Erin Spencer - flute expert

3 Ways to Get a Good Sound on Piccolo

Useful tips for playing the piccolo

In this video, Erin gives you three important tips to get the most out of your piccolo.

Released on September 1, 2021

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello, it is Erin, back for another video here at Virtual Sheet Music. And today I'm in a different space, a larger space, because we're going to be talking piccolo. So, I'm trying to protect my hearing by playing in a larger room that will absorb more of the piccolo sound instead of reverberating it right back to me. And, of course, that is an important thing to consider with piccolo, is protecting your hearing. It is very important to wear ear plugs when you're practicing piccolo for any serious amount of time. And any time you're playing above C, above the staff, you should be wearing ear plugs. They make special musician's earplugs that will not affect the pitch in your ear. I do find that it's hard to judge my tone quality when I'm wearing earplugs. So, if I'm trying to assess something about my tone quality, I will still wear earplugs in the high register, but I will record myself and compare what I'm trying to change to see what's working in that upper register.

As a musician, your number one priority should be protecting your hearing so that you can continue to play for as long as you are able to. Okay, so let's get into my first of my three tips for piccolo. First one is the placement of the piccolo with itself and on your face. So, of course, piccolo has a reputation for being finicky. But one thing you can do to combat the finickiness is to make sure that your piccolo is always lined up exactly the same way every single time. So, I don't really recommend putting nail polish on wood, it's not going to come out well like I do for metal flutes. But you can use pencil to mark on the metal to make sure that you're lining it up. I know Yamaha piccolo's have a little dot that you can make sure to line up.

For mine, I can't really mark this one very well. So I just make sure that I'm really good about winding up the tone hole with the first key. And try to put it in exactly the same spot every single time. That will make how your piccolo reacts to your playing more predictable. Whereas if you're rolling out, if just even a millimeter more sometimes than other times, your piccolo will feel unpredictable and you won't have as much control over what it will do. The next part of this tip is where your piccolo goes on your face. That's also important to put it in exactly the same spot every time. 'Cause even if you rolled your head joint to the same place, if your keys are rolled back a tiny smidge when you put it on your face, it's not going to matter. If you're putting it slightly to the side, where you put your head joint isn't going to matter.

I find that with high schoolers I work with in schools a lot of the times they'll tune their piccolo, be right on, gorgeous. And then, the next time they pick up their piccolo, they're in a completely different spot on the tuner because they're not putting it in the same place every single time. It's going to feel like it goes higher on your face than flute. Flute should sit on your chin here and feel a little lower. And, in general, the bigger the flute is the lower it's going to feel on your face, and the smaller it is it's going to feel a little higher. So, for me, my piccolo, normally my flute sits here. It is not even really touching that part of my chin. It's sitting more up on my lip. And, of course, if you have larger lips, it may even completely be on your lip, it just depends on your personal anatomy. But it's definitely going to have to feel higher. If I try to put my piccolo, where my flute goes ...

I can get out some of those low notes, but not very many of the high ones. If I put it higher ... Then they all come out much more easily and beautifully. An exercise you can do to find this perfect placement, and you can do this during your warmup every day you're going to play piccolo. Play a note that's really comfortable for you. Maybe a little B, maybe a D in the staff, whatever note you like. And then you're going to slowly, slowly push the piccolo just a tiny bit to the left, then a tiny bit to the right, then back to the middle until you hear with your ear that the tone quality is the best.

So, for me, I actually liked the sound just a tiny bit to the right of where I initially had it. So, then I would try to tilt my piccolo in that spot ... And get that really nice focused sound again. You can also do this rolling in and out slowly. Of course, that will also affect the pitch, but we're really just listening for the tone quality here. We can always change pitch things later. I also liked the tone quality when it was rolled in just a little bit more than I was before. So, I may want to think about putting my piccolo further right and further rolled in than I typically would.

That was a really nice focused sound. I may need to push in more to accommodate for rolling in, that's going to make me flat. So, I may need to push in my head joint. But doing those little exercises to find the sweet spot for you on your piccolo will make a big difference. Then you just have to memorize it and execute it consistently every time. That's the hard part.

My second tip is to remember that just because the piccolo is tiny and your aperture needs to be tiny, your throat, jaw, all of this needs to stay very, very open. You cannot let the size of this affect the size of this. You have to stay really open in here. So, if I stay closed, just because this is closed. First of all, it actually made me squeeze my aperture tighter because I was trying to close this. Versus if I open everything. I got a lot more of the harmonics out of that sound, more depths to the sound, much more beautiful. And that sound will blend better with an ensemble.

To practice this, a lot of the times on the low end of the piccolo we may be staying open because it's closer to how it feels on flute. And on piccolo sometimes those low notes won't even come out if you're closing, they just won't. So, you might already be staying open on the low ones. So, what you'll do is go up a scale, starting on low D if you can, low E flat or E if you can't, and as you're going up bring all your awareness to this area here, your jaw, your tongue staying low in your mouth, your throat staying nice and open, as relaxed and open back here as you can, as you go up.

Then, if you notice a note where you're closing, go back and do the transition between the previous note and that note several times until you can stay relaxed for the next note up. And you might have to do that a lot of times, going back and forth between notes, really focusing on staying open here. Let's try it on D major. I did feel myself close a tiny bit on the beat so I went back and forth between the A and the B. Let's keep going from B. I did also notice myself close on the high D so I'm going to go back and forth between the high C sharp and the high D. I was anticipating it being out of tune, high D is notoriously out of tune on piccolo.

That time I was able to stay open more effectively on that high note. Some of the places people tend to close up the most are on large leaps, going into the high register. If that's happening to you, practice harmonics on flute first, focusing on staying open during the harmonics as they go up, and then transfer that to piccolo. You don't want to do harmonics as high on piccolo as you do on flute, especially if you're not wearing ear plugs. The harmonics just work a little bit differently on piccolo. But the skill of doing leaps up on flute and staying nice and open will transfer it to piccolo for sure.

Tip number three is to get very comfortable adjusting pitch and dynamics. For me personally, I can bend a pitch down almost twice as far on piccolo as I can on flute, it's just more adjustable. But that's good because, when we're out of tune on piccolo, you can adjust it very quickly and easily. You just have to have control of it here. I'm actually going to pull up my stand so you can see this tuner. I'm going to play a low A and I'm going to bend the pitch down as far as I can then back up, then as far up as I can, then try to go back to the middle. Normally I would be looking at my tuner for this but I want you guys to see it.

It takes a long time and a lot of air to hold a note out for that long while focusing on adjusting it, but it's so worthwhile. I can bend down on this piccolo an entire half step on most notes. So, I know that if I'm sharp, no matter, basically no matter how sharp I am, I will be able to bend it in two. It's really important to do that exercise on every single note of the piccolo so you know how far you can bend each note. Some are more flexible than others and you need to know that. C sharp, who boy. I know I'm better at bending down than up, been working on that. But the more you do this, the more flexible you'll be and the more automatic those adjustments will come.

Next step of that would be doing it with a drone. So, get a drone going on whatever note you're going to play. So, I'll put my drone on A, I will bend the pitch down. That'll let me hear what it sounds like when it's flat. Bend the pitch up, then I'll hear what it sounds like when it's sharp, then bring it back down to in tune. So, that's training, not only your embouchure and your ability to change the pitch, but also your ear to match. As I bent down, hearing that bending up, really listening to what it sounds like to B sharp, then coming back to the middle, I noticed that when I was coming down I tended to over-correct and go below the note. Then you try to start the note with the drone as exactly in tune as you can every time.

So, again, do that with as much of the range of the piccolo as you can and you will play much better, in tune. And you'll start to notice your tendencies more quickly. Along with adjusting your pitch comes adjusting your dynamics. On piccolo, it tends to have this reputation of being ridiculously loud all the time, and we have to be comfortable with that. You have to be comfortable with everyone in the audience hearing you. That's actually why I love piccolo. Maybe I'm a little bit of a diva that way. One of my favorite exercises to work on dynamics with piccolo comes from the Trevor Wye tone book, the exercise based on the afternoon of the fawn.

I make the dynamics much more extreme when I'm focusing on using it for dynamics. So, for example ... Really push yourself to the limits on that last note. It's okay if the sound dies out completely, you have to know where that limit is. Go up just a half step. At first do it without your tuner to just get comfortable being really loud as you descend and quieter as you ascend the chromatic line. But then, after you get comfortable with the dynamics, add your tuner in and see if you can keep that last note in tune, even as you taper it off into nothing.

If you can do those three things on piccolo, get the same placement every time, keep that consistent, have a tiny aperture but stay really open here and be able to adjust your dynamics and intonation, you're fabulous. My last bonus tip that I'm not going to go very far in depth on, but that's really important, is articulation on piccolo. Your tongue is automatically going to sound way heavier than on flute.

So, you need to try to use like one tiny, tiny little taste bud. Just think about really light tonguing on piccolo, as small of an amount of tongue as you can possibly use. And that's one of the ways that we can tell real piccolo players from flute players who also play piccolo. Have a great rest of your day. Thank you so much for watching. Please drop me any questions you have in the comments below, whether they're related to this video or just anything to do with flute playing, piccolo playing, low flute playing, writing for flute, whatever. Let me know your questions down below. And I will see you guys next time. Bye.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Layla Rodriguez on May 6, 2022 @9:32 am PST
How do you know when your starting to tense up?
Erin Spencer - host, on May 10, 2022 @9:07 am PST
Great question, Layla. It can be really tough especially if you are not working with a private teacher. In general the best indicators of tension will be pulling the corners of your lips back, very wrinkled lips when playing, or your face hurting when you play for longer than a few minutes at a time. I will make a video on this because I'm sure a lot of other people are wondering the same thing!
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