Flute ≠ Piccolo: They are not exactly the same!

HAPPY NEW YEAR! I thought I would start off with the first post of 2021 being an instrument comparison since this [in a non-pandemic world] is the time region band meets again, at least in NJ. I have found that non-flutists rarely think of the flute and piccolo as different instruments. Of course, the other woodwind instruments have doubles (ie bassoon v. contra, all the saxophones, Bb clarinet v. bass v. alto…why are there so many clarinets). However, I have found in my own experiences that the doubling from flute to piccolo is expected to be this easily transferable skill when for many it is not.

Have some sympathy for your brand new piccolo players, and let’s get into what you need to know to help them transition easier from flute to piccolo:

What’s the same? What’s different?

At a glance, the piccolo may just be a “small flute” in fact some scores DO list the piccolo as such; one example being Grainger’s Shepard’s Hey (not exactly sure on the edition, but when I was handed the part I had a good laugh). This “small flute” label is misleading because the way you get a sound on the piccolo is VERY different than flute, and rather than giving piccolo to your first or second chair you should assess who may be best suited to play piccolo.

YES the fingerings are generally the same. However it is important to note that some flute fingerings DO NOT work (intonation wise, coordination wise) on the piccolo.

Good flute players are NOT always good piccolo players, this applies to both in high school and college. Just because a student is responsible and organized does not mean this is always a good fit for them!

The embouchure is a vital difference between the flute and piccolo. Of course, this needs to be generalized because embouchures vary greatly (even on flute alone) because of the differences of people’s mouth cavities, lips, and physical capabilities/limitations. For this generalization I will be referring to Nancy Toff’s “The Flute Book”:

Nancy Toff “The Flute Book” p. 94-95

YES the body needs to be relaxed, with minimal obstructions that will impact the air stream.

YES both the flute and piccolo should rest on the chin (that space right underneath the bottom lip) rather than ON the bottom lip itself. (Offset embouchures are okay on both instruments, if your primary instrument isn’t flute DON’T meddle too much with this let their flute instructor handle it).

Here’s where the similarities end. The lip formation/apperture as Toff discusses varies just on flute ALONE, add piccolo into the mix and things get confusing (especially for non flutists):

The flute has 3 general registers, each where the lip formation adjusts slightly to accommodate. One GREAT exercise that is rarely used for flute players in public schools is harmonics. While your brass players are doing their fundamentals let the flute players join in. Why? Because discovering the ratio of the top/bottom lips, apperture size, hole coverage is all highlighted when the students can only change the pitch that way (not changing their fingers at all).

The low register (B3/C4-B4): This is the most relaxed, the jaw is slightly lower (more space in the mouth cavity), the bottom lip needs to be wide (touching the lip plate) rather than turned up, to maximize tone quality.

The middle register (C5-B5): A more neutral set up, typically the upper lip is just slightly in front of the lower lip (think of the air hitting the lower lip and going down into the flute), the corners of the lips are still turned down; the space in the mouth is slightly less than before this can be achieved by a neutral jaw or widening the tongue.

The high register (C6-beyond): Rarely would you tell a student to pinch, or squeeze the sound; however things are getting smaller for this top register. The space between the top and bottom lips is the smallest – the lips are still able to let the air pass through, the cheeks are still relaxed, and the corners of the lips are still turned down; the space in the mouth is less which can be done by lifting/widening the tongue which also requires speeding up the air (like blowing out a candle rather than filling up a balloon).

The piccolo is a transposing instrument, it reads the same as flute, but sounds an octave higher. One MAJOR MISCONCEPTION that beginning piccolo players make is taking the embouchure from the middle and high registers on flute and applying it to piccolo. NO NO NO!

Beware, just because the sounding pitch is in that range as flute does not mean the embouchure stays the same. This is precisely why flute to piccolo is this ‘hidden challenge’ in comparison to the other woodwinds because with something actually inside the mouth – reed, mouth piece – the main challenge is size. However switching from flute to piccolo requires a completely NEW embouchure!

Generally, the most common mistakes new piccolo players make is squeezing or forming a too tight embouchure because they are trying to match the mid/higher embouchure from the flute. It is actually the OPPOSITE, maintaining a loose embouchure where the lips can still vibrate, and the cheeks are relaxed is ideal.

Obviously the piccolo is smaller and requires different air than the wider, longer bore of the flute. Also the materials are completely different (especially at the more advanced level).

While flutes are made of metals, piccolos are made of plastic/resin, wood, a combination of these. Piccolo players have to adjust to all of these factors. To summarize:

  • Piccolo size is much shorter and thinner than the flute.
  • Piccolo material varies much more than flute.
  • Piccolo range – transposes up an octave.
  • Piccolo embouchure – despite it’s range the lips and apperture are NOT the same as flute. Stay relaxed, loose on piccolo.
  • Intonation on certain fingerings from flute do NOT work on piccolo.

I have compiled some resources that can be useful for these students transitioning on flute to piccolo:

What are your tips on switching from flute to piccolo? What do you want band directors know before starting new piccolo students? Share you thoughts below!

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