Beginning Piccolo – Learning to Walk Before You Run

Well, it is summer and many music departments are on break for a little while. Soon enough, the melodious sounds will start resonating from band camps all over the country. Inevitably, some unsuspecting flute player is going to be handed their first piccolo and they will be expected to play it. Because, of course, if you can play the flute, you can play the piccolo, or such is the thinking of many a generation of band director! I know this story resonates with so many of us. We have two weeks of band camp to learn how to play an instrument that requires a certain level of ability, nerves of steel, and a bit of guidance. Most of us fought with a  20 year old instrument that was horribly out of adjustment after years of neglect. But those are our found memories and the stories that we tell our children as they begin band camp…of course our band camp was in the snow and we marched up hill both ways, right?

I know my approach to teaching the piccolo, especially when starting students, has changed a bit over the years. I hope sharing a little bit of my approach will help some of you with your students, or if you have never played the piccolo, get you going.

My first step is to check the instrument to make sure it is in working order (enough for marching band at least). It just needs to work well enough so that the student and I won’t get frustrated from the get go. If the instrument isn’t working, that is a totally different battle. Assuming the instrument is working well enough to begin learning on, then we move to step two.

Step two is to chat with the student a bit about the challenges of playing and explain a little bit about what is the same and what is different between the flute and piccolo. I feel it is important for them to know that the lowest register should be easy enough, but it will sound an octave higher than they are used to. Then we discuss that the middle register is sensitive and tends to “chirp” when articulated too harshly. This is also the time when we discuss the idea of hearing protection, especially when the time comes for the second and third octaves. We talk about the importance of warming up and not just slamming into high notes with careless abandon. They should understand that piccolo uses muscles differently and that the air pressure and speed required to play piccolo can tire the muscles out quickly. Once those muscles are tired, practicing piccolo is useless. I call that exhausted “buzz” that we get when the lips are too tired to play anymore, “getting a flat tire.”  Once that happens, you shouldn’t be driving the car anymore, or playing the piccolo. We also discuss taking regular breaks. I make sure they can get a sound on the instrument, and after discussing warming up, safety precautions, and the basics of the first week. I send them on their way. I really don’t work with them too much past getting their first sound on the instrument before sending them out the door. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to play this foreign object, while being watched, and leaving with a feeling you and your teacher are both disappointed. I let them spend the first week just getting to know the instrument.

For the first week, I recommend that they stick to one octave scales only, to get used to the transposing octave and using the proper fingerings. I usually refer them to Taffenel and Gaubert exercise 1, telling them not to go past D3 no matter how well practice is going. I also tell them not to do more than 10-15 minutes on piccolo and to pay attention to how tired their lips are. They are also told to reserve piccolo for the last 10-15 minutes of their practice time so that they are already relatively warm before tackling the piccolo. Most students are excited to have at it, but they need to proceed with caution. If they struggle with getting a sound, it can be damaging to their confidence. If they strain the muscles in their embouchure, it can be damaging to their playing overall. They need to know that it is ok if they only play a few minutes each day during the first week or two. I do emphasize that the only way to progress is to have a plan and build endurance.

Step three comes after they have accomplished a regular tone (it doesn’t have to be perfect). This is the point where I introduce long tones (because doing this the first week would bore them to death). I use the long tones with a drone and have them do one and two octave arpeggios stopping on a decided upon note to hold. This introduces them to the beginnings of learning to tune the piccolo to another instrument. No matter how perfect our intonation is with a tuner, it ultimately comes down to being in tune with others. You may be 15 cents out of tune with your tuner, but if you are matching the rest of the ensemble, then you are in tune. I like to build a strong sense of intonation with my students and teach them the tools to work on the flexibility that they will need as a piccolo player. I like using the drone with arpeggios because it lets them multitask. They are working on familiarity with key signatures, preparing quizzable material for playing tests, getting comfortable with the air changes on the octave shifts AND working on intonation. 

Step four is to have some repertoire ready for the young piccolo player. Keep in mind that range is important early on. Music can’t go below D, because the piccolo doesn’t go any lower. It also shouldn’t go past the third octave D early on because that is the range that needs more control and embouchure strength. I have found that the best repertoire to use is Baroque music. Traversos and piccolos have similar “best” ranges due to acoustics and the fact that the traverso doesn’t have the lower C or C#. The Baroque composers knew this about the flute of that era and much of the flute music from this period stays within the confines of this range. Telemann Fantasies are especially lovely on piccolo. They have the perfect range, unaccompanied, movements in different styles, and they are harmonically easy to hear. They make for wonderful first repertoire on the piccolo so you can learn a new piece and discuss stylistic concepts.

Step four is to give them the names of some well know piccolo players to listen to. Over the last 50 years or so, there have been quite a few players rising to the level of concert artists on the piccolo. The piccolo is now seen as a true solo instrument and there are even a handful of books out there specifically for the piccolo now. Back in the day, everything was labeled as, “exercises for the flute and/or piccolo.” This lead so many to believe that they were interchangeable and thus the stigma was born.

I hope this article was helpful to those out there dealing with the beginning piccolo players. I also offer another starting point that I have a personal interest in sharing. My own dissertation was meant to be used as a reference for anyone interested in the piccolo. There is a brief history, discussion of mechanical developments, resources, and an annotated bibliography to help find more resources should you need them. It  has been downloaded over 2400 times already and it is free and available to download at the link below. Good luck and happy piccolo playing!

The Piccolo in the 21st Century: History, Construction, and Modern Pedagogical Resources

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