Piccolo Basics

John Ranck | February 2018

    Although the piccolo and the flute share many similarities in construction, there are a few differences that affect how to approach each instrument. The most obvious is that the piccolo has a conical bore, and the flute has a cylindrical bore. This reverses the pitch tendencies on the piccolo compared to the flute, especially the high G. This is normally a sharp note on the flute but flat on the piccolo. 

Setup and Placement 

    The cork for the flute is adjusted so the tuning rod’s register line is placed in the center of the embouchure hole. On the piccolo, however, the top notes speak more easily if the cork is adjusted slightly right of center. 
    Even though a lower placement on the bottom lip is generally good for the flute sound and intonation, the piccolo should be placed higher on the lip. If you place the piccolo so it feels the same as the flute, the bottom lip is probably covering too much of the piccolo’s embouchure hole. Covering too much stifles the sound. It will also cause middle E and F to crack more easily and will make the highest notes difficult to produce.

    When shopping for an instrument, one of the most important things to test is how in tune the three D’s are. Be especially careful to check the middle D with the other two. It tends to be sharp and unlike the flute, piccoloists do not have the option of slightly pulling out the footjoint to bring D2 into good intonation. 
    In order for the three D’s to be better in tune, experiment with slightly pulling out the piccolo’s headjoint until they are more or less in tune with each other without any embouchure manipulation. If the A is too flat, experiment with pushing the headjoint back in a bit to find a compromise place for all three notes. 
    On some instruments the top A will speak more easily and be slightly sharper if you remove the right-hand pinkie from the D# key. If possible, purchase an instrument with a C# trill. In addition to making the B-C# trill easier, this key may be used with the first trill key to make the C and C# to D trills better in tune, and use it by itself to make the high F#-G trill much more in tune. The C# trill also provides for a much easier G3-A3 trill. 

Air Stream 

    Be sure to use a moving air stream when playing the top octave softly, when making soft solo entrances on the top F, G or A, and in any orchestral music passages where the piccolo writing is in octaves with the top octave of the flute. This is also important in piano passages that are in octaves with the string sections, especially with the violins. It is also important to keep the air moving at the end of passages that begin in the lower register and continue to the top of the instrument. 

    The top notes speak more easily if the mouth is shaped as if saying ee (i.e. the tongue up in the back). Conversely, the low register will respond better with the ah syllable. 
    Given the piccolo’s size relative to the flute, it is even more important when switching instruments to adhere to the following adage: “Forte sound, piano fingers.” Heavy finger force leads to notes cracking or to disrupting a legato passage. 
    As with the flute, it is important to think of the front to back lip opening of the aperture more like a rifle than a pistol, as Thomas Nyfenger suggested in his book, Music and the flute. That is, purse the lips forward, making the passage through which the air passes as long as possible. This offers much greater control in directing the air stream and in controlling the sound.       

    Thomas Nyfenger, Music and the flute, Guilford, Ct: T. Nyfenger, 1986. This, his other book, Beyond the Notes, and his CD are available from nyfenger.com, or on Amazon.com.

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Special Fingerings 

•    For a piano middle-octave A, add the right-hand three fingers with no pinkie. 

•    For a piano C above the staff, finger an F without the thumb. This is especially useful in passages where that sustained note is in octaves with other instruments, and especially in orchestral passages where that note coincides with the first flutist playing a C7. In that case, suggest the flutist finger C7 using a top octave B fingering minus the thumb. Or you can suggest that the flutist can play that C an octave lower or let you take the note by yourself. 

•    For improved C#/Db above the staff, finger a top octave D adding the right-hand second, third and fourth fingers. This fingering is also useful on the flute’s C#/Db6 fingering. 

•    To raise the pitch of a sustained piano top octave D, add the G# and the right-hand first finger. For an extra sharp top octave D, add the D# key and the right-hand second, third, and fourth fingers to the usual fingering.  These fingerings are especially useful in orchestral scoring in which the piccolo is playing with the violins in octaves.  

•    For trilling the top octave F to G on both the flute and the piccolo, finger the top octave F, add the right-hand ring finger and trill the left-hand thumb and index fingers. 

•    The right-hand pinkie should be lifted for all notes above the top octave B. 

•    For the written C#7, add the right-hand index finger to the C7 fingering.