Ten Tips to Transform a Flutist into a Piccoloist

Ten Tips to Transform a Flutist into a Piccoloist

By Rachel Lynn Decker

This article first appeared in the December 2015 Music Educators Journal. NAfME members receive a free subscription to the journal with their membership.

Music teachers and instrumental directors often take one of two approaches with the piccolo. They either avoid it encouraging students to stick with the flute because the piccolo is seen as a challenging instrument, or they hand the flutist a piccolo and just assume that he or she will be able to play it. Neither of these approaches sets the student up for success with the piccolo. I propose a third way: Give the students guidance about what they should watch out for when learning this new and quite different instrument. Here are a few starting points:

  1. Acknowledge that the piccolo is a different instrument than the flute. Don’t expect a flutist to play piccolo well on the first day.
  1. Guide the flutist to open up the posture rather than collapsing the body to fit the size of the instrument. Expanding up and out can help breathing, air flow, and sound.
  1. More air and more sound can help counteract the shrillness and intonation issues typically associated with the piccolo. Lack of air support tends to make piccoloists shy away even more, accentuating the problem.
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  1. Placement is the key to finding your student’s “sweet spot.” Everyone is a little different based on lip shape, embouchure, and so on, but generally, the piccolo needs to be a little higher on the lip to keep from covering the hole. Bringing the end of the piccolo forward can also help. This will feel awkward at first, but encourage the student to continue to experiment! Make sure the piccolo is rolled out enough that the student can see the inside of the hole in a mirror. The mouthpiece should not be pressed tightly to the player’s mouth—this will again lead to the lip covering the embouchure hole. A loose touch is best.
  1. Fingers should move a relatively small distance compared to the flute as the piccolo is a much smaller instrument. This reduces unnecessary movement and improves accuracy.
  1. Articulation should be modified from that which is used on the flute. “Short” is a style, not a length: Staccatos can be frequent in piccolo music but almost never should piccoloists play their shortest—it tends to sound “chirpy.” Make sure that there is good tone quality in every note. Encourage the student to aim for “round,” “buoyant,” or “crisp” rather than “short.” Sometimes a stronger articulation will be needed for definition between notes; however, the student should be careful not to sound harsh.
  1. Suggest students use color as an alternative to quiet or loud. When getting a pure pianissimo is causing his or her tone to suffer, experiment with timbre. That being said, loud is not a bad thing! Students should not be afraid to play forte in the high registers. (However, remind students to wear earplugs for extended practice!)
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  1. Intonation tendencies are completely different on the piccolo than the flute! Have the student play some scales and arpeggios with a tuner to find out pitch tendencies. Following are a few to start with. Notes that tend to be sharp include D2[1] and C2. Notes that tend to be flat include D3 and C#3. Piccoloists may frequently be directed not to be sharp or loud in the high register; this fear of being too loud and being out of tune often results in lack of support, leading to playing under pitch.
  1. Alternate fingering charts should be consulted extensively (Gippo, The Complete Piccolo; Tanzer, A Basic Guide to Fingerings for the Piccolo; and Burkart, Fingering Tips for Piccolo are a few to get your student started). On the piccolo, alternate fingerings are your student’s new best friend. Many of them do not compromise tone or color in the way that they can on flute, so embrace them! A few examples:  A-flat3, a troublesome note, will speak with ease when the right-hand second and third fingers are depressed. Each piccolo is different, so encourage the student to try different fingerings. Some F#3 options include (a) T13 234,[2] (b) T13 23, (c) T13 3, and (d) T13 2. For C#2, experiment with other fingerings, including (a) 3 1234, (b) 3 | 4, and (c) 4 4.
  1. Most important, have your student play the piccolo! The more time your student spends with the instrument, the faster his or her improvement will be. Frequency is key, so ten minutes every other day is better than half an hour once a week. Love the instrument and help other people to love it too! This may mean programming repertoire that is fun and not shrill, just to help your student and his or her audience learn to acknowledge the joys of hearing the piccolo.

About the author:

Rachel Lynn Decker is an instructor of flute at Alfred University in Alfred, New York, and a circulation specialist in the Willard J. Houghton Library at Houghton College in Houghton, New York. She also maintains a private studio in which she teaches flute, piccolo, and piano.

[1] Where C1 is middle C.

[2] T indicates thumb, 1 indicates the index finger, and so on.

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