Let’s take a closer look at the smallest flute in the family! Whether you call it by its French name (petite flute), German name (kleine flote) or Italian name (either flauto piccolo or ottavino), the piccolo has some unique structural qualities. The term piccolo is an Italian adjective that literally means small and has come to be the most common name for the instrument in the USA, although many times it might be called the &**# piccolo depending on the mood of the player at the time!
The Boehm flute of today is constructed exclusively with cylindrical bore and a ‘parabolic’ headjoint (The Flute Book, Nancy Toff). Piccolos can be made with either a cylindrical bore if they are made out of silver or conical bore if they are made out of wood. The cylindrical bore instruments generally offer an ease of playing in the third octave, but the trade off is that the tone quality is generally more shrill up high and weaker in the first octave with potentially faulty intonation. This is why you will not see silver piccolos being played in today’s professional orchestras: they are just too bright in tone quality and offer unreliable pitch.
If you look carefully at any of a wooden piccolo, you will see that the instrument is indeed larger at the headjoint end than the foot, illustrating the conical (cone shaped) bore, or shape of the instrument. Conical bore piccolos have a more beautiful tone quality overall with a rich low register and more reliable intonation. Piccolos can also be made of plastic resin, which is an inexpensive option that sounds more like a wooden instrument. These piccolos are quite immune to weather (I would certainly not take one out in a downpour, however) and because they are so much more easy to manufacture they are budget friendly. One of the compromise options available to piccolo players is an instrument with a wooden body with a silver (or gold) headjoint. This provides the player with a more consistent feel when doubling back and forth on the flute because of the lip plate, which offers a kinesthetic sensation much more similar to the flute.
Wooden piccolo headjoints often have the option of wave or wing styles. These styles set up a different trajectory of the air column to the back wall. Many players enjoy the security of this style of headjoint as it seems to give them a more pure sound quality. As with any headjoint, the player’s perception of comfort is an individual matter: it often depends on the lip fullness or thickness, relative thickness of top lip to bottom lip, and strength of air column produced. Now, a frequent question is why does the piccolo have a bulb or ‘bubble’ in the design? This bulb is the profile of the wood that is created to go around the tenon joint. In other words, the wood follows the profile of the internal silver hardware of the joint(this hardware can also be made out of gold). The tenon is the area where the headjoint fits onto the body of the piccolo: the headjoint is the ‘male’ side of the joint and the ‘female’ side of the joint is the cork wrapped metal receiver (Interestingly, this is the spot most likely to crack on an instrument since the wood must be thinner at this point in the construction. Wood used in piccolo manufacturing is carefully aged or seasoned so that movement will be minimal, but despite all precautions, cracks can happen under wide temperature or humidity changes. Dry and cold environments can be the most harsh to wooden instruments.
What about extra keys on the piccolo? The split E option has been available for some time now ….it closes one of the G keys and changes the venting for high E, making it more stable. This changes the ability to use some traditional trill fingerings but there are other trill fingerings that can be substituted. Some manufacturers offer an on/off mechanism for the split E, giving the player the best of both worlds. (BURKART'S WEB SITE SHOWS A GREAT PHOTO OF THIS). There is a C# trill key available on the piccolo, most useful for the perfect G-A third octave trill it can provide, but this mechanism is reported by many players to be a bit awkward. Another great optional key available is a G# facilitator, a mechanism that closes only the lower one of the thumb keys, eliminating the need for adding RH 23 to stabilize the high G#. (BURKARTS WEB SITE HAS GREAT PHOTO).
Piccolo pads can be made of traditional felt, cork (which is useful on the keys which stay closed all the time to reduce the chance of water bubbles) and the Straubinger style pads which are firmer and more reflective of sound. Pad material does affect the tone quality and is another personal choice for the player.
For such a small instrument, there are an array of anatomical differences to behold!
Content copyright 2013. Cynthia Ellis. All rights reserved.