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Piccolo Cross-Training Benefits for Your Flute Playing

Gregory Milliren | October 2015

    Among flutists there is often a level of reluctance, at times bordering on outright refusal, to play the piccolo. Personally, I was never given a choice in the matter. At some point in my high school band days, a silvery metal piccolo was thrust into my hands by my band director for use in the marching and pep bands. Although I had not asked to play piccolo, I fell completely in love with it and got quite a thrill from being the top voice and hearing the high notes soar on top of the ensemble.
    Getting comfortable playing piccolo paid dividends down the road. As associate principal flutist of the Minnesota Orchestra, my job is to play first flute parts most of the time and auxiliary parts some of the time. Many auxiliary parts contain important 2nd piccolo lines in commonly heard works like Mahler symphonies, Stravinsky’s complete ballet The Firebird, Holst’s The Planets, and many others. This means I must often take on the piccolo in a serious way and play both in harmony and in unison with Minnesota Orchestra piccoloist Roma Duncan.
    While I can understand that not everyone gets the same enjoyment from piccolo as I do, I have discovered over the years that making the piccolo a regular part of my practice removes that fear factor and actually benefits my flute playing. Anyone can make gains from regular work on the piccolo, even if you think it is not for you, or you have little opportunity to play it in an ensemble.

Tension, & Relaxation
   Avoiding unnecessary tension helps musicians take on technical demands and avoid injury. Because the piccolo is small and light compared to the flute, there is an opportunity to address relaxation of the torso, shoulders, arms, and fingers while playing long tones and other warm-up exercises. It is also a great time to pay more attention to posture and body alignment, and taking relaxed breaths in a supported manner. When you switch back to the heavier flute, keep that same level of awareness to ward against unwanted physical tension.

   Lip strength and flexibility are the key to strong tone production throughout the range on both flute and piccolo. Due to the smaller but faster airstream needed on the piccolo, especially in high register, greater lip strength is required to prevent the air from blowing the embouchure out of shape. Thoughtful, measured and regular practice of the high register on piccolo (being careful not to strain the lip muscles) will help develop this lip strength and allow for longer stamina and ease of tone production for high notes on the flute. In addition, the smaller size of the aperture and more refined control needed on piccolo lead to greater awareness and control over the primary muscles in the lips used to form a properly shaped flute embou-chure. Remember to wear earplugs when practicing in the high register on piccolo.
   Squeezing or forcing the lips together tightly to get a smaller aperture is incorrect and is what leads to the often-heard complaint that playing piccolo ruins a flute embouchure. (Incidentally, it is probably also a sign that there is squeezing or forcing on your flute embouchure as well.) Use a mirror to help you see visually what needs to happen. The goal is to form a very small aperture between the lips without straining the lip muscles. That being said, the muscles will have to work harder since air will move faster through a smaller opening than a larger opening. Be sure to take frequent breaks to prevent the lip muscles from getting overly tired which can lead to forcing or squeezing.

Resonance & Support
   Because the piccolo is a small instrument, it does not have as much natural resonance as the flute. This means that producing a full, beautiful sound on the piccolo requires a greater reliance on an open and relaxed throat and inner mouth shape to provide additional resonance from inside the body. This must simultaneously be accompanied by greater effort from the support mechanism, especially in the soft dynamics. This additional support and openness on the piccolo will greatly deepen and enhance flute sound when you switch back. While playing a favorite long tone exercise, imagine the sides of the throat moving apart from each other and form an ah shape inside the mouth. Adding a subtle crescendo shape can help to open up the throat more in a relaxed fashion. Additionally, imagine that the air and sound are filling up an imaginary balloon from the top of the chest and into the nasal cavities.

   The smaller airstream used on piccolo is less forgiving of disturbances, so an overly heavy tongue can be a problem. Lighter articulation generally sounds better on piccolo. A basic but effective exercise is to simply practice daily scales with different articulation patterns, thinking of brushing the air with the tip of the tongue rather than attacking. Practicing this will translate to the flute when a lighter articulation is called for in all kinds of repertoire from Bach to Berlioz to Bozza.

Soft playing
   Mastering soft playing on the piccolo, especially in the upper register, will greatly help finding the focus and control for the same thing on the flute. After becoming comfortable with the very small aperture (without forcing the lips), work on attaining a sufficient piano dynamic on a high G on piccolo (not easy to do). Then try playing a high G on the flute with the same embouchure. You will be amazed at how easy it feels to get a really soft high G on the flute.

   Learning to play the piccolo in tune may not seem to have any obvious direct benefits to playing the flute in tune because the pitch tendencies are very different. However, ultimately good intonation is about active listening and adjusting when needed. It can be all too easy to get used to hearing one’s flute sounds as in tune and stop actively listening to pitch.
   The embouchure adjustments needed to move a note up or down on piccolo are the same as on flute, but the piccolo is more sensitive to these adjustments. The act of making those adjustments in the context of the different piccolo scale is a great ear training and embouchure coordination exercise. Additionally, a number of alternate fingerings that help you play the piccolo more in tune can be useful on the flute in certain situations, such as the 3rd octave C# (tends to be flat on both instruments), and 3rd octave G# (tends to be sharp on both instruments).

   Just about everything about the piccolo is smaller, and vibrato is no exception. A vibrato that sounds great on piccolo is attained by using much shallower vibrato waves than on the flute. When you use these same shallow waves on the flute, you get a quality to the vibrato that adds a slight shimmer to the sound that is useful in soft dolce passages.

A Good Instrument
   Many flutists have a negative opinion of the piccolo because they initially play on an inferior instrument that has not been well-maintained. While a professional-level piccolo may be financially unrealistic for everyone, it is important to have the best instrument possible in your budget. There are many well-made instruments available at reasonable price points. Talk with your teacher about what would work best for you and try several options before buying anything.

Professional Flutists
   Students who are seriously considering a career as a professional flutist absolutely should own a good-quality piccolo and be proficient at it. Do not delude yourself that you can avoid it. It is a rare professional flutist who has the luxury of never playing piccolo.
   Nearly every flute audition for an orchestra that is not for a principal job (in other words, most flute auditions) ask for some piccolo on the repertoire list. When I won my audition in the Minnesota Orchestra (for a mainly principal job), the round before the finals was a piccolo-only round. Even though the audition committee was looking for a principal flute player, the standard they expected on piccolo was equally high. After the piccolo round there were only two candidates left, including me.
   Playing piccolo well is equally important for freelance musicians. A student who refuses to play piccolo or does not play it well is eliminating future jobs, networking opportunities and income. Not every flutist needs to be a piccolo specialist, but every serious flutist should be comfortable with the instrument, be able to make a nice sound, play well in tune, and know how to negotiate the soft dynamics when needed.

Add Piccolo to Your Practice 
   Piccolo practice need not be more than 10 minutes per day, although those on track to be a professional should plan on 20-30 minutes per day. If you practice more than 30 minutes, split up the practice sessions to give yourself breaks. If you are concerned about not having enough time to cover flute material, set a timer for the piccolo portion and move on when the timer goes off.
   I have found it helpful to start the day with piccolo practice. The lighter, smaller size helps me begin in a more relaxed manner, which in turn makes my flute warmup go much more quickly. However, if you initially find it difficult to form a piccolo embouchure without squeezing or forcing, give yourself a 10-minute break before switching to flute to give the lip muscles time to rest. I do not recommend playing piccolo at the end of a practice session because your lips will be tired, and you will need additional lip strength to have an effective session with the piccolo.

Other useful tips
   In general, a good quality sound at  mezzoforte can be attained by resting the piccolo higher on the lower lip than on the flute, and by using less air. Think of the instrument as wanting to float away from the lips rather than smashing it into the face.
   Swabbing out the instrument more often is necessary as water more easily accumulates around the smaller tone holes in the piccolo causing bubbles. A piccolo flag is the quickest and easiest way to swab, but it will not dry out as quickly or remove as much moisture as a silk cloth on a cleaning rod.
   Wear earplugs, especially when practicing in the high register. I cannot stress this strongly enough.
   Practice swapping between flute and piccolo to get used to the change in feel between the instruments. Practice a scale or a simple melody on flute, then the same scale on piccolo or vice versa. Give yourself enough time to make sure you feel properly set up on the new instrument when switching.
   While the solo piccolo repertoire has greatly expanded in recent years, any repertoire you are working on for the flute can be played on the piccolo too. This is a quick and easy way to get in a little quick piccolo work and have some fun at the same time.   

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Practice Exercises
   The following are exercises I do on piccolo, both to get in shape and to stay in shape. They are listed from most basic to more complex. When starting out, just do steps 1-3. As you progress, and if you have more time to spend, add in additional exercises. These can be modified to suit your particular needs or tastes. There are dozens of ways for piccoloists to warm up and stay in shape, but these are some of my favorites that I have found work well and address the areas discussed in this article.

1. Long tones in the low register at mezzoforte, starting on B, moving down chromatically. Play once or twice, listening for sound quality and openness, then repeat 1-3 times with a tuner.

2. Slurred octaves, starting on low D, moving up chromatically going up to middle D (with tuner or drone). Use the minimum amount of lower lip movement required to achieve the octave without blowing harder (a mirror can be helpful for this). Repeat each octave jump 3 times or as many times as needed to get the octave in tune.

3. Long tones in the high register, starting on B above the staff, moving up chromatically, taking care not to force or squeeze the lips (with tuner). If you have difficulty getting notes to speak, support the airstream more rather than blowing harder.

4. Pick 1-3 notes in each of the low, middle, and high registers. Hold these notes out for about the length of a whole note at mm=60. Repeat 4 times (with a relaxed breath in between each whole note) at a forte dynamic, and then 4 times at a piano dynamic (with tuner). Pay attention to a supported note ending each time.

5. Same as number 4, but use 8 repeated quarter notes with a brief pause between each note. Pay attention to the quality of a clean and clear start to each note.

6. Same as number 5, but add a crescendo shape during the 8 repeated notes. Then repeat with a diminuendo shape. Then repeat the crescendo and diminuendo shapes but holding the note for 8 counts for each shape.

7. Pick 2-3 scale exercises in different keys and articulate with a different pattern each day, paying attention to using a light articulation and a strong support mechanism. Use a metronome and vary the speed.

8. Additional technique exercises, and playing some favorite melodies or orchestral excerpts.

Note: Exercises 4-6 are an adaptation of an exercise developed by Norman Hertzberg for controlling pitch at different dynamic levels. Although he had the bassoon in mind, I have found they work very well for both flute and piccolo. (Hertzberg taught bassoon at the University of Southern California, and this exercise was passed on to me by Heather Clark, principal flutist with the LA Opera.)