Controlling the Air on Piccolo

Cynthia Ellis | January 2009

    Playing a piccolo is physically different than playing a flute. The small size of the instrument is responsible for many of the differences, from the initial instrument placement on the lip to a necessary shift in the way we think of using our air column.
    Let’s begin by discussing instrument position on the lip. Because the piccolo’s embouchure hole is so much smaller than the flute’s, you must place the instrument higher on the lower lip so that the air can reach the back wall at an optimum angle. Placing the edge of the embouchure where the pink skin of the lip meets the flesh-toned chin skin is optimal for flute. Moving up onto the actual lip itself is better for the piccolo. This insures that the air column reaches a very efficient spot on the back wall of the embouchure hole, which is our tonal target. You will also need to use a smaller aperture than what you are used to on the flute.
    There are no specific, special breathing techniques that are different for piccolo from flute, but there are a couple of options to consider. The inhalation can occur from the top down or the bottom up. By that I mean, a player can inflate the lungs from the bottom up (as in diaphragm or abdominal breathing) and continue to inflate the chest and expand the rib cage after that, or they can inflate the rib cage first and the abdominal area second. Experiment with which method works best for you in various circumstances.
    Remember to take in only as much air as you need for a specific phrase. Because a piccolo bore is smaller than a flute bore, less air is required; therefore, a short phrase does not require a huge, full tank of air. It is easy to feel uncomfortable with excess air left over at the end of a phrase. Oboe players face a similar problem when they have too much air, rather than too little. Take only a bit of air for a little passage of music, and more for a longer passage.
    The piccolo requires more support than flute and a faster moving, more lean and nimble air column. Many, many novice piccolo players over blow and sound harsh because they move the air on piccolo the same way they move the air on flute. A very helpful exercise is to play soft long tones on piccolo and time them with a goal of sustaining a good quality sound for  about 60 seconds. This requires control of the air column at each moment of the exhalation process.
    The perceived or sensed physical difference at various points during the release of the air can be divided into three focus points: immediatly after taking a breath, the mid-point of the air release, and near the end of the exhalation process.
•    Right after taking a breath, the lungs feel full; the analogy of a full tank of gas works well here. I find that the control required to keep from exhaling too much or too fast, is considerable during this full-tank phase. Think of keeping the lungs full and saving the air, to avoid letting too much air out at the very beginning. This is one of the moments when support – that feeling of pushing out or down as the exhalation process occurs – is crucial. I believe that you should keep the ribcage expanded during this phase. Mastering control of the air when the lungs are very full can lead to greater long-term control of the air column.

•    The most comfortable exhalation point is in the middle, when the lungs are neither too full nor too empty. The supportive feelings from the intercostal muscles, ribcage area, and diaphragm are working naturally as the air is being expelled.

•    Towards the end of an exhalation, you are near the bottom of your lung capacity, running on empty as it were. You might even feel a critical need for another breath to replenish the air supply. A greater feeling of support is necessary to compensate for the now almost empty lungs. It is important to concentrate on keeping the air column steady as the end of the note is approaching. Maintaining control during the final seconds of any note also requires keeping the vibrato steady as the release nears.  
    While breathing is a natural bodily function that need not be overly complex when applied to the piccolo, air management or budgeting the release of the air, one of the key concepts for all wind instruments, is critical for piccolo players.