The conventional wisdom is that is necessary to wait two or three years before starting students on piccolo. Actually, I think starting flute students on piccolo is more a matter of measuring readiness by evaluating embouchure and blowing skills rather than the amount of time a student has played. What are these skills? First of all make sure the student is blowing sufficiently fast air. Also it is important that the student has good control over the size and shape of the aperture. If the student meets these two criteria, they will do fine with piccolo. On the other hand, if a student is already pinching, rather than supporting, to play higher on the flute or trying to overpower the piccolo by blowing harder, it can actually be detrimental to their flute playing. This is why it is so important to make sure embouchure and blowing skills are well developed before introducing piccolo.
How can you help your flute students adjust to playing piccolo? In several ways. The piccolo should be placed higher on the bottom lip than flute. This is because the transit time (the time from when the air exits the aperture to when it strikes the blowing edge) is somewhat shorter than on flute. Conversely, the larger the instrument, the lower on the lip it goes for the same reason. The other major thing to get used to is the different register of the instrument. It is an octave higher, so the low register sounds like the middle register of the flute. Have the students play tone exercises like octaves or long tones and slow scales to acclimate themselves to the differences.
What about starting students on piccolo before transitioning to flute? At the risk of upsetting my flute playing colleagues, I would like to put it out there that this may not be as crazy an idea as it seems. After all, the student gets to learn immediately about a well shaped aperture and moving the air fast enough to get a good sound. Though I have to admit I have never started anyone on piccolo, I have started students on an $8 fife made by a major manufacturer of school recorders with good success. This fife is in the same octave as piccolo and when the students transition to flute, it is a breeze. There is none of the usual struggle to either shape the aperture or figure out how to direct the air at the blowing edge. It is a very easy transition. A respected former classmate of mine started on piccolo and has agreed to talk about her experiences as a beginner on piccolo. Look for her remarks in the comments.
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Ellen Redman said:
I am Dr. Cate’s former classmate and she asked me to chime in here. First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t actually start on piccolo. Back in the halcyon days of rich instrumental programs in the public schools, I started on flute (because it’s what my next-door neighbor played). We worked out of ‘A Tune a Day” for flute and piccolo. At some point in 5th or 6th grade I asked what a piccolo was and thus began my love affair with the piccolo. We went out and rented (to own) a Yamaha YPC 32 (composite body with silver head) and I started playing that almost exclusively. I had still been borrowing a flute from the school, but the picc was mine, so to speak and so I kept to that. I did not start private lessons until 7th or 8th grade, so I was mostly on my own with this.
When Jr High came around the band director told me that most piccolo players also play flute (I was still not studying privately yet) and so we got a flute, but I still remember playing most everything on piccolo whenever there was a part.
As a result, I have been the piccolo player in my symphony since 1985 and have studied with piccolo players and made intense study of the instrument.
I hope I don’t disappoint, Dr. Cate, when I tell you that I don’t remember much about the struggles or ease of playing this instrument as a young, inexperienced student. I remember it made me happy. I know now, that the technique is easier, as the motions are smaller. It takes less air, as a result of the smaller aperture in the embouchure, so longer phrases are easier. I would expect that, in order to build the muscle tone to sustain that third octave, you might need to practice a bit more as a young player playing the piccolo than you would on flute for the same result. There is lots of great music that stays in a reasonable range (think Baroque) and is well-suited for the piccolo.
My take-away here, I guess, is that if you are passionate about something, you will figure out a way to do it. I don’t see starting on piccolo as a plus or minus, but perhaps it is the right thing for a certain student.
I’m happy to continue the conversation or answer any questions.
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