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Questions and Answers

Cynthia Ellis | July August 2010

    When teaching students working on piccolo, there always seem to be a few standard questions about the instrument that come up. I have included a few of the most interesting and frequently asked questions this month, and hopefully the answers will help your students understand the piccolo much better.

Why is it so hard to play softly on the piccolo?

    The piccolo is smaller than the flute. Therefore, it takes a more controlled embouchure and a faster air speed to make the soft notes really shimmer. The aperture must be even smaller than the smallest flute aperture you might use on a piano dynamic. The lip  should also round and come forward more. It is tempting to blow harder, but this only results in a rather harsh sound and considerable extra noise around the embouchure hole. Instead, use great support, a fast moving air stream, and think of spinning the air rather than pushing it against the outside wall of the embouchure hole. You don’t need a lot of air, but what you use should move very fast. This should provide better control. Remember to practice playing softly every day. You need to train your body to make these slight adjustments so that they are there when you need them. Muscle memory is a powerful component.

Why are alternate fingerings helpful?

    The piccolo has traditionally been fingered just like a flute, which has a cylindrical bore. However, the piccolo has a conical bore with a cylindrical head and does not respond in exactly the same way a flute does. Some alternate fingerings can be used to improve response, and others are useful to alter pitch and/or color. I regularly use four different alternates for the C above the staff, depending on the dynamic level at hand and the intonation requirements. (Fingerings that raise the pitch are helpful when doubling with strings in their highest registers, for example).
    The alternates for C above the staff are 124 134, 123 13, 123 14, 13 134. You should know the intonation tendencies of each alternate and choose the one that suits the situation best.

How do different woods change the color and sound quality of the instrument?
    Grenadilla wood, a hardwood from Africa, has become the standard in piccolo making as it has the least shrinkage and is therefore a practical choice. I consulted with Lillian Burkart of Burkart Flutes and their main repair technician, Tim Bower, for some additional information: “To objectively answer this question we must compare cookie cutter piccolos with the exact dimensions, same scale, embouchure hole, and no handwork involved. Woods of lighter density, such as Rose woods, Cocobola, and Cocus wood, offer a brighter and sweeter sound in the piccolo. Grenadilla wood, with its greater density, has a tight grain structure, and its reflective surface renders a darker, richer, fuller sound. The piccolo to die for might be made of ebony because it is even more dense, but it is impractical because it is too brittle to be a woodwind instrument”.
    Bickford Brannen, recently retired from the Brannen Bros. flute company, states that, when the company was making piccolos, players often preferred one type of wood over another, although the differences could not be proven. “What was proven was that you will never get a total concensus on any change that you make,” he stated. Respons-iveness and tone preferences are just simply too individual.
    Jim Keefe, the founder of Keefe Piccolos, comments that Gren-adilla and Cocus wood are both members of the Rosewood family (genus Delbergia). He agrees that Cocus wood is less dense than Grenadilla, and states that when he was working at Brannen Bros., they made piccolos out of both woods and some players bought one of each ­– Grenadilla for orchestral playing and Cocus wood for chamber music.

Is the crown on the piccolo as important to sound as it is on the flute?
    Crowns of different densities, (various metals usually provide this) can create a marked difference in the response and color of flute tone, which is surprising for such a small part of our equipment. It comes down to personal choice as to which crown makes the best match on a flute headjoint, and the same is true for piccolo. A panel of seven players tested this using one piccolo and one headjoint, switching out the crowns only. Crowns tested were made of grenadilla, rosewood, cocobola, and solid gold. While all players felt there were subtle differences, no two players agreed on which was more or less favorable.

How often should the wood  be oiled?

    Never oil the inside or outside of your grenadilla piccolo body! Your piccolo simply does not need it, and surface oil treatment does not penetrate the wood. You also do not want oil anywhere near the key pads.
    Lillian Burkart offers this tip: “Oil can be used for cosmetic purposes on the exterior of the head joint to remove the whitish deposit that can occur around the embouchure hole. Apply almond oil over the deposit and rub the surface with the edge of a popsicle stick. Then thoroughly remove the oil with a clean paper towel. With some players this deposit builds up inside the upper tone holes, and this leads to constriction or a narrowing of the diameter of the tonehole. This residue should be removed only by a professional repair person.” In other words, do not try this at home.

Is it OK to use earplugs when practicing the piccolo?

    First of all, make sure that you are not forcing the sound by using too much air and getting a harsh sound quality; this kind of tone is painful for players and listeners alike. If you are practicing high register passages, it is sometimes helpful to use an earplug especially in the right ear. I use custom-made musicians’ ear plugs that you can get through any registered audiologist or hearing specialist’s office.
    These ear plugs cut off only the strongest decibel levels so that your level of hearing is not affected throughout the whole spectrum. Disposable foam ear plugs work very well also. I find that using an ear plug in one ear helps with audio overload, without too much distortion when practicing high or loud passages.

    If you have any questions pertaining to the piccolo, send an email to