Piccolo Woodwind – Three Ways to Build Beautiful Tone

Background: my reason for writing this article

The piccolo is an interesting member of the family of instruments known as woodwinds. It has the highest pitch of all the instruments in a modern orchestra. Most people will easily recognize the piccolo in band music, such as John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” where the piccolo solo soars above all the other instruments and creates a counter melody almost like a whistle. It is because of this extreme pitch that it is of utmost importance to build beautiful tone.

I play the flute. My range starts on concert, or “middle” C, and moves up three octaves. Although both piccolo and flute notes are written in the same place on the treble staff, the piccolo sounds one octave higher than the flute. Therefore it is understood that its range starts on D, one octave above middle C and also moves up three octaves.

One of the first things I learned on the flute was that the most criticism will be directed at my tone. It’s all about tone: good tone, pure tone, polished and controlled tone. Third octave tone is the toughest.

I also write music for the flute. Recently I wrote a piece that really suits the piccolo. So now I want to learn to play piccolo, too. This is what brings me to the study of tone on the piccolo.

Specific techniques for tone development

1. Make use of a mirror to check alignment and tension.

It took me a long time before I was willing to try this. Once I did, and I began to hear improvement in my playing, I decided it was a good technique! As you use the mirror, you will begin to see the shape of your mouth and how it is sitting on the lip plate. It’s so easy to tilt off to one side of the mouth and not feel it!

Next, check arm position, noticing if there is tenseness in your shoulders and neck.

Do not play a note! Just look at your position. Close your eyes and notice how it feels to hold the instrument in a relaxed state.

2. Playing notes with the mirror.

Close your eyes and start to play a nice long note. I like to start with G or A in the first octave. Listen as you play it, then open your eyes to see if you are still in good position and relaxed.

If you are successful on one note, do two or three in a scale or arpeggio. Play the notes first with eyes closed. Then while you continue to play, open your eyes to check your alignment.

3. Find a way to record yourself.

No excuses. Find a way. Buy a digital recorder. Get a microphone for your computer. Do whatever it takes to record and listen to yourself. Save one recording every 1-2 months, so that you will be able to go back and compare your progress.

Record the same song or exercises for at least one month. The song or exercise should be no more than one minute in length. This way you can get a good comparison when you listen to it. You can listen to all of your recordings at the end of the month and either discard them, or set one aside for future comparisons.

Tips for good recording:

1. Always warm up before you record.

2. Place the microphone two to four feet away from you.

3. Announce the date before you play.

4. Keep the music simple enough that you can relax.

5. Focus on slow, smooth notes rather than fast or short ones.

There are many more ways to work on tone, but if you start with these techniques, you will be well on your way to performing beautiful music on the piccolo, woodwind extraordinaire.