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Let’s Talk Picc, Exploring Tone Color on Piccolo

Jennifer Bouton Schaub | November 2014

    Tone color is one of the most useful expressive tools available to flutists. However, the piccolo’s small size sometimes leads flutists to believe its color palette is more limited. Too often, players think that getting a good basic sound and playing in tune on the piccolo are challenging enough. Nevertheless, exploring tone color on the piccolo will result in a better understanding of sound, additional flexibility at various dynamic levels, and a more satisfying musical experience.

Basic Sound
    Developing a tonal palette is intensely imaginative work, but relies on an ability to listen objectively to subtle nuances in the sound and bring out certain elements by making very specific adjustments. Start with your best tone on a note that is comfortable at a variety of dynamic levels, such as a C or B above the staff. Listen to what you like and do not like in the sound. Try to accentuate the features that are pleasing to your ear.
    Next play the same note and think about focusing and lifting the sound. For some people, the body translates mental concepts into physical changes. Others may need to think about specific physical adjustments such as bringing the center of the bottom lip forward slightly or using a smaller aperture. Figure out which of these techniques works best for you – following your ear, mental concepts, or specific physical changes. A combination of methods may help you hear and create the sound you want.
Sound in Space
    Explore concepts of how sound fills a space. These are imaginative exercises designed as preparation for experimenting with tone color.

Wide Sound
    First, imagine and try to create a wider, more horizontal sound. Working again with the C or B above the staff, think of widening the sound by making a slight smile without the corners, and imagine the sound as coming out of the ears. It might feel like trying to pop the ears or opening the space in the sinuses. This can help open and broaden the tone, especially if a player’s basic sound is on the small side. It may also give the tone a bit more brightness, without sacrificing openness. This is a similar concept to vocalizing with an e vowel sound without the lips being so stretched.

Tall Sound
    Next think of creating a taller sound. Perhaps think of there being more vertical space in the back of the mouth as if yawning slightly while still maintaining the piccolo embouchure. This is similar to vocalizing with an o or ah sound. The objective is to have more depth and resonance.

Forward Sound
    For this exercise, using the same note, send the sound forward. Many teachers encourage students to play to the back of the hall, but this does not mean forcing. Concentrate on creating a full, resonant sound that spins forward. Imagine using the complete space around you.
Forte Sound: Dark vs. Edgy
    Forte on the piccolo is not simply a matter of playing as loudly as possible and accepting whatever comes out. Instead develop a sound that is bold, dark, perky, edgy, or majestic depending on the musical context.
    Play the same note as before, and feel that there is more space inside the mouth. It may help to increase the distance between the teeth and to make the aperture (opening in the lips) slightly taller. Allowing a little more room in the mouth provides space for the sound to resonate, and opening the aperture a bit lets the additional air flow out freely without buzzing the lips.
    For a darker forte sound experiment with bringing the upper lip forward slightly, but do not roll the piccolo in. The resonance will feel more contained inside the mouth; but as long as it does not inhibit the airflow, the sound should be darker without sacrificing volume. This color is crucial for section blend, and most high register fortissimo playing can benefit from this method of darkening the tone.
    For a brighter, edgier color, widen the aperture while directing the center of the lower lip slightly forward. While this will raise the pitch, this is not a concern for the moment, as the goal for now is just to explore various tone colors. Achieve the edgier brightness by subtly tightening the embouchure and directing the airstream more across the embouchure hole, which will automatically give the illusion of a louder sound as well as a sharper one. In actual playing, to produce this color change without altering the pitch, adjust the volume and speed of the air. This color is excellent for playing loudly in the middle register, as called for in works by Ravel and Shostakovich.
    Additional tone colors within the forte dynamic may be created by shading these dark and edgy extremes together. For example, it is possible to create a very satisfying forte sound with a bright edge and the depth of the darker tone by keeping the oral cavity long and the upper lip slightly forward, but using a wider aperture and a little bit of that slight smile to give tone and firmness to the embouchure. Warm, low register solos can particularly benefit from combining light and dark colors in this way, as can majestic forte passages in Brahms and Beethoven.
Piano Sound: Sweet vs. Glassy
    Playing softly on the piccolo can be nerve wracking, so it is worth spending some time developing the color palette at a reduced dynamic. You will feel much more confident knowing that you have a variety of tools available. Start with a basic sound and steadily reduce the volume while simultaneously lifting the airstream. Notice what is happening with the shape of the aperture. Imagine that the tone is a beam of light, and it is getting farther and farther away. The center of the light stays bright as it gets smaller. Stop when it starts to feel out of control, and practice sustaining this dynamic level comfortably. Gently play up a scale, or play by half-steps slowly, paying careful attention to the tone. Stop if it starts to feel tight. Sustaining a relaxed, beautiful pianissimo is like holding something very delicate – firmly so you don’t drop it, but gently so you don’t crush it either.
    For a sweet pianissimo tone, think about making the aperture round with the slightest hint of a smile. Direct the sound forward and feel the resonance in the apples of the cheeks. This quality is excellent for lyrical, sparkling, soft solos, like those in Ravel, Dvorák, and Prokofiev.
    For a glassy, icy sound, make an oval aperture and less directed resonance. This may feel like you are not projecting, but the goal is to experiment with a more opaque, dead sound. You can enliven it by blending in a brighter edge, but this is a useful color in itself. This shade is effective for exposed, contemplative solos in the quiet moments of Shostakovich, Bartók, and Stravinsky where you probably don’t need to worry as much about projection.
    The possibilities for tone color shading are limited only by the player’s creativity. After becoming comfortable with the primary colors, blend musical characters and physical techniques to create a custom palette. The piccolo is indeed tiny, but just because it paints with a smaller brush, does not mean it is limited in the range of colors available.