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Flute/high notes on piccolo

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Question
I'm a beginner at the piccolo (at 62).  I think I'm making good progress, but the higher notes (like F and G an octave above middle C) are hard to sound. When I play flute or piccolo, I still have a lot of air (from me) escaping.  I'm trying to make clear, solid sounds.  By the way, how many octaves can a piccolo play?

Thanks, Joel

Answer
Hi there, Joel!

Congratulations on your decision to make a foray into piccolo playing!  It's a wonderful instrument that very few people bother to master, and I'm certain you'll find a lot of pleasure playing it!

Now, with regards to your difficulties playing up high, rest assured that this is a problem for everyone when they first learn to play piccolo.  While you may have full command of the flute's range, this does not ensure similar facility on the piccolo as it is a completely different instrument that shares only the most basic mechanics of sound production and pitch control with the flute.  With time and practice you can learn to produce pleasant sounding, dynamically and tonally shaded, in-tune, and very reliable high notes on both flute and piccolo.

The fact that you mention that you're losing a lot of air points to the fact that your airstream is not yet as focused as it needs to be.  I suggest practicing the tone exercises found in technique books such as Moyse's "De La Sonorite" or Trevor Wye's Practice Book on Tone in order to develop your embouchure to the point that you no longer are wasting your air, and it no longer contributes a noticeable sound to your playing.  These exercises (which generally focus on long tones moving either chromatically or diatonically downward) can also be reversed (played chromatically or diatonically upward) and turned into excellent range extension exercises.  

For this purpose (and these exercises can be played on either flute or piccolo), I usually start on the C in the staff (C2 if we're talking flute-centrically) and set my metronome to half note = 50, though you can start with it clicking faster and gradually slow the metronome down as you gain control and stamina.  These exercises should be played without vibrato, and practiced daily.  I'll start by playing pairs (repeating each pair) of long tones, with the first note being a half note, and the second being a whole note.  Then I'll play sets of three notes.  Then four notes, and so on.  So for the first set, I'd play a half note C slurred into a whole note B.  Repeat.  Then move the whole exercise down a half step so that I start on a half note B and slur into a Bb, and so on until I reach the bottom of the instrument's range (be it D like on piccolo, or C or B on flute).  

Then go back to that original C and play a half note C slurred into a half note B slurred into a whole note Bb.  Repeat and then move down a half step as before.  Focus on creating a smooth, even sound throughout each set of long tones.  Aim for no wavering in the tone, with as full and dark a sound as you can accomplish.  As you become more comfortable, you can incorporate different dynamics, tone colors, etc. to both keep things interesting and focus on different aspects of your playing.  Keep in mind that simply playing these exercises does no good....You must be consciously focused on the sound you're producing throughout.  It's easy to go into autopilot with these, but that defeats the point.

Such long tone exercises will help you to eliminate the air noise in your playing and improve your sound in general, as will exercises based on harmonics.  If you play the lowest note your flute is capable of, and overblow it without changing fingerings you will hear a note an octave above what you're fingering.  This higher pitch is a harmonic overtone, and there are several of these available on any given fingering within the first octave.  If the lowest note your flute has is a B, it should be possible to play 9 different pitches without changing fingerings from that low B.  If it has a C, you'll be able to get 8 on your lowest fingering.  Db has 7, D and Eb 6, E and F 5, F# and above (up to C2) have 4 overtones, though you may not be able to produce the highest of these immediately.  Set the metronome to 50 BPM as before and play quarter notes ascending through the various overtones on each fingering and then descending back to the fundamental.  Focus on hitting the overtones exactly with no splitting of the tone or cracked notes.  This exercises will help you learn to adjust the angle and speed of your airstream so that your high notes become much more focused and reliable without being harsh and forced.

You can also reverse the long tone exercise above to create the range expansion exercise I mentioned.  Start on C3 (the C above the staff) and play a half note at 50 BPM (or whatever metronome setting you're comfortable with when you begin, often closer to 60 or 68) and slur upward into the C#.  Repeat and move up a half step as before.  This allows you to gradually explore the higher reaches of the instrument's range while starting in a comfortable one where (hopefully) you've already established a good, solid sound.  Play only as high as you can produce an acceptable tone and with acceptable intonation as you seek to expand your range.  If you hear your sound becoming forced, thin, airy, or any other unpleasant adjective, do not seek to go higher until you the problem note matches the one immediately below it.  This may take several weeks.  The fact that you can play the highest note of which an instrument is capable does neither you nor your audience any good if you cannot play it musically, so don't attempt to rush things.  Eventually you will be able to play to the very top of the flute's/piccolo's range with a reliably good sound, at which point you should incorporate dynamic changes or larger intervals into the exercise.  Particularly on piccolo, there are a number of fingerings that will improve response of high notes (such as adding the ring and middle fingers of the right hand to the standard flute fingering for the highest Ab) which you should learn and practice using.  There are a number of resources for piccolo-specific fingerings online, as well as several books that include them such as the ones found in Jan Gippo's book or here:

http://www.piccolohq.com/pedagogy.html#anchor_129

On a final note when it comes to producing high notes, air speed (which is not the same as air volume, as simply blowing harder will not produce desirable results), angle of the airstream, aperture size, and the positioning of your oral cavity are all intimately related to each other and your ability to produce high notes.  As you move upward in the range, you will need to gradually arch your tongue more toward the front of your mouth and slightly shrink the aperture between your lips, which will increase airspeed as it leaves your embouchure, and you will need to aim that air slightly higher on the blowing edge of the headjoint's embouchure hole.  Any variation in any of these factors (and on piccolo especially, even slight variations can have a huge impact) will affect either your ability to sound the desired note at all, its intonation, its timbre, or its dynamic level.  As such, it's important that you realize that learning to play the entire range of the instrument with true command is an ongoing process, rather than something that you can figure out in a few practice sessions.  If you put in the work to figure out (and internalize) the correct way to blow to produce each note with any dynamic or tonal variation you might want you'll be well on your way to mastering the instrument, but this will take time.  Do not allow yourself to become frustrated if it takes longer than you think it should.  Every serious flutist has had to spend time learning the same things, and they regularly focus on maintaining what they've learned.  It is well worth while, so focus on getting it right rather than getting it right now.

As for your other question about the boundaries of the piccolo's range, most written parts will fall  within the two octaves and a minor sixth between the lowest D (all fingers less the pinkies down) and Bb3.  It is possible for skilled players to sound notes above this, and many orchestral parts call for notes up to the C a step above Bb3, and a few even for the C# and D above that.  Some piccolos cannot sound the highest B natural due to the positioning and size of the trill key toneholes, but most players will never learn to play this high or see a part where it is required anyway.  And some piccolos actually have a "footjoint" (though it's not a separate joint as on flute) that allows them play a low C or even a low B.  So the short answer is that the piccolo has pretty much the same range as the flute but an octave up, though depending on the instrument in use and the skill of and demands placed on the player, there can be some variation.

I hope this is helpful.  If you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to ask, and best of luck with the piccolo playing!

Herbert

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Herbert Smith

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I can answer questions about almost any flute-related topic.

I have trained professionally as a flute repair tech and music educator, and have a broad range of experiences as a performer. I also have experience with a huge array of flutes with any imaginable material or specification, and can comment on the quality of various instruments, as well as guide people through the flute-buying process. I'm willing and able to discuss various flute gadgets (Valgon rings, Foster extensions, etc.) as well.

I'm very familiar with piccolo, alto, and other harmony flutes (including those in unusual keys, such as Eb flute, Db piccolo, G treble, Ab alto piccolo, Flute D'amore, Contrabass, etc.).

I am also glad to offer advice on how to approach difficulties within pieces of music, offer teaching tips to those who give lessons, or answer just about any other flute-related query you can throw at me!

Please note, however, that I am not an appraisal service, and will not provide estimates of value. Please do not ask me about the value of your flute. I also must decline to date instruments based on their serial numbers.

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I'm a professional repair tech with years of experience, and a veteran high school band director. I've maintained a successful studio for private flute lessons for many years, and have performed professionally in just about any imaginable venue.

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I have bachelor's degrees in music education and performance from highly regarded universities, and have trained with one of the best flute techs/flute makers in the US.

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