1. Can you tell our readers a little bit about you and what you do?
I am a piccolo maker. I started my apprenticeship at Brannen Brothers in 1978 and worked there for 21 years. In June of 2000, I purchased the piccolo business from Brannen Brothers and started making Keefe piccolos with my longtime friend and colleague Janet Kinmonth. For the past 16 years, we have focused our efforts exclusively on the piccolo. It has been (and continues to be) an extremely interesting and rewarding endeavor. Like any aspect of life, as you lift yourself up through learning, discovery and invention in a specialized area, you also see the horizon receding and realize how much more there is to learn and do.
2. This month’s issue is about the piccolo. What was your first experience with the piccolo and what were your thoughts, reactions?
At the University of Illinois. I enjoyed it, but the most memorable part of the experience was falling in love with Boheme. Later, I played piccolo in the Wind Ensemble and that is when I realized what a great instrument the piccolo is, especially for adding that special color on top of the entire ensemble.
3. How has the piccolo shaped, guided, influenced, or altered your career path?
The piccolo has been my career. I was extremely fortunate to apply to work with the Brannen brothers just as they were starting their flute business with Albert Cooper. They had already been making piccolos for a number of years and when they offered me the opportunity to become an apprentice piccolo maker, I knew that this was a rare and special opportunity. I threw myself into the work and apparently they liked what I did because Bick, Bob and Alan Williams just let me run with the piccolo.
When I started, the Brannen piccolo was already a fantastic instrument; however, we made one piccolo with only two options – thick wall or thin wall. There was one head joint style and one scale. Over time I had the chance to design higher pitched scales (orchestras in parts of Europe were playing as high as 446 in those days), and add options including the split E, cocus wood, a second head joint style, the bridged mechanism, and the 14K gold mechanism. Of course, I didn’t do this all on my own. I worked with an amazing group of talented and generous makers: Bick and Bob Brannen, Alan Williams, Conrad Marvin, Payson Greene and my business partner, Janet Kinmonth.
4. Is there a piccolo artist or a composition that you have found to be inspiring to you?
Piccolo players are an amazing group of artists. Have you noticed how rare it is to meet a neurotic piccolo player? Because the piccolo is so exposed and so challenging, successful piccolo players are self-confident, prepared for any challenge, great listeners and team players and I think most interestingly, usually very empathetic.
I think that Dmitri Shostakovich is the patron saint of the piccolo. He demands so much of the piccolo and in turn allows the piccolo to shine in all its glory; from being the lyrical soprano of the orchestra to being that powerful voice that shimmers over the entire ensemble.
5. Why do you think there has been so much interest in developing the piccolo in the last 30 years?
The piccolo and piccolo playing have undergone the most amazing evolution over the past 30 years.
In my view, there have been concurrent developments in three areas: performance, composition and instrument making.
I believe that these three areas have stimulated and reinforced the evolution of the piccolo in each of the other areas. As to why this has happened, I can only say that as more and more players listen to and discover the beauty of the piccolo, it stimulates more interest in performance which leads to a desire to play a great instrument which leads to commissioning and performing new works.
There have always been great piccolo players but now it is the norm for flute players who only occasionally play the piccolo, to take the instrument more seriously. And those players who specialize in the piccolo take it even further. They take the time to approach the piccolo on its own terms, not simply as a flute that plays an octave higher. Taking piccolo lessons is now quite normal. There are many opportunities to participate in piccolo master classes, there are degree programs in piccolo performance and many students include the piccolo in recitals. There are also multiple piccolo contests at the NFA and reginal flute associations.
The second area of this evolution has been in composition. Many organizations and players have commissioned solo works for the piccolo which stand on their own as great pieces. The older compositions are still a rich part of our heritage but we have moved beyond bird calls and novelty works.
Regarding development of instruments, in some ways, this evolution has been in parallel with that of the flute. Players now expect the chance to try multiple head joints in several styles when buying a new instrument. Options such as split E have migrated from the flute and we have re-invented others like the C# trill to work on the conical piccolo. In addition, the piccolo has a number of unique options such as the Vented C key and unique applications for certain options such as the Brossa F#.
Most importantly, at least in my experience, players talk about the challenges they face on the piccolo with the hope and expectation that as makers we will build instruments to make their life playing the piccolo easier and more predictable. This interaction has helped us to refine and improve our work over the years and has made the instrument more enjoyable to play.
6. What advice can you give to someone who might want to follow a similar career path?
I find so much satisfaction and joy in my work as a piccolo maker that I am surprised that more players do not choose this path. But of course, not everyone has the temperament to do this work. The first question for anyone thinking of pursuing this sort of work is:
“Are you comfortable sitting at a bench working with your hands on tiny objects all day, every day?”
It can have a certain old-world romantic appeal but this image has little to do with the actual work. If making instruments interests you, first find out for yourself if you like working with your hands. Make jewelry, sew clothing, make metal sculptures, repair a student flute, or take a class in any of these areas. If you like spending your time at the bench, then talk with flute and piccolo makers and explore options.
7. What is the future of piccolo? Will composers continue to write for piccolo as a solo instrument? Will there be more developments in the construction of the piccolo (please respond to this from your unique perspective, ie, composer, performer, teacher, technician)
The future of the piccolo is terrific. There are many great performers, teachers and students. Over time, the repertoire only increases with new and wonderful pieces. Great instruments are being made and improvements will continue to be invented and developed. We regularly work on areas where we think that the piccolo can be refined and improved. I believe that the future of the piccolo couldn’t be better.