Monday, September 19, 2011

Piccolo Questions

Question from Student: I've been playing piccolo (my teacher's instrument) and although my teacher can make it speak in the low register, I can't get a low note out of it. What am I doing wrong? Also, I find it very difficult to play in tune when I have to play piccolo occasionally in band. How can I fix these things?

Dear Piccolo Striver

The piccolo goes in and out of tune while you're playing it for reasons such as these (any of them; it's a very sensitive little beasty):

Tuning problems with piccolo:

1. If the piccolo has gone cold while you're counting rests, it will then tend to play flat in pitch for the first minute when you come back in again.

SOLUTION: Keep piccolo warm while counting rests with your hands or placing next to body while switching to flute back and forth.

2. Changing from middle to high octave, piccolo sounds flat in high octave.

SOLUTION: Piccolo is different from flute in that flute may be really sharp when played forte in high octave and player learns to bend notes downward in angle to compensate. However there are typically many pitches in high octave on piccolo that are the *opposite* direction for tuning than on flute. You will find these
pitches listed in piccolo alternate fingering charts, with corrective fingerings. Using the alternate fingerings is a pleasure compared to the flute fingerings for the LH notes such as C2, C#3 D3 etc. as they are much more controllable for pitch, which on piccolo, is often needing to be sharper not flatter on same notes as flute.

You'll need these wonderful alternate fingering charts, and ask your teacher for the fingerings they use most for those contrary pitches too.

Piccolo - Alternate fingering charts:

Chart 1 by piccolohq

Chart 2 by Woodwind Fingerings

Symbols used in fingering charts - index of fingering symbols.

3. Changing from one octave to the next piccolo goes out of tune suddenly.

SOLUTION: It's possible that you are "over-lipping" or that your piccolo is not quite in the right place on your lower lip to start with.

Also if your lower lip is at first over-covering, then unexpectedly you change your embouchure and under-cover the piccolo's blow hole too much, and/or if each time you place it on your lip you're not quite sure exactly how much lower lip goes across the blow hole, then this can cause radical tuning weirdnesses. So you might need to experiment with placement and angle on low and middle register for a month or two,adding 20 minutes a day to the end of your flute practice, until you know for sure exactly how much blow hole to cover on picc before adding angling for high register tuning.

Also, larger flute embouchure adjustments overcompensate on pitch adjustments on piccolo, because picc has a much smaller blow hole.

So adjust your embouchure about five times LESS than you do on flute when changing octaves. Experiment extensively with making almost no adjustments, and find out what the piccolo's pitch tendencies are inherently first, before expanding your dynamic range for true fortissimos and pianissimos.

Click on jpg above to enlarge.

The difference between flute and piccolo in the size of the blow hole is one reason why it's so helpful to use The Tuning CD or tuning drones instead of elecronic tuners. Instead of watching a tuner's reading, having drones playing on repeat on your speakers allows you to listen very closely to the steady pitch of the drone, and play easily, and blend with it by ear. You'll find that keeping a steady air-stream and one single dynamic like mezzo forte will allow you to quickly discover that you need to do much much LESS adjusting than you do on flute with your lips.
Matching the drones will allow you to hear all the overtones and undertones, and make practicing WAY more pleasant. :>)

However you can use a visual tuner for mapping your piccolo for pitch.

Using the electronic tuner: Mapping the pitch of your piccolo

Here's how:
Warmup first; play longtones with great tone, play some slow, beloved melodies, get your sound warm and inviting, and your air stream steady and your embouchure poised yet relaxed, and then put on the electric tuner.

Starting in the low or middle register, and going in either direction, play whole notes chromatically at a constant dynamic; Use an open, non-tense mf dynamic, and play freely and with great tone.
(and don't play high register, please, until your foam earplugs are in your ears). :>)

Stay almost completely still with your embouchure, don't try to over-bend any notes at all, and simply discover which direction to go on which pitches (write out a chromatic scale and mark it up with arrows if you like), and then ascend and descend in whole notes, stopping and writing arrows on your scale to show which piccolo pitches are flat and sharp, if you don't attempt to correct the pitch at all.

This is when you'll begin to discover which notes are to be pitch bent in the opposite direction than on the flute. Surprising isn't it?

Once you have mapped the intonational tendencies out for yourself over several days, switch to using the Tuning CD ( downloadable mp3s of twelve tuning drones is under $10 at amazon etc.) and do all your warmups, scales, and slow pitch work using the drones coming out of your speakers.

Also there are manuals on "How to play piccolo well" that have good warmups and fingerings, exercises, and excerpts.

Some basic piccolo method book titles are here:

Your flute teacher likely has some of the picc books. You should actually ask your teacher FIRST before asking on the net. They'll know exactly what level you're at and what to work on first.

Low Notes Just Don't "Speak" for Me.

Finally, a quick word on why low notes don't come out for you, when they do for your teacher (so that proves the pads of the piccolo aren't leaking, which requires a repair visit to a good piccolo/flute technician.)

Ask your teacher to watch you closely when your low notes don't come out.
You may be rolling too far in, and that would squelch the low notes and also make the pitch difficult for all three octaves.

Try rolling out 2 milimeters more than you think you should, and getting a round sound on low G. Then walk down to low D chromatically, slowly.

If the sound squelches, roll out 1 mm more.

Once you have rolled out enough, you'll find you can stay rolled out for all three octaves, and never need to roll inward again; your upper lip will compensate for the angle changes needed to blow downward, and your lower lip can be used vertically to change octaves (not jaw going forward and back, but lower lip pressing directly upwards to leap up an octave.)

Rolling too far inward with the key tops of your flute or piccolo tilting backward it is a sign that you need to adjust your headjoint so that you can have your keys facing the ceiling, or a little forward (so the audience can see the keys tilting toward them.) So don't be afraid to experiment with headjoint alignment also on both your instruments, so they feel alike when you switch back and forth. This is a big hint that works for many student learning to stay "rolled out" when they play.

More helpful pointers to be found here:

Articles on piccolo warmups and other great topics.

Playing Piccolo in Tune in an Orchestra or Ensemble Article.

More piccolo links including picc repertoire and articles aplenty.

And, hey, I just tried to find a Garrison piccolo fingering chart which has moved its URL, and stumbled across this film! (We are saying the same things!)

Professor Leonard Garrison gives an intermediate level lesson in piccolo on youtube. The sheetmusic is here.

And please, do let me know if you find out the answers from your own teacher, and what it turned out to be.
I'm curious. :>)

Best, Jen