Playing the piccolo in tune takes an experienced ear, knowledge of special fingerings, and an ability to adjust quickly and accurately. Continued practice with a tuner will help you discover pitch tendencies on your piccolo and help you play with confidence.
Cylindrical vs. Conical Piccolos
Piccolos are made with either cylindrical or conical bores. Cylindrical piccolos (sometimes called little flutes) are in fact “octave higher little flutes.” Like a flute, the headjoint is tapered and the body is cylindrical. Conical piccolos reverse the acoustical shape of the instrument and have a cylindrical headjoint and a tapered body.
Cylindrical piccolos are almost always metal instruments and are silver or silver-plated. They speak freely throughout the range. While often more in tune, they project less well than conical instruments. For this reason a cylindrical piccolo can be a great choice for a player to use in a concert band where the piccolo player sits right in front of the conductor. The timbre of the instrument is especially useful for repertoire that features writing in the top octave at quieter dynamics. They are also wonderful for students learning to play the instrument.
Conical piccolos are known for their projection and are made of wood (grenadilla), silver or a composite. D5 (remember the piccolo sounds one octave higher than written) is the lowest note on both the cylindrical and conical piccolos; however, piccolos are being developed that play down to C5. In general, professional players prefer wooden conical piccolos. These instruments project best in orchestral settings and have a beautiful low register.
Each and every piccolo has its own tuning tendencies. Small adjustments of any kind make a large difference to such a little instrument, so it is important to learn the particular propensities of the instrument you play. I prefer to play scales and intervals with a flute colleague to learn the proper adjustments by listening to offending beats while tuning difference tones. (To practice difference tone tuning, player 1 plays a top octave A while player 2 plays a top octave F. Listen for the lower note. This is the difference tone.)
Flutists are taught to check the cork placement with the line on the cleaning rod. Once the line on the cleaning rod is positioned in the center of the embouchure hole, they are instructed to leave it alone. With the piccolo, this will not be the case.
When tuning a piccolo, start by inserting the cleaning rod into the headjoint. The line on the piccolo rod is 11 mm. Just like on the flute, start by positioning this line in the center of the embouchure hole. If the line is too close to the crown end of the headjoint, unscrew the crown and gently push the cork assembly towards the embouchure hole. If the line is too far from the center of the embouchure hole, simply tighten the crown until the cork assembly is in the center of the embouchure hole.
Once the line is centered in the embouchure hole, check the As and Ds with a tuner. Notice the discrepancies. Often the third octave of the piccolo is flat and is also difficult to play. A sometimes overlooked option for tuning is adjusting the position of the headjoint cork. Modern flute players are generally taught to avoid moving the cork. However with conical piccolos, the ability to change the position of the cork is critical for tuning.
On the conical piccolo the top octave D (sounding D6) is the crucial note to overall tuning and is often very flat. It is often low in pitch due to the fact that the fingering is achieved by overblowing the lowest G to the third partial and then lifting the left hand index finger. To bring the D pitch up, it is often best to move the cork closer towards the center of the embouchure hole. This measurement may around 9 mm rather than the traditional 11 mm on the cleaning rod. Sometimes a bit closer is even better yet. Move the cork until the D6 is in tune with the tuner. With the cork in its new position, you may not need to pull the headjoint out at all to tune. This will keep the inside bore smoother and will also help the sound. You will notice that the entire third octave is now freer, fuller, and better in tune, and the highest notes will be easier to produce. With some experimentation you will find just the right place for the cork. The goal is to make the third octave seem more like an extension of the flute. With the cork newly adjusted, the middle octave D may be a bit sharp, but it is easy enough to adjust this note with the lip and/or air stream direction.
More than One
Many professional piccolo players own several piccolos and select the best instrument for the part at hand. John Krell, legendary piccolo player of the Philadelphia Orchestra, played both a silver and a wooden conical piccolo. He told me that conductor Leopold Stokowski would instruct him as to which piccolo was preferable for a particular piece.
Do not be afraid to experiment with the placement of the cork for conical piccolos. My teacher Keith Brion, who was a student of John Krell, suggested this method to me. Proof came to me years ago when Brion and I tuned a section of twenty high school piccolo players with this method. It was amazing how in tune the solo from John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes sounded afterwards. For good measure, be sure to use the last three fingers of the left hand to trill the Eb to F in the band version of this solo and always add the right hand second and third fingers for the high Ab’s.