This is the second in a series of articles on the piccolo and how to get started on the smaller relative of the flute.
In last fall’s introduction to the piccolo, I discussed ways to begin your piccolo practice. The piccolo is not simply an extension of the flute into a high range, but rather an entirely different instrument both physically and historically. Approaching the piccolo as a new and unfamiliar instrument you would most likely spend more time than if you think that our friend the piccolo is just a “tiny flute.” If you were learning to play the tuba, we would hope that you would practice at least twenty minutes every day, instead of ten minutes twice a week! The piccolo can be very rewarding to play, if you put in enough practice and understand the differences in construction, intonation and fingerings between that and the distant relative called the flute.
Once you have spent some time with your piccolo and a tuner, you will have noticed that there are certain notes on the piccolo that are very challenging to play in tune, and these are not the same notes as on the flute! (G-sharp and E-flat are two of my “pitchy” favorites). The pitch tendencies may even seem to be the opposite as that of the flute. This has to do with the construction of most modern piccolos (esp. wooden professional instruments).
If you lay your flute and piccolo side by side, you will notice some surprising differences in the shape of the two instruments. The modern flute of today has a cylindrical body (straight tube) and a parabolic or conical head. You can see the conical quality of your flute head as it tapers to the smallest diameter at the crown. Your piccolo, in contrast, has a cylindrical head and a conical body, with the taper at the foot of the instrument.
Because of the shape of the instrument, it could be argued that the piccolo is really a descendant of the Baroque flute and not really a relative of the Boehm flute. Also like the Baroque flute, the piccolo never added the low C-sharp and C keys or a footjoint. We can also trace the piccolo back to the marching fife that was used in many conflicts from the Middle Ages up through to the American Civil war, and which still enjoys use as a beginner's flute and in professional fife and drum regiments.
Because of this reversal of shape, the piccolo can tend to have a sharp low register and a flat third octave, the opposite of the flat lower and sharp upper octaves of the flute. This is not always the case, and really depends upon your particular instrument. As my bassoonist friends like to point out, if you play a wooden instrument each one is an “individual” and you must learn the pitch tendencies for your particular instrument, not just for your instrument family.
Because the piccolo is a different instrument, it is important to remember that flute fingerings are not always the best sounding or most in-tune choices. For example, the D above the staff is often not served best with tone or intonation using the standard hi D flute fingering, but is better with what many professional players consider the standard hi D fingering: LH: Thumb, 2,3,4 and RH: 2,3,4.
There are many books you can refer to to find out about the numerous alternative piccolo fingerings. As you experiment with the plethora of choices available, you will find that some fingerings are so effective, easy to produce and in-tune, you will probably never go back to the crummy old flute fingering!