Articulation provides many musical functions. First and most basically, it begins the majority of the notes that we play. Articulation also provides a kind of rhythm within phrases: think of the interesting structural phrase contours created by areas of legato (non-articulated notes) as they contrast with articulated notes. Last but not least, the particular articulation style chosen can be a valuable tool for artistic expression: how performers interpret and execute staccatos, portamentos, and accents creates an extensive vocabulary of interesting sounds. Matching the type of staccato or portamento to the music is an artistic dilemma that provides much interesting fodder for the practice studio.
Because of the piccolo’s diminutive size, articulation can be a bit trickier to master than on the flute. It is very important to know the basics of single, double, and triple tonguing and become proficient on them on the flute before transferring these skills to the piccolo. There are wonderful drills in several books. Georges Barrere’s The Flutist’s Formula, Trevor Wyes’ Practice Book: Articulation, vol. 3, Mary Karen Clardy’s Flute Fundamentals, and the Moyse Ecole De L’Articulation are some of my favorites for daily work. Many etude books also have studies that feature articulation, so look for opportunities to polish this skill while practicing your daily etudes and exercises
Many beginners move the whole tongue, which results in muddy articulation. This is evident when you look in a mirror while tongueing. If you see lots of movement in the throat area, you are probably moving too much of the tongue when you articulate.
On piccolo, it is critical to move only the front of the tongue, so that it interferes with the air stream as little as possible. It takes time and good practice discipline to transfer the action of articulation to the tip of the tongue only. By discipline in practice I mean listening carefully to hear the difference in sound and attack, using a sense of kinesetic awareness (being aware of where your tongue is in your mouth), and lots of repetition when things work well.
It is also important on the piccolo to use even less tongue pressure and keep the tongue motion to a minimum: articulate even lighter than you would on the flute. There is a tendency at times to hammer with the tongue as well, in an attempt to push the air out. This results in that unpleasant lip sputtering and a bronx cheer or lip buzz if you over-do the tongue pressure.
One of my teachers, Patricia Garside, used to remind me that all articulation exercises are really tone studies. The tone must be focused; if it isn’t you will not be able to produce clean, clear articulation. Take care of tonal business first.
There are many choices of syllables to use when articulating, and each syllable uses a combination of a consonant and a vowel. The consonants for single tonguing or the first stroke in multiple articulation patterns are T, D, which creates a softer sound, K for a more detached double tongue, or G for a more smoothly flowing double tongue. The vowels can be either a, e or i in combination with the consonants listed above.
For example, putting together a D consonant with an e vowel results in DE GE, one of my most frequent choices for sustained double tonguing passages.
I would most likely change both the vowel and consonant to TI KI to produce a more perky style required for the dancing doll solo from Coppelia. Make sure to keep the air flow constant to avoid sounding choppy, which could occur because of the slightly shorter syllable choice.
Experiment by changing vowel and consonant sounds, and listen to the different effects. Be aware of the difference of the height and shape of the tongue in the mouth when changing vowels. Remember, the tongue motion should be as far forward as possible.
It is important to make sure that the second note of slurred pairs is not chopped off. In this example from Aida make sure that your tongue is not involved in stopping the notes, only in beginning each new slurred pair.
Piccolo players should use their ears to match their articulation style to various orchestral textures. Piccolo parts often double a line with a melodic percussion instrument, and players should match the xylophone sound as closely as possible. Think of how precise a percussion attack is and match that clarity. This is a very different kind of attack from that of entering with the string section, for example. Strings have a way of beginning a sound that is less immediate than wind players’ entrances, largely due to the mechanics of the bow. Piccolo players may want to use an even softer attack in that situation.
Let your imagination be your guide to create an appropriate way of articulating in an ensemble, carefully matching those around you.