Whether we are piccolo specialists or flutists who only play piccolo occasionally, we are all doublers on the instrument. In the music business a doubler is any player who is proficient on multiple instruments and plays them all on a job. An example of doublers would be those musicians who specialize in pit work for Broadway shows. They might play saxophone, clarinet, flute, and sometimes a bit of bassoon or oboe to accommodate the scoring of a show. Hiring doublers rather than a musician for each instrument saves the contractor money and frees up space in the pit, which is usually small and quite cramped.
Most piccolo players began as flute players, and one way or another, the fates led them to their destiny as piccolo specialists. I started playing flute when I was in elementary school and piccolo in junior high school. I never looked back. Playing both instruments was a natural fit for me. but for many flutists, piccolo is a daunting and mysterious beast.
Warmup On The Flute
Many flutists find doubling uncomfortable, but with some practice, it can be enjoyable to play piccolo occasionally. I always begin my practice routine on the flute, and move to the piccolo once all of my flute warmups have been played. Starting on flute establishes what is most familiar, your standard flute embouchure in particular, for the day and provides that essential foundation that should support your approach to both instruments. I begin with some harmonics, which underscore the embouchure and air use aspects of woodwind playing, move into Taffanel & Gaubert’s 17 Big Daily Exercises #1, #2, or #5 as a quick warm up for the fingers, and then move on to tone studies. I enjoy playing long tones that also incorporate dynamic flexibility.
Next, I play something that has some complicated finger work, such as exercises from Paul Edmund-Davies’ 28 Day Warm-up Book. His premise is that it is harder to achieve quick reflexes when picking a finger UP than when putting it DOWN. Most of the finger studies in his book focus on small triplet loops that require lots of dexterity. The articulation studies in his book are also super, and that is my next warm up area, followed by a bit of work on large intervals and arpeggios. Scales are part of the daily routine as well.
If I’m playing a lot of high register piccolo at work, I make sure to spend extra time on long tones in the flute’s low register to maintain my embouchure flexibility. The embouchure settings for high piccolo work and low flute work are so different that reminding your embouchure what it feels like to play low on the flute is essential. Without this counteractive approach, your low register flute tone will quickly disappear. The low articulation studies #1, #5, and #12 in Moyse’s Etudes et Exercices Techniques are particularly helpful for keeping my flute’s low register agile and responsive. Once I’ve gone through this warm up, I move on to flute repertoire.
Warmup On The Piccolo
My warmup on piccolo consists of a few pages from Patricia Morris’ Piccolo Study Book. I choose an etude that focuses on flexibility and another for articulation practice. Those are followed by long tones with a tuner – just to check my pitch center. I also check the intonation of any intervals that are problematic from the week’s repertoire.
When there are high register passages that require extensive practice, I use ear plugs! My practice room at home is rather small, so earplugs are helpful to save my ears (and stave off potential headaches). I use the custom fitted musicians ear plugs that are available from any audiologist but disposable foam earplugs are also quite effective.
There are two main areas of muscle memory that need attention when switching from flute to piccolo – placement and playing position. Because the piccolo is smaller than a flute, it has to be placed a bit higher on the lower lip than you are used to on the flute. The piccolo also requires a smaller aperture. Flutists doubling on the piccolo should learn to the feel of the correct piccolo placement so that they can find it quickly every time they switch from flute to piccolo.
The hands are closer together on a piccolo than they are on a flute. Consequently, the finger movement must be even lighter and smaller to fit the piccolo’s size.
Relax the shoulders, especially the right one, when playing piccolo. It is natural to want to raise the shoulders more because the hands are closer together, but we need to stay broad in the back and low in the shoulder area. You may also notice a slight difference in the angle of the instrument relative to the angle of your head, again, because the piccolo is so much shorter than a flute.
Remember that air use differs for piccolo players from the flute. The piccolo takes a faster air speed but less sheer volume (amount) of air than a flute. Don’t overload the instrument with too much air or the tone will be coarse and unrefined.
Practice the Switches
Finally, when playing music that requires you to double, practice making the switches between instruments to reinforce the muscle memory for each instrument.
I recommend using a doubling tray for the piccolo to rest upon. It is like a little shelf that attaches to the pole of the music stand and keeps the piccolo within easy reach for quick changes.
Of course, you can put the piccolo in your lap for super fast changes, but do remember that it is there when you need to stand up. Never place a piccolo on the lip of the music stand. Sometimes music stands are loose and swivel forward easily, dropping a piccolo on the floor. Many an instrument has fallen off of such a precarious perch. The music stand should hold music and a pencil only.
Instrument pegs are quite useful, but I find them a bit cumbersome for fast instrument changes, mainly because they often have be on the right side. Twisting to the right and back is often too much movement for a quick switch. Have fun with your newfound confidence as a flutist playing the piccolo!