The first sound a listener hears is the beginning of the note or the attack. Unfortunately, the word attack implies an aggressiveness that is rarely appropriate to the music, the tone quality, or the pitch. The attack can be made with the tongue (Tu), the breath (Hah), or the lips (P or B). John Krell writes in Kincaidiana (p. 18), “[the tongue] is simply a kind of spring valve that contains and releases the appropriate impulse of pressure of air behind it.” In other words the tongue releases the air stream.
Articulation on the piccolo can be challenging since the piccolo is smaller than the flute and has less capacity for articulation. Using flute articulation on the piccolo often overpowers the tone. However, there is a simple solution: listen and tongue less. The main articulation challenges that piccolo players face are less about the actual musculature operating the tongue, and more about maintaining the correct level of support and tone placement, so that the tongue muscles are not forced to overcompensate.
The tongue is not a substitute for proper placement of the airstream. Cracking notes is a result of not appropriately estimating the support needed to play a note, with or without the tongue. Similarly, an articulation that is excessively heavy, harsh, rough, or explosive will overpower the tone, regardless of support, and quickly lead to fatigue. The following simple steps will allow piccolo players to take control of the articulation and practice without falling victim to the tongue-twister feeling that often occurs when executing difficult passages.
Breath Attacks (Hah)
In order to discover the amount of support needed for notes in the middle and high octaves, practice breath attacks. Breath attacks are tongue-less attacks in which only the air moves, and the body is still. Choose a relatively secure note in the upper middle register and play a sustained note. Notice what that level of support feels like. Now stop and start the airstream, without using the tongue to restart the note, and without relaxing the support in between. It may be helpful to give a little extra hah push of air to restart the note, but minimize the motion with this; it should not disrupt the stillness of the body or alter the support. Repeat, gradually making the spaces between the notes longer and the notes shorter until you are playing a series of staccato eighth notes. Repeat a half step above or below. You may not need to repeat the entire process this time, but do not rush ahead if the notes are not evenly supported and equal in tone quality. Five extra minutes here will save you infinite amounts of time later on. Each day practice a different set of notes in all registers.
Adding the Tongue
Next, practice the same staccato eighth notes, adding the lightest possible tongue on top or instead of the hah articulation. The tongue placement is somewhat forward, and the tongue moves quickly and lightly. Experiment with using the absolute minimum amount of contact between the tongue and the teeth or the roof of the mouth. The goal is to include the tongue motion for enhanced clarity without altering tone, pitch or airspeed at all.
Long to Short
The first exercise began with a long note and broke it up into short notes. Now elongate the tongued notes until you are playing one uninterrupted tone, lightly dropping the tongue in at regular intervals to create connected legato quarter notes. Notice how the placement of the tongue might change for low notes vs. high notes. I often find it useful to bring the tongue forward slightly for the high register, and back (or up) slightly for the low register. Something different might work better for you, but whatever it is, be sure it is serving to give you the cleanest, least obtrusive articulation in each register.
Articulating with the Lips
Occasionally music calls for an articulation somewhere between a breath attack and a legato tongue. Use the same process to experiment with a puh articulation. The lips, which are lightly closed to begin, part slightly and release the tone. The airspeed and support are constant, essentially trapped behind the closed lips. Set the support and imagine spitting a piece of fuzz off of the lips. This tiny release of the aperture is all that is required to start a note in this manner. This articulation is not transferable to double tonguing, and is not the same as articulating between the lips (which is not recommended for piccolo), but it is a highly useful articulation for graceful, pianissimo attacks.
The connection between the level of support, the airstream, and the tongue is the same when double tonguing. Repeat long, legato quarter notes inserting the K articulation on the second half of the beat. Again, minimize body motion when you add the tongue. Notice where you place the tongue for the initial T, and place the K as close as possible to the T. The motion of the articulation should be concise, and should not require the tongue to move forward and back a great deal.
Articulation practice often creates tension that is counterproductive and frustrating. Sometimes it seems the more you practice, the worse it gets. Emphasizing the tone and airstream instead of the athletic motion of the tongue will help avoid this cycle. Gradually increase the speed of these exercises, always keeping the main focus on the support of the airstream. If you start to get tired, take a break. Do not allow tension to creep into articulation practice. The goal is to find something easy and simple to create good habits, so the airstream and articulation work together, rather than interfere with one another.
When working on more difficult passagework, use the same method to practice without tension and fatigue. You will accomplish much more practicing one or two beats of the 32nd notes in Scheherazade consciously, with a minimum of motion, than drilling the entire excerpt until it falls apart. Once you feel comfortable with the basic concepts of articulation on the piccolo, experiment with a variety of styles and dynamics. A hard, Shostakovich accent, a hearty Beethoven sfz, a light Rossini staccato, and a sighing Bartók legato should all be parts of the articulation tool kit. The important thing to remember is that the same fundamental techniques apply to any style of articulation. Maintain even support and appropriate tonal note placement, and keep the tongue moving quickly and lightly. Reduce all unnecessary tension and always use the ear as your guide. You may be surprised how clearly this will lead you to where you want to go.