An Introduction to the Piccolo

by Dr. Angela Heck Mueller, Music & Arts Lesson Instructor

Tools for Success

Music Stand Shop Now >
A nice music stand is an important tool that every musician should own. It not only holds the music, but also allows the musician to develop and maintain great posture at any height and angle.

Cleaning Rod Shop Now >
Condensation buildup is a common occurrence on the piccolo. The instrument should be swabbed frequently during use and after in order to avoid watery keys, damaged pads and mildew, all of which could lead to expensive repairs. The cleaning rod is also used to check the placement of the headjoint cork.

Cleaning Cloth Shop Now >
It is very important to purchase a soft, absorbent cleaning cloth specifically meant to swab the inside of the piccolo. This instrument is very small and you don’t want to get a large cloth stuck inside the instrument during the cleaning process.

Pad Cleaning Paper
Even with constant swabbing, piccolos tend to collect water in the keys and pads. Moisture can be removed by placing a sheet of cleaning paper between the instrument and the key. Once the paper is in place, gently close and open the key. Pulling the paper while pressing a key can lead to torn pads, so please ask your teacher for assistance.

Pencils (not a pen)
Every musician should have a pencil with them at all times in order to add important markings in the music and to take practice, rehearsal, and lesson notes. Make sure to use a pencil instead of a pen so you can make any necessary changes.

CD/DVD/Audio/Computer Devices
The various types of technology available to us today plays a vital role in music instruction. Some method books include supplemental materials such as CDs, audio access resources, instructional videos and downloadable documents. Using these additional resources will enrich your experience learning the piccolo.

Metronome Shop Now >
This device will allow you to keep a steady beat at various speeds and gives you the option to practice subdivisions of the beat. Every musician should own and use a metronome on a regular basis to practice keeping a steady pulse. When learning a new piece, start with a slow tempo. Once you are able to master the passage at that tempo, repeat the passage while slowly increasing the tempo until you are able to play the passage comfortably at the desired speed.

Tuner Shop Now >
Pitch is one of the most challenging aspects of playing the piccolo. Every piccolo player should own a tuner and use it regularly to learn how to play each note on the instrument in tune. This device will tell you the pitch you are playing and if that note is sharp or flat. By playing with a tuner, the student will learn how to adjust their embouchure and air stream for each note. A piccolo player can also use this device to train the ear to hear and match pitch.

Instructional Material/Sheet Music Shop Now >
Sheet music is essential for all musicians. Whether you need a new book for band, a method book for private lessons or a solo for your next recital, Music & Arts will have what you need.

Staff Paper Shop Now >
This is paper that is printed with the five lines and four spaces of the musical staff that allows musicians to practice writing notes, rhythms, scales, chords, theory concepts, warm-up exercises, etc.

Earplugs Shop Now >
Playing in the third register over long periods of time can damage your hearing, so make sure you have a pair of earplugs to practice with. You can purchase a pair specifically designed to fit your ear canal, however, basic foam earplugs are better than nothing at all. Ask your private teacher for a recommendation.

Practice Log
A practice log is a great resource for private instruction. It provides a place for teachers to write assignments, instructions and specific practice goals. It also provides space for the student to keep track of what, when and for how long they practiced. It is a great resource to track progress, write questions and comments for the student/teacher/parent that holds the student accountable for their practice time.

Piccolo players should practice in front of a mirror in order to check their posture, embouchure, aperture and air stream.

Piccolo Stand (Optional, but recommend) Shop Now >
A sturdy piccolo stand will keep your piccolo safe and upright when you aren’t using it. Instrument stands also make your instruments easily accessible when switching back and forth from flute to piccolo.

Assembling, Holding the Piccolo and Correct Posture

Assembling the piccolo
The piccolo consists of two parts: the headjoint and the body. When assembling your piccolo, be sure to handle each piece with care. Hold the headjoint firmly in one hand and the barrel of the body in the other. Using a gentle twisting motion, assemble the instrument with a “straight on” approach, not from an angle. The embouchure hole should be aligned with the row of keys on the body.

assembling your piccolo

Holding the piccolo
When holding the piccolo, the left hand forms a tilted “C” shape with a bent wrist and the palm faces down the piccolo. Place the instrument on the side of the left index finger, position the thumb on the rectangular thumb key and place curved fingers on the keys.

holding the piccolo

The right hand should also form a “C” shape. The thumb will rest under the instrument between the index and middle finger while curved fingers rest on the keys. The palm faces the floor. Make sure the right thumb doesn’t protrude. The right hand should not lean forward or hang on the rods.

The right hand should also form a “C” shape

Correct posture for the piccolo
Correct posture is critical for proper piccolo playing. Always bring the piccolo to you, not the other way around. There are four points of balance when holding the piccolo: the chin, the base of left hand index finger, the right hand thumb and the right hand pinky. The fingers should hover over the keys at all times in a relaxed and ready position. This includes the left hand pinky. Press the keys with the “fleshy” pads of the fingers. Avoid squeezing the keys to produce sound, and avoid any excess up and down motion with the fingers. Use good posture while sitting and standing. If you plan to sit while playing, use a straight-backed chair and sit up tall on the edge of your seat with both feet flat on the floor about shoulder-width apart. When standing, the feet should remain shoulder width apart. The right foot should be slightly behind the left, creating a 45-degree angle. The piccolo should be positioned straight on the chin and remain parallel to the floor. The chin should also remain parallel to the ground to maintain an open throat and airway. Avoid squeezing the ribcage. Your shoulders should be relaxed and the neck long. Adjust the music stand to your posture and height, not the other way around.

Reading Music: Notes and Rhythm

Reading music is similar to learning how to read in another language. First we must be able to identify individual notes or words and will eventually become fluent enough to form phrases or sentences. As the student continues to grow and develop, so does their musical language. They will not only learn how to read notes, but other music fundamentals as well like rhythms, time signatures, key signatures, dynamics, articulations, tempo markings, etc. Reading music is a critical skill for anyone interested in learning how to play the piccolo. All music composed for piccolo is written in treble clef. It is also important to know that the piccolo sounds an octave higher than written. Practice your reading skills as often as possible using flash cards, websites, and helpful apps in order to improve reading skills and gain true mastery.

Producing Your First Sound

Proper practice time and techniques are critical for piccolo playing. Simply put, you get out what you put into your practice time. Many flutists recommend warming up on flute before practicing on piccolo and finishing the practice session on flute. It is important to set practice goals with your private teacher. Some teachers require a minimum number of practice minutes per day. Others will ask you to practice however long it takes to accomplish a specific practice goal. Use a practice log in order to establish a routine and to set goals that provide the best results for you.

Divide your practice time between long-tones, scales, technical exercises, etudes, solo repertoire, orchestral excerpts and sight-reading exercises. It is important to spend the majority of your time on passages that you struggle with rather than playing the things that you do well over and over again. Decide what you would like to accomplish in the practice session before you begin and stick to it. Focus on smaller sections within the music and do “nitty gritty” detailed practice rather than playing through the music over and over again without making any progress. Once you have mastered the smaller sections of music, you can work on connecting the pieces and practice smooth transitions. Before you know it, the entire piece will be ready to perform. Ask your teacher for a variety of practice techniques to make your practice time as efficient as possible.

It is important to practice in a quiet space that’s devoid of distractions in order to maintain focus. Try to avoid multitasking while playing your piccolo, such as texting, gaming, or practicing with the TV on. However, it is important to take a break about every 20-25 minutes to avoid injury and to clear your mind.

Maintaining Your Piccolo

About the piccolo
Your piccolo is very fragile, so make sure you handle it with care. Avoid holding the instrument by the rods and touching the small screws and springs. It doesn’t take much to accidentally knock a piccolo out of alignment. If you experience any difficulties while playing the instrument, have your teacher look at it.

Basic Care/Daily Maintenance
Make sure your hands are clean before playing your piccolo. Never warm up a wooden piccolo by blowing into it. The instrument could crack. Instead, place it under your arm for a couple seconds so the instrument can easily acclimate to your body temperature and the temperature of the space you are in. Condensation build-up is a common occurrence on the piccolo. The instrument should be swabbed frequently during use and after every use in order to avoid watery keys, damaged pads and mildew, all of which could lead to expensive repairs. Keep your piccolo stored in its case in a safe place and avoid exposing the instrument to extreme temperatures and humidity changes. Even with constant swabbing, piccolos tend to collect water in the keys and pads. Moisture can be removed by placing a sheet of cleaning paper between the instrument and the key. Once the paper is in place, gently close and open the key. Pulling the paper while pressing a key can lead to torn pads, so please ask your teacher for assistance. Swab your instrument after every use and gently wipe any fingerprints off of the keys with a soft cleaning cloth.

Annual Maintenance
Schedule an annual cleaning, oiling, and adjustment with a professional repair technician. Request that they check the placement of the headjoint cork and replace it as needed. Depending on the condition of the instrument, your repair person might suggest an overhaul. This service is performed about every ten years depending on the instrument and the care it receives on a daily basis.

Piccolo vs Flute: What's the Difference?

Although the mechanism and fingerings are the same, the piccolo is quite different than the flute and it should be approached as a separate instrument. As the highest voice in the ensemble, the piccolo is often exposed, adding color to the texture and should be played with confidence. Once the flutist has a solid third register on the flute, they can consider pursuing the piccolo. The piccolo sounds an octave higher than the flute and acts as a fourth octave extension of the flute. The piccolo is much more sensitive than the flute and requires finger muscles control and more support. Even the smallest changes can lead to a great difference in sound quality and intonation. Practice with a tuner often to establish a strong pitch center and play duets with a friend to work on your intonation in a fun chamber music setting. The piccolo is placed a little higher on the bottom lip compared to the flute and the embouchure should be slightly firmer, but not tight or inflexible. The aperture should be smaller for piccolo playing, but be sure to keep the oral cavity open and relax and avoid pinching the lips.

The piccolo should be played with finesse, not power and force. It requires less air than the flute, but the air stream should remain fast and focused. Articulation will be lighter on piccolo than flute and the low register should sound relaxed and full, allowing the sound to resonate in the mouth and chest of the player. The piccoloist can accomplish this by playing long-tones regularly with the goal of making each register sound rich and even. The fingers are closer together when playing piccolo, so technique might be a little easier than on flute. Scales and other technical exercises should be practiced on both the flute and piccolo to develop great flexibility and intonation. Both flute and piccolo should be practiced equally and it is important to vary your practice sessions to get used to switching back and forth between instruments often and easily.

Purchasing a Piccolo

When purchasing an instrument and asking what kind of piccolo you should buy, ask yourself what you plan to use it for and how much money do you want to spend. Metal piccolos have a headjoint with a lip plate like the flute, so that makes for an easier transition if you are new to the piccolo. These instruments are great for marching band because they are durable and have a very bright tone. Plastic piccolos are durable enough for use outdoors and can be used in a concert band setting. The tone quality is warmer than the tone of a metal piccolo and they are reasonably priced. Many instrument makers are now making piccolos out of plastic or composite materials. These piccolos are perfect for younger players who might need to use their instrument in both indoor and outdoor settings. The best quality piccolos are made out of wood, usually grenadilla, which gives the instrument a really warm sound. They are more expensive than metal and plastic piccolos, are best suited for indoor use and blend more easily with other woodwind instruments.

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