Perfecting Intonation on the Piccolo

Regina Helcher Yost | July August 2014

    Performing with perfect intonation on the piccolo is one of the most important and challenging skills for a piccolo player to master. A performer might have the most beautiful sound, a flawless technique, and breath-taking phrases, but if there is poor intonation, none of that matters.
    Professional piccolo players differ in the distance they pull the headjoint from the body of the instrument. I generally pull out about 1/8 inch, but if a piece of music is very loud and constantly in the high register, such as Shostakovich Symphony No. 10, I pull out as much as 1/4 inch. Some professional piccolo players feel that the headjoint should always be in one position on the body of the instrument and they never move it. They store the piccolo in a case that allows the piccolo to remain in one piece and dry the interior of the instrument with an extra-long swab. Other piccoloists frequently move the headjoint in and out during the rests of a piece while performing to accommodate pitch. Basically there is no right or wrong solution. Find the way that works for you.
    Just like the flute, temperature can affect the pitch of a piccolo. Cold temperatures make the piccolo extremely flat, and warm temperatures make it sharp. In these instances place the headjoint in a slightly different distance than normal to accommodate for the change in pitch. In cold temperatures place a soft cloth over the piccolo when it is not being played to keep it warmer so the pitch is more stable.
    One of the characteristics that makes the piccolo difficult to play in tune is its small size. The late Jack Wellbaum (former piccolo, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra) used to tell his students, “Everything you do on the piccolo is like putting your flute playing under a magnifying glass. If you are out of tune on the flute on a particular note, you will be really out of tune on that note on the piccolo. Every tiny movement on the piccolo produces a big change in intonation.”
    So, how do we develop perfect intonation on the piccolo? The answer, of course, is to own a tuner, practice with the tuner, and listen when playing.

Tuner Practice
    Set the tuner to A=440. Tune the first and second octave As. Pull the headjoint out if you are sharp, or push the headjoint in if you are flat. Since the piccolo is small, even a small change makes a huge difference in the intonation. With the tuner, play a long tone on each note on the piccolo first at forte, then at piano. Produce your most beautiful sound while maintaining A=440. Begin on the middle octave B and descend chromatically to the low octave D. Then begin again on the middle octave B and ascend to the highest C. If necessary, roll the headjoint in if it is sharp or out if it is flat. Use very small increments for these minute adjustments.
    Next, develop a sense of pitch by repeating the exercise. However, this time look at the tuner only after adjusting the pitch. If it is out of tune with the tuner, repeat this exercise noting any pitch tendencies on the instrument. Record these pitch tendencies in a notebook for further review.
    Finally, set the tuner to produce sound on the tonic note of the key of the piece you are preparing. For example, when playing a piece in A major, set the tuner to produce an A. Play the piece slowly relating each note to the tonic. When the music modulates, change the tuner to produce sound on the new tonic note. 

Performing with Others
    The notes on the piccolo are so high that most other instrumentalists in the orchestra simply cannot hear the intonation of the piccolo. The piccolo player should tune to them rather than the reverse. Practice with the tuner every day to develop your ears so you can quickly adjust to others. Sometimes this adjustment requires the piccolist to play out of tune on purpose to accommodate other instrumentalists on certain notes.
    When playing in an ensemble, tune the piccolo to A=440 before the rehearsal or concert as it may be difficult for the tuner to register when others are tuning. A contact microphone that plugs into the tuner and attaches to the piccolo can be quite useful.
    If the instrument becomes out of tune in the middle of a piece when you cannot stop to fix it, adjust the amount of pressure used to place the piccolo in the chin. Increase the pressure to lower the pitch or lessen the pressure to raise the pitch. Another pitch raising tip is to push the piccolo slightly away with the right hand only. This works well when making a taper or diminuendo on the end of a long held note.
    Explore alternate fingerings that can be found online or in several of the excellent piccolo tutors. A good way to learn which alternate fingerings work the best is to take some lessons with an experienced orchestral piccolo player. Incorporate these fingerings into a daily long-note tuning practice routine.

Alternate Fingerings
1. 1230, 1230 (to slightly raise B above the staff), no thumb.

2. 1230, 1030 (to slightly raise C above the staff), no thumb.

3. 0230, 0234 (to slightly raise C# above the staff), no thumb.

4. 0234, 1004 (to slightly raise D above the staff), no thumb.

5. 1030, 1034, thumb.

The way to learn how to perform with perfect intonation on the piccolo is similar to the answer to, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Practice, practice, practice and listen, listen, listen.