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Urban Myths

Cynthia Ellis | March 2013

    There are many ideas about the piccolo floating around. Many are true and helpful while others are closer to urban myths. These stories are repeated so often people start believing they are true. Test your piccolo knowledge with these common beliefs. 

Playing piccolo ruins your flute embouchure.
    This is false. Too much of anything is not be good for you, whether it is carrot juice or ice cream, but in general, playing piccolo will not ruin a player’s flute chops or embouchure. Of course, it is important to practice sensibly. For example, do not take the piccolo out of the case and suddenly play fortissimo long tones in the third octave (or extremely soft high notes either, for that matter) without warming up. In all things, moderation is the key. In preparation for a piccolo concert, don’t cram practice into the last few days. Generally piccolo practice should begin after flute practice. Begin weeks in advance to build endurance so that you can practice at least 15 minutes without taking a break. Eventually expand the practice session until to 45 minutes before taking a break. At the conclusion of a piccolo practice session, play a few long tones on the flute to restore a sense of flexibility in the embouchure. I often also practice harmonics and whistle tones for the same reason. 

You should oil your piccolo.
    It is unnecessary to oil the inside or outside of a grenadilla piccolo body. There are several reasons: First the piccolo is simply not that thirsty and does not need it. Another reason is that surface oil treatment does not penetrate the wood. Finally, oil should not be anywhere near the pads. However, oil can be used for cosmetic purposes on the exterior of the headjoint to remove the whitish deposit that sometimes occurs 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. Some players find that this white deposit builds up inside the upper tone holes and leads to constriction or a narrowing of the diameter of the tonehole. This residue should be removed by a professional repair person.

Temperature is a factor when playing a wooden piccolo.
    This one is true. Piccolo players should pay attention to the temperature when playing a wooden instrument. When traveling to and from rehearsals, keep the instrument inside a well-protected case and case cover. Several manufacturers offer fine products lined with fleece or thinsulate materials that protect the instrument from extreme temperatures. The gig bags that are made today are also lined with several layers of temperature mitigating fabrics, including Mylar (the shiny aluminum colored fabrics that space blankets are made from). It makes sense to use a thermal insulated bag for transporting instruments to and from the concert hall.
    When I get to the hall, I let my piccolo acclimate for a few minutes after I take it out of the case. Think about how cold a metal flutes feels in the winter when first taken from the case. I hold the piccolo in my hands or against my body to bring the outside temperature of the wood up a bit before I begin playing. I learned this trick from an oboist colleague of mine. She always warmed up each joint of the instrument on the outside surfaces before beginning to play. It makes a good deal of sense to keep the entire instrument, inside and out, near the same mean temperature. Of course the breath naturally warms up the inside of the instrument.
    Keeping the piccolo warm in between entrances is also important. Bubbles can form and seal keys open if there is too great a difference in temperature from the ambient room temperature to the temperature of the air column.

Earplugs should be worn when playing piccolo.
    If you are practicing high register passages, it is a good idea to use an earplug, especially in the right ear. I use custom-made musician’s ear plugs that are available through an audiologist or hearing specialist’s office. These ear plugs cut off the strongest decibel levels only so that the level of hearing is not affected throughout the whole spectrum. Disposable foam ear plugs work well also. I keep a large box of these and use them regularly in aerobic workout classes (where the music is always too loud) as well as at many movie theaters. I find that using an ear plug in one ear helps with audio overload, without too much distortion when practicing high or loud passages. Since the sound changes a little when wearing earplugs, use them in practice before trying them in a rehearsal. 

You should swab the piccolo out several times during a practice or rehearsal.
    This is often true when it is colder because there will be more moisture to swab. The temperature of the breath is warmer than the outdoor ambient temperature, so more condensation forms. Watch the moisture on the back wall of the embouchure hole. In addition to swabs, I sometimes use my right hand pinkie to dab off extra moisture that accumulates on the back wall of the piccolo.
    You should set the piccolo in the same place on the lip as when playing flute.
    Actually the piccolo should go slightly higher on the lower lip than it does when playing flute due to the much smaller size of the embouchure hole of the piccolo. Setting it higher will help create the optimum distance for the air to reach the back well. If you set the piccolo too low on the lip, the tone will be unfocused and may be too loud. 
    Hopefully these answers will help stop some piccolo urban myths forever.