Piccolo is HARD.
It may not be as technically complex as the bassoon, but I can tell from day one that this will be an instrument that will require lots of attention and maintenance (a practice regimen, not necessarily time with repair tech). There are moments where I enjoy my tone, and it will suddenly disappear to the point where I need to take a break to reset.
Thankfully, I know some wonderfully talented and generous people. So I asked these highly accomplished musicians if they could spare a moment to give me some tips that I could write about and pass along to anyone else attempting to master the piccolo. Some of these players may have taken up the picc later in a doubling career, like myself. Others are flute and piccolo specialist, whom occupy positions in major orchestras in the US.
Here are their responses, in no particular order. I told them to feel free to be brief, as I know they are all busy professionals.
Long tones....arpeggios. scales. If you practice the flute. You should practice piccolo. When I was playing at Disneyland all I played were Long tones....arpeggios. scales. I imagine practicing with an earplug would help. Try practicing soft passages.
- Sal Lozano, Woodwind performer and recording artist (Los Angeles)
First, there are a few texts that were very helpful for me: The Practice Book for the Piccolo by Trevor Wye and Patricia Morris and A Basic Guide to Fingerings for the Piccolo by Stephen Tanzer.
Also, Dr. John Barcellona at CSU Long Beach showed me something to help high piccolo chops: put your ear plugs in FYI. Start somewhere around ‘B’ or ‘C’ above the staff, and play in half-steps…B-C-B-C-B hold this last note, and crescendo as long and as FFF as you can without cracking or losing pitch. Then move the starting pitch up chromatically (or if you’re pressed for time, whole steps or ??). Work your way up as high as you dare (!). I’ve found it very helpful to play against a drone pitch with these and other notes to improve my ears in the upper register. Make sure your drone pitch is in tune and at the proper calibration for the situations you play in i.e. A=440, 441, etc.
- Jay Mason, Woodwind performer and recording artist (Los Angeles)
Two words: Trevor Wye
- Jeff Driskill, Woodwind performer and recording artist (Los Angeles)
Keep your embouchure firm, but "loose". People think piccolo is tighter, but you have to be way more relaxed than flute to produce good tone.
Commit to your sound. Piccolo will sound louder in your headspace because it's higher. If you back off, it'll cause fundamental problems with support, air, and pitch.
Practice with a tuner! Especially when your piccolo is brand new. Find the pitch tendencies!
Buy a GOOD piccolo in the first place. It all starts with a good, reliable instrument that plays in tune. This will give you an excellent starting place so you don't get into the "is it ME or the instrument" head trip.
Piccolo embouchure should be about half the size of a flute embouchure. Don't use a flute embouchure! Also, it's OK to have a slight descending angle to parallel of your bottom lip.
Place the piccolo higher on your bottom lip.
It helps to align the embouchure hole slightly forward, rather than directly in line with, the center of the keys on the instrument. This helps keep the player from covering too much of the embouchure hole, again, due to the smaller size of the instrument.
For lower notes, think "flow". For higher notes, think "compression".
Learn alternate fingerings! To help with pitch more than anything.
Use a lighter grip than you would on flute! Everything's closer together, so there's no need for a gorilla grip.
- Dr. Gio Washington-Wright, Woodwind artist and educator (Dallas)
In general, avoid pressing the piccolo into your face while playing (makes it easier to control the sound).
Smaller embouchure hole, faster air.
There is an excellent book for picc by Patricia Morris.
With hitting high notes, sometimes just rolling out fixes the problem.
- Emma Koi, Festival City Symphony Principal Flute, Mount Mary University faculty (Milwaukee)
That's three votes for the Wye/Morris book.
Keep your chin up.
- Glen Quarrie, Woodwind artist (Milwaukee)
Glen accompanied me to pick up the piccolo, the second time. He is a connoisseur of finding quality woodwind instruments. He gave this one two thumbs up.
Let the piccolo rest a little higher on your lip than the flute does
Don't tense up! embouchure, shoulders, neck, etc. remain relaxed
Voice very low
Know and use the long fingering for third A-flat, listed rightfully as "basic" here>
Use earplugs when you practice
- Dr. Bret Pimentel, Woodwind artist, woodwind blogger, Delta State University faculty
The main challenges are playing softly, and in tune.
I find it helpful to use less air than I do when playing the flute. And the angle of the air, as well as the amount of the embouchure hole that you cover with your lower lip, are exceedingly important, especially when it comes to playing softly in the high range. I work carefully with the tuner, making sure to adjust for pitch tendencies.
- Jeani Foster, Assistant principal flute Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
1. Try playing with as little quantity of air as possible. I always find that when I'm having technical and/or pitch problems, it usually comes from the fact I'm blowing too much air through the piccolo. The air stream is very tiny and fast, but not wide at all.
2. Always play with a tuner on. I don't think one needs to stop and check tuner for every note (depending on piece), but just to monitor notes to get a big picture of your pitch tendencies.
3. Always wear earplugs. I keep one in my right ear the entire time I'm playing.
4. For the upper register, I find that keeping the embouchure as still as possible between phrases, where one might breathe, really helps keep notes from dropping away from you.
- Julia Richter, flutist, Milwaukee Ballet & Hawaii Symphony, DePaul University faculty
That's 4 mentions of ear plugs, for those who are counting.
There it is! Plenty of tips for you (and me) to dig in. And here I thought it was going to be mostly "practice with ear plugs" and "long tones."
A big thanks to all who participated in the survey. The Sicilian in me says I owe you all at least one favor.