo embouchure. Flexibility and strength are two attributes that seem as if they might be polar opposites, however, together they describe a wholeness which defines an embouchure that is fully functional, balanced, and useful for whatever musical task is at hand.

Embouchure Basics: Placement and Shape
    The biggest difference between the flute and piccolo embouchures is the size difference. Since the piccolo is so much smaller, the embouchure has to be adjusted accordingly. It always helps to place the piccolo slightly higher on the lower lip than basic flute placement due to the smaller size of the instrument.
    I play with a slightly right sided aperture, meaning the opening between my lips is not perfectly centered, but is slightly to the right of center. This is due to my teardrop-shaped lip. A teardrop shape refers to the fullness of  the skin in the center of the lips. My top lip is pitched more like a roof and is not straight across. The ideal anatomical shape for the top lip of a flutist is one that is straighter across, but there are many players with beautiful tones who were born with a teardrop shape to their top lip.
    I find it helpful to make sure that the piccolo is centered on the off-center aperture, which for me means placing the piccolo ever so slightly to the right side so the instrument is in the perfect place to coincide with my anatomy. Many players play off center, so experiment with this idea. Also, remember to consider the angle of the instrument horizontally. In other words, the piccolo has to be parallel to the aperture as well. Even though the piccolo is tiny, it is not held parallel to the floor. (A parallel position is often seen in marching band show competitions.) Experiment with this angle to find the spot where the tone really rings.
    I find that my lips are placed slightly more forward than my flute embouchure, which gives the airstream just the right boost to reach the back wall of the embouchure hole. The piccolo’s smaller target space demands a higher angle for the airstream.

    When musicians speak about flexibility, they usually refer to two separate concepts: being able to sound great in any octave, and being able to make smooth transitions between octaves. I usually warm up on the piccolo by starting in the lowest octave (see Flute Talk, January 2014, Let’s Talk Picc). This approach makes sure that my embouchure knows the perfect placement for every note from the bottom of the register. To work on smooth transitions between octaves, there is no better exercise than arpeggios of any kind. Start small, with only a one octave range if you are new to the piccolo. As your experience increases, make those arpeggios larger, eventually encompassing the full range of the instrument. One of my favorite exercises is found in the Towarnicki Studium Techniki book, page 119. For flexibility work, I practice these slurred by the measure. You can always change it up a little bit and practice it single and double tongued.

    Flexibility may also include being able to stay in great shape for flute playing, since piccolo players switch back and forth quite a bit between the two instruments.
    A great exercise to maintain flexibility is to play on the alto flute after practicing piccolo but before you go back to the C flute. This ensures that you must open the aperture fully and completely. When I need to spend a lot of time in the 3rd octave of the piccolo, I make sure to practice a lot of low long tones on the C flute to keep my embouchure in good shape.

    When musicians speak about endurance or strength, they usually are referring to the ability to be able to play without fatigue and still sound focused. I believe another component is consistency of sound as well. This means that the player is always able to have notes speak cleanly with a glorious tone.
    When first working with the piccolo, I always tell students to limit their range and only play up to E6 for the first two weeks of practice. Then they expand the range by thirds, working to high G, then high Bb, and last of all, conquering high B natural and C. Remember that for many piccolo players, high B and C will work best with no right hand pinky (D# key closed). Also, it may help to use the first trill key for high B instead of the second trill key. This may help the note speak better and also lower the pitch. Once a player can work through the entire range of the instrument with a good sound, it is time to develop consistency.
    I never play to the point of fatigue in my practice sessions, but try to practice to about 80% of the fatigue point. Limiting the amount of time practicing is a good way to prevent total fatigue. I never go beyond 45 minutes without taking a short break, and if you are new to the piccolo, even 15-minute chunks of time can be productive as it will give you enough time to work on a concept correctly and give you time to catch yourself doing something right without any physical or mental fatigue to sabotage the best efforts.