What Is the Piccolo? Plus How to Play

What is the piccolo and how do you play it? The piccolo is an amazing instrument that’s more versatile than you might think.

Learning how to play the piccolo is crucial for serious flutists. But anyone who wants to play the piccolo can make it happen.

Here’s what you need to know.

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What Is the Piccolo?

You may hear people refer to the piccolo as a small flute, which is part true and part false. The piccolo is the smallest member of the flute family.

However, the piccolo has a slightly different design from the flute. The flute can play down to a low C or B, while most piccolos only play down to low D. Unless you spend thousands on a Nagahara Mini, for example, you’ll have a smaller written piccolo range.

Throughout history, there have been two piccolos: one in C and one in Db. The piccolo we play today is in the key of C, so it plays an octave above the flute. However, Db piccolos were common at one point in many bands.

But most piccolo players (including myself) play the piccolo in C. Most piccolo music is in that key, and it means you can play a decent amount of flute music on your piccolo.

Piccolo Materials

Most flutes today are made of metal, such as silver or gold. However, piccolos can be made of:

  • Silver/silver plating

  • Plastic

  • Wood-plastic composite (sometimes called grenaditte)

  • Wood

You might also find piccolos made of a combination of those materials. For example, many students start on a piccolo with a silver-plated headjoint and a plastic or composite body.

That combination of materials is relatively affordable, making it a great starting point. But plastic and composite piccolos are also not too expensive. You can even find some used all silver-plated piccolos for less than the cost of some new piccolos.

It can be easy to think wood is the “best” material for a piccolo. Wood provides a nice warm sound, and blends well with other instruments. However, it’s expensive, and you have to be careful not to play it in extreme conditions where the wood could crack.

Piccolo vs. Flute

When learning about the piccolo and how to play it, you should know how it compares to the flute. As I mentioned, the piccolo plays an octave above the flute. It’s about half the size, so everything is smaller, from your embouchure to the keys.

The piccolo also tends to require more alternate fingerings than the flute. That way, you can compensate for some intonation issues at different dynamics throughout the piccolo’s range.

In an ensemble, you may have two, three, or a dozen flute players. However, you’ll rarely have more than one person playing the piccolo at a time. Unless you’re playing a piece with a piccolo duet section or in a marching band, one piccoloist is the standard.

Fortunately, you can play both the flute and piccolo. If you want to take flute playing seriously and pursue it as a career, playing piccolo is almost a necessity. But don’t stop playing your flute, because that can help you get more experience and performance opportunities.

How to Play the Piccolo

Now that you understand the basics of the piccolo, you may wonder how you play it. While every player may need to learn slightly differently, there are a few steps you can take.

Then, you can set yourself up for success as you learn how to play the piccolo.

Start on the Flute

Some people may start on the piccolo, but that’s not the best option for most players. The piccolo requires more precision than the flute to get a good sound. If possible, you should play the flute first to learn the fundamentals.

You’ll be able to focus on learning to read music, how to finger different notes, and how to form your embouchure. It’s also going to be easier to find flute books and resources for beginners. And if you want to take private lessons, flute teachers are more common than piccolo teachers.

There’s no right time to start learning piccolo after starting the flute. However, you should know most of the fingerings, especially some of the higher notes. That will help you transition to the smaller flute.

Practice the High Register

When you practice the flute, as soon as you’re able, start working on your high register. This is an excellent way to prepare for playing piccolo.

The second and third octaves on the flute correspond with the first and second octaves on the piccolo. So if you know how to make a good sound in those registers on the flute, switching to the piccolo won’t be as difficult.

You should keep working on the high register on the flute once you start learning piccolo. Then, you can reinforce your flute skills so that you don’t lose them when or if the piccolo takes up more of your practice time.

Get a Good Quality Piccolo

Once you’re ready to start learning how to play the piccolo, you need a good-quality instrument. You can find tons of piccolos online or in music stores. Some are much better than others, especially at the beginner level.

For example, there are a lot of piccolos on Amazon and eBay for less than $100. Those models can seem like good deals, but they might not last long. I played on a cheap flute, and I needed to upgrade within a year.

So save yourself the money and frustration and pay more upfront. You can find piccolos for a few hundred dollars, so you don’t need a ton of money. But you’ll thank yourself later.

Revisit Your Beginner Flute Books

Before you go searching for a ton of new music to learn, find your old flute books. A lot of beginner flute material works well on the piccolo. The notes don’t go too high or low at first, so you can play exercises you’re already familiar with.

You may be able to go through the books more quickly this time. After all, you don’t have to learn the music theory part or learn the fingerings. So you can make sure you get a good sound when playing the exercises on your new piccolo.

Eventually, you can get a good piccolo-specific book. However, you don’t need one at the start. If you don’t have a good beginner flute book, check out the Rubank series, which works for flute and piccolo.

Use a Tuner

As you practice playing the piccolo, keep a tuner handy. The piccolo can be harder to keep in tune than the flute. Any deviation from the correct pitch is more noticeable because of the higher frequencies.

Unless you happen to have perfect pitch, you should use a tuner as much as you can. Then, you can learn the tendencies of the notes on your specific piccolo. You’ll then be able to figure out how to correct any issues when you need to perform.

Once you get used to how your piccolo works, you can use the tuner a bit less. However, you should use it when you put your piccolo together. That way, your instrument will be in tune when you play.

Learn Alternate Fingerings

Assuming you learned the flute first, you may already know some alternate fingerings. The Bb thumb and lever are two common ones. However, you should learn more alternate fingerings when playing the piccolo.

You might need to add fingers from your right hand to help make C and C# in tune, for example. A lot of piccoloists also use a different fingering to stabilize the high G#.

Many piccolo fingering charts include these alternate fingerings. But you can also experiment with a tuner to see what works with your instrument. And if you decide to upgrade your piccolo later, you may need to learn new fingerings as necessary.

Protect Your Ears

The piccolo’s sounding range is D5 (just over an octave above middle C) to C8 (four octaves above middle C). Because of that, most of the range can be damaging to your ears, especially after a lot of practice.

You should get a good pair of earplugs to wear when playing the piccolo. Some musicians go to an ear doctor to get custom earplugs. However, you can find some affordable ones online, and they don’t block all of the sound.

That way, you’ll still hear yourself playing. And you can protect your hearing while you practice, because your hearing can’t come back after you lose it.

Make It a Habit

If you want to get better at piccolo, you need to practice it regularly. You don’t need to spend hours a day playing it, but you should play it most days, if not every day.

Now, when you buy a wood piccolo, you may need to break it in. Twenty minutes a day is plenty to do that. But with other piccolos, you can practice as little or as much as you want.

The important thing isn’t how much you practice but how consistently. It’s better to practice for 10 minutes a day every day than to practice an hour once a week. That way, you can keep making progress, and you won’t lose the progress you make each time.

Switch Between Flute and Piccolo

Even if you want to become a piccolo specialist, you shouldn’t give up playing the flute once you learn piccolo. Instead, make time to practice both of them. You should also practice switching between the two.

Some pieces require you to switch back and forth. So get your flute and piccolo out when you want to practice. Changing instruments can be hard at first, but it will get easier the more you do it.

If you ever need to make a quick change, you can use flute and piccolo stands. Then, you don’t have to worry about dropping either instrument. But start with slower switches so that you can make sure the instrument is safe when you set it down.

Take Lessons

If you already take flute lessons, bring your piccolo to a flute lesson. Many flute teachers can at least work on the basics with you. And if they can’t they may know someone who focuses more on the piccolo and can teach it.

Now, if you don’t take flute lessons, consider at least taking a few on the piccolo. That way, you can keep from developing bad habits, like squeezing your lips to get notes out.

You don’t need to take a lesson every week, and you can stop after a few months. However, you should have some guidance on getting started, especially if you don’t take flute lessons.

Take a Course

If you can’t afford private lessons, you can also take a course on piccolo. Piccolo courses aren’t as common as flute courses, but I have one in the works to release right here.

The course covers the basics of playing the instrument, from choosing the right piccolo to getting a consistent sound. It will be a great way to supplement either private lessons or self-teaching.

You can also take multiple courses on playing the piccolo. Then, you can learn from different people who may have unique perspectives. Someone else might cover different topics in a course than I do, so don’t hesitate to invest a bit more in multiple educational methods.

Don’t Give Up

You might not get the best sound from your piccolo at first. That’s fine and completely normal. But you don’t want to give up just because you don’t sound that great at first.

The more you work on your playing, the better you’ll get. As you improve, you may be able to perform on the piccolo in an orchestra or band. Then, you can get even better, and that can help you play as a soloist on the piccolo.

Playing the piccolo can also help your flute playing. Even if you don’t play the piccolo that much, you may find that playing it will help you get more flute gigs. So don’t give up on the piccolo before you give it a chance to help you as a musician overall.

The Best Piccolo for Beginners

There are tons of great piccolos for beginners, but I have to give a shout out to the Pearl 105. It’s not the first piccolo I played, but it’s a fantastic option for beginners and advancing students.

The piccolo is a composite model, and you can choose a traditional or wave headjoint. I used the piccolo to get into my masters degree and played on it in orchestra, wind ensemble, and flute choir.

If you want an instrument that’s not too expensive but will last you for years, give the Pearl a try. It may not be the right piccolo for you, but you may find the instrument of your dreams.

Final Note

The piccolo is the smallest flute in existence, and it’s an amazing instrument to play. You can play it as a soloist or in chamber and large ensembles.

Make sure you develop a foundation of flute playing first. Then, consider piccolos of different materials and within your budget. That way, you can learn how to play the piccolo successfully.

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