We have all been there – everything is going fine, and then suddenly the piccolo does not sound quite right; the orchestra seems to be in two different places; or the conductor is momentarily lost (yes, it does happen.). What is a player to do? First of all, do not panic. Here are a few common issues that happen to piccolo players with a few quick fix suggestions.
What if I get a bubble in a key?
Most often the temperature of breath is warmer than the temperature of the air in performance venues. This means condensation can form on the inside of the piccolo and sometimes a water bubble will form between the tone-hole and the key. The water has a suction-like action and clings to the tone hole forming a seal. When this happens, it is possible to raise the key and still have a problem. You can carefully pop the bubble with a fingernail during a rest, or if you have a bit more time, use a cigarette paper or pad cleaning paper to pop the bubble. The paper will also absorb the excess moisture that might be released. If any water is still present, dry it carefully. The piccolo should be good to go for the rest of the concert once the bubble has been broken. No further long-term problems should occur.
What happens if a pad falls out?
This problem needs professional attention for the best and most permanent repair. Because the keys of the piccolo are small and close together, the quick fix that is often used on flutes (heating the glue on the key cup with a match or cigarette lighter and resticking the pad back in the key cup) becomes much trickier. A soldering gun might be able to offer a pinpoint heat source if one is available. Sometimes a scotch tape sling that tapes the pad to the key might get you through a concert, but afterwards, see a repairman.
What if a kicker falls off?
The cork or felt kickers can become dislodged as they are quite small and vulnerable. Try to use tape to build up the space between the metal of the mechanism and the body of the piccolo. Post-it notes also work quite well, and they can easily be cut to fit the tiniest area. Visit a repairman to fix it permanently.
What if a pivot screw falls off?
Again, a repair technician is the real solution to this problem. In an emergency, cut a conically shaped toothpick shorter and insert one end in lieu of the missing pivot screw.
What if the orchestra gets lost?
This is an important consideration for the piccolo player because the piccolo is usually audible in the orchestral texture and as the highest pitch, can help the orchestra get back together. Sometimes orchestras get lost while you are counting measures of rest. When a crisis occurs, you have a quick decision to make. Which group of the orchestra should you follow? Sometimes there is no correct answer, but generally it makes sense to enter with the majority of players as the majority will hopefully unite the lost stragglers.
Another alternative is to join the brass section as their volume alone will also serve as a beacon to the lost sections of the orchestra. The loud sound of the brass section also makes it difficult for them to hear the rest of the group, and they may be unaware of the problem. It helps to know the music thoroughly so that you find your place.
There is a story about the Cleveland Orchestra from many years ago. The orchestra was on tour in Russia playing the Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2. The orchestra had arrived at the final dance section when the power went out on the stage. One by one, players dropped out except for the lone Eb clarinet player who had memorized his entire part. He kept playing, and when the power came back on after a few moments, the other players recognized where he was and joined in again. The whole orchestra finished the piece together to a rousing ovation. Conductors occasionally get lost for a moment or two as well, so it helps to know the music and realize there are certain times when not following the conductor is the wisest choice.
What if my piccolo gets a crack?
Repairing a crack is not something players should attempt at home. Take the piccolo to a repair shop to have it fixed properly. Calm down and remember a repair technician can bring the instrument back to perfect playing condition.
Each piccolo is distinctive in that it is made out of a biological medium, wood. The wood is aged and cut to minimize the potential for cracks, but it is possible to have problems no matter the precautions taken. The basic repair for cracks in piccolos involves super glue or epoxy glue of some kind and wood dust. Super glue has a capillary action, meaning if you put a small amount at the end of the crack, it wicks up the length of the crack to fill it. Adding wood dust to match the wood of the instrument (grenadilla dust, or rosewood, or whichever wood the piccolo is made of) helps mask the shiny look of the glue when it dries. A bit of judicious light sanding of the surface helps mask the slightly tell-tale shine of the glue as well. You may have heard of pinning a crack in wood, but this method is not practical for the thin walls of piccolos. Generally pinning the crack works better on the thicker wood of oboes and clarinets. The glue fix is quite permanent and the instrument is usually back to its normal condition after the glue dries.
Performances provide excitement for the audience and players as the musical creation unfolds. Occasionally there is more excitement than expected. When a musical emergency arises, stay calm and figure out the best solution.