Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Starting the piccolo

Dear Flute-lovers,

I have been thinking over "How to best start the piccolo" as I have a student who has just been given a school piccolo in order to play in a Broadway-type highschool show.

So here is a starter pack of ideas for the flutist who has to learn piccolo quickly and safely.

1. Have the piccolo repaired/oiled/cleaned by a good quality flute technician. If it's a school loaner-instrument it may have a shrunken or mis-positioned cork, and possibly one or two pads that need replacement or shimming.

Go ahead and invest in this important repair work, because unplayable piccolos are totally ridiculous in a performance situation. No pad leak or tuning-cork problem is so small that it won't show up in the performance at fortissimo-shmeerro....and you can quote me! ha.
So repair work first and think happy thoughts while you wait.
You can also devote yourself to getting a gorgeous tone on flute while you wait.

2. Buy protective earplugs. If you're a poor student, go for several pairs of the foam ($1 each pr. look like foam cylinders, wash with soap), or soft-plastic yellow cone-style used for construction ($15 see picture) which are good for wearing half-inserted as needed, or if you can afford it, two pairs of high quality musician's earplugs at $20 pair. The best earplugs for concerts and rehearsals are the ones that you can hear through when the music stops and you must hear talking, or that you can quickly pull out and hang around your neck on a string to quickly put back in again.

Professional orchestral flute/piccolo players use these $300 earplugs which are the current state of the art (they cancel out unexpected cymbal crashes; how cool!) and they allow you to hear talking as well as quiet sounds, all while filtering out the loudest sounds.

In general; use them often. You will need earplugs for any playing above high D (the third D, two ledger lines.) This is not a joke. Your ears will ring if you don't heed this advice, and then, as you age, sob, sob... you will be deaf, and you'll be unable to listen to any further advice. So take heed; be ready with earplugs.

To save your ears you can also move to a practice space with: a) high ceilings b) lots of space c) carpet and drapes, soft furnishings, and other sound mufflers.

3. Practice the flute always before practicing piccolo. If you have a gorgeous, effortless, ringing, pearly and divinely beautiful high G on the flute, then you can switch to piccolo almost immediately (same air speed, same embouchure for high G on flute makes piccolo playing very easy to figure out.)

4. When you first play piccolo, stay in the low register until you are able to play with a very resonant and gorgeous tone. Don't try to play super high in your first few weeks on the piccolo. Play low and beautifully.
ie: Low longtones, slow Irish Airs, folktunesslow melodies, preludes, and low, lovely, invented meanderings are all part of early piccolo mastery. So stay low and gorgeous. Think "an Alto with a warm, kind voice" not "shrieking twig that defies me while deafening all!". :>)

5. The piccolo is placed slightly higher on the lower lip than the flute (pictures of this in my previous articles on piccolo). It's easier to hold, and you can play much longer on a breath. However the biggest difference between the two instruments is that the high register of the flute is almost always sharp, whereas, because the piccolo ( imagine that it takes the same fast air as a high G on the flute) can be flat when you least expect it. Most beginners don't remember to blow fast enough not to play FLAT in the upper register of the piccolo, and it's so unexpected they shrink from the sound and it goes even flatter. So when first learning the middle register of the piccolo, use 'The Tuning CD*' (which I prefer to electronic tuners) in order to blend and develop the sound quality so that it has the right air speed and the right angle of air to make each note a gem.

6. Take frequent rests during practice, and remember to put in your earplugs (right ear only if desired) especially if you play above D3. If you are working extensively above high D (two ledger line D) on piccolo, put both earplugs in and take a rest every five minutes. You don't want ringing ears. Did I mention you don't want to be deef? :>)

7. Play beautifully from the very start.

 Low, slow warmups, longtones, slow chromatic and diatonic scales with Tuning CD* drones, overblowing harmonics are all good. For printable pages, see all my suggested Warmups  (and for more advanced flutists, see Magic Carpet by Buyse for high register air-speed awareness).

Gradually you can advance to low and easy playing legato thirds, slurred arpeggios using scales to connect distant intervals, and tiny little octave downward smears (Richter Basic Exercise done in miniature.). All of these will help develop a flexible and accurate embouchure.
The piccolo embouchure needs to be soft and the jaw and face relaxed. Embouchure motions are really tiny compared to flute; be loose and think micro-movements, then everything comes more easily.

 Spend many weeks of development in each of these areas. Try not to rush to the high octave. Slow practice and practicing tiny note-groupings are both superior to the "zippy playing through" type of practice.

If the music you're preparing requires you to change between flute and piccolo, practice exactly like that; play the flute, pick up the piccolo, and play the piccolo. Stay poised and relaxed for both.

Articulation can be worked on in single repeated notes for accuracy and clarity, away from the music.
Improvising to the metronome and Tuning CD* can be a fun way to clarify articulations without fatigue, before transferring the lightest motions to the piccolo passage that needs articulation work.

And as you will now have added both flute and piccolo hours to your day, be zen-like and avoid zooming through your work all reckless and hell-bent. Hearing a piccolo can make you war-like. It's biological! :>)

 So instead of falling for the whistles of war, ease into a very relaxed and observant mode of working with zen-like precision.

Stay loose; think more than you shriek, (haha!) and take many breaks where you relax down to one on a scale of 10 (tense) to 1 (jelly-fish looseness.).

See if you can just use the lower breathing muscles to support your sound in an open and free body.

Most of the support for a relaxed piccolo playing is all found in the abdominal region.
Above the solarplexis,  all open cavities should be open for resonance; Chest, throat, ribs, mouth...etc.

  Remember where our flute air-supporting power comes from: low in the abdomen.

8. For difficult passagework play the passage on flute successfully before transferring the passage back to the piccolo. You can also play the piccolo passages in the lower octaves to rest your ears and to get to know the phrasing and articulation before playing it as written. Good luck and don't go deef. Best,
Jen speedtyping piccolo doubler

More Piccolo articles:

Jen's piccolo overview article: Piccolo Questions (and Answers)

Alternative piccolo fingerings: chart in pdf.

Piccolo articles and resources:

Bandmaster's handout - A piccolo overview: Garrison pdf.

*The Tuning CD*

Once a CD, but now mp3s and iTunes: links

The Tuning CD A-440 (amazon) mp3s (iTunes)

The Tuning CD liner notes: the booklet for download: pdf

Why use the Tuning CD? Newish comprehensive article.

You only need the first twelve tracks (C, C#, D, Eb...etc.). Set the CD player on "repeat" to get an endless loop to practice in one key. (C on track one is for C major and C minor. D on track 3 is for D major or D minor etc.)