On Playing Piccolo

Peter Verhoyen | December 2013

    Many excellent flute players encounter problems when switching to the piccolo. The first step to success is to develop a piccolo personality. Since a piccolo sounds one octave higher than the music is written on the page, players have to develop a sense of how high these notes actually are. The next step is to develop the courage to play these high notes even though at first they may seem too high and too loud.
    A good exercise to practice is to sing a passage an octave higher than written to explore a new placement of your voice. This vocal placement is similar to what you will use in playing the piccolo. Listen to countertenor singers as they lift their voices into the high ranges of their voices and imitate what you see and hear them do. Once players have control over the instrument, they will have developed a piccolo personality.

Use a Mirror
    While looking in a mirror, change your facial expression from happy to sad. Focus on the movement of the facial muscles. The ideal approach to piccolo playing is to express happiness with all the muscles above the mouth and sadness with the mouth and jaw muscles. It is helpful to spend time examining the movement of the facial muscles as you switch from happy to sad. Remember when you are playing in an orchestra, things will happen that interfere with your ability to keep the happy/sad face. Perhaps the conductor is stern, the notes are unfamiliar, the lighting is poor, or the tempo is not comfortable. No matter what the distraction, learn to control your face.

Happy Throat Exercise
    Place the right finger tips on your neck directly above the sternum. As you change from happy to sad, feel the movement of the muscles of the throat. Then while playing piccolo, apply the new positioning of the neck muscles to your advantage. You will hear a positive effect on the piccolo sound, and intonation will improve.

    Good air support is an important part of controlling the sound when playing flute or piccolo. However, forming the embouchure is even more important for piccolo players. Contrary to what happens when playing the flute, in order to play the piccolo with a nice sound, the aperture must be smaller. Flutists who have practiced intelligently to develop a flute embouchure find their way more easily on the piccolo because they have already developed an awareness of the muscles of the embouchure. I believe the upper lip plays an even bigger role in piccolo playing than in flute playing.
    A good exercise is to position your right thumb on the red portion of upper lip at the place of your aperture. With the thumb in place, try to push the thumb down and out of the way with your upper lip. Do not release the tension in your thumb. This exercise will help you learn to use your upper lip effectively.

    A majority of professional piccolo players unfortunately adapt their flute vibrato habits to the piccolo. The best piccolo players develop a specific vibrato for piccolo use. Generally a piccolo vibrato is a little faster and narrower than a flute vibrato. Care has to be taken to maintain control of the vibrato. Imagine what would happen to a cellist if he played with a violin vibrato speed all the time. The best way to develop a good piccolo vibrato is to play melodies of all different types and styles of music. Transpose these melodies up the scale to assess the variety of colors that happen in different parts of the range. Listen to recordings of artists and imitate their vibrato habits.

    Tonguing on the piccolo is different than tonguing on the flute. On the piccolo the tip of the tongue is placed higher toward the red part of the gum just above the teeth. When I ask students to do this, I notice they have a tendency to relax the upper lip. A good thing to remember: tongue up, upper lip down. Explore other tongue placements also, but do not lose control of the upper lip.

Soft Attacks
    When playing piccolo, you will start more notes with the breath attack (without using your tongue) than when playing flute. To find a nice soft color, use a “P” (with the lips and no tongue) attack to start the note followed with a “FFF” sound to find the air stream. Use vibrato to sweeten the sound. Practice this attack on each chromatic note from C5 to C6. This articulation is perfect for soft beginnings such as the Ravel Bolero, Stravinsky Firebird and the second movement of the Vivaldi piccolo concerto.

    The first step to a good finger technique is to adapt your fingers to the smaller instrument. With the instrument held in front of you, practice alternating from D5 to E6 keeping the movement of the ring finger and pinkie very small. Check to see if there is any movement of the headjoint while doing this. If there is, use your left index finger to stabilize the piccolo. The better your control of the right ring and pinkie fingers, the more relaxed your left index finger can become.

    Return to the mirror to check your progress on all these technical aspects of piccolo playing. Practicing flute repertoire on the piccolo is an excellent way to discover how much progress you have made in developing piccolo skills. Don’t forget to have fun playing this little gem of an instrument every day.