Welcome to Flute Friday!
Last weekend I sight read a number of piccolo parts in one of the local groups I play with after having been on a piccolo hiatus since January. I often think that the most difficult thing about playing the piccolo is mustering the courage to belt out your parts no matter what your inner critic tells you. Blending into the background is simply not an option on this little instrument therefore good, bad or ugly – you will be heard. The first step is acceptance. The second hardest part about playing the piccolo is understanding that some of our good old flute fingerings translate very differently on the piccolo and we must develop new ways to adapt to different problems. As I was playing along to some unsurprisingly exposed music, I was reminded of many very useful trick fingerings I have picked up over the years for problem notes on the piccolo. Today’s blog is devoted to a few of my favorite trick fingerings on the piccolo. You may find that notes you have been “liping up” for years can be fixed with the repositioning of a few fingers or notes that always crack (I’m looking at you, high F#!) can be improved by removing a key here or there. Try them out in your practice! Your conductor will (and the rest of your section) will thank you for your research.
First things first – Finding a good trick fingering chart. I recommend the chart found on The Woodwind Fingering Guide website http://wfg.woodwind.org/flute/picc_alt_1.html . Back in the good old days I used to keep a paper copy of this chart in my music folder for times in rehearsal when my piccolo was behaving badly on certain notes and I needed a quick fix. The fingerings on this page are very good and can be used for many different types of problems and attacks. I have never needed to use the fingerings in the extreme high register (C# and above) but you may find them in newer contemporary pieces. If you know of a fingering for any note not listed on this site, let me know! I am always searching for new solutions to fingering issues.
Secondly – ALWAYS remember to use your earplugs if you are going to be practicing these fingerings in the high register. You risk permanent damage to your hearing if you go too many rounds in the practice room playing Rossini or Shostakovich excerpts without protection. I have left many practice sessions in the past with my ears ringing, recklessly thinking to myself, “This can’t be good.” Also provide earplugs to members of your ensemble sitting in close proximity to you whenever your parts extent into the high register. They will appreciate your consideration for their ear drums (and it is simply a professional courtesy).
1. High D Natural. Let’s face it – this note is problematic on all flutes big and small. For me, the standard fingering for the high D natural on the piccolo has always been a bit flat making it difficult to play loudly and in tune during sustained or climatic moments in the score. By adding the first finger on the right hand and the G# key on the left, the pitch is lifted and the response dramatically improved. The sound quality of the note is also improved giving more of a center to the tone. I have used this fingering in numerous pieces but the one that stands out most in my memory is at the climatic piccolo entrance of the theme in the 3rd movement of Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony (2 measures after Rehearsal K), marked ffff (Tchaikovsky meant business with this dynamic marking). The piccolo is the shining tip of the beautiful melodic pyramid created quite literally from the bottom voice on upward on the dramatic, slow moving yet expressive melody. You must be in tune on this note and play as loudly as possible. The trick fingering below helped me to really own this short, albeit significant, melodic fragment.
2. High F#. This note has been my nemesis. It cracks. It squeaks. It will not speak. Anything dynamic softer than mf is out of the question. It often cannot be tamed using standard fingerings. Composers love to write for this note and I have encountered numerous pieces throughout my career that include sustained high F#s, often written at a mp or p dynamic, in exposed, terrifying sections of music. Some of the most difficult piccolo excerpts feature this note in such scenarios to challenge a performer’s relationship with this infamous pitch by testing their embouchure strength and flexibility. After my years of struggle and my experimentations with trick fingerings I have found that playing this F# with the right hand middle finger depressed produces the best sound quality and response. The most memorable encounter with this trick fingering has been on the piccolo excerpt from Shostakovich’s 6th symphony, movement I where a beautiful melody features a suspended high F# one measure before Rehearsal 9. The middle F# fingering in the scenario keeps the pitch and response under control allowing the performer to color the note with changing dynamics and beautiful vibrato.
3. High G#. This is another terrifying note on both the flute and piccolo and some may even go as far as to claim that this is the worst note in terms intonation and response. I have not had as much bad experience with this note as the high F# because I do not often see the note written as a sustained pitch on the piccolo but as the leading tone to an A, the G# certainly crops up from time to time in orchestral works. I favor the below fingering to bring the pitch down and provide the sound with a stronger center. With more control over the pitch I find that I can color the note easier using variations in vibrato speed. I do not have a memorable moment with this note as I have not struggled as much with the high G# on the piccolo but if you have your own memorable moment, please comment below!
4. High B Natural. The problem with this note on the piccolo is stamina. The high B natural screams (I imagine this to be the pitch sounding in Harry Potter’s head whenever a dementor approached). The note requires an enormous amount of air to produce and sustain yet any issues with response will jeopardize the support behind the note. The standard fingering for the high B natural is fine for shorter, brief interjections of the note. For longer, sustained passages (meaning longer than a half note), the below fingering is the most useful. It may seem a bit complicated initially but the payoff is well worth the extra time in the practice room. I used this fingering on the piccolo part to the Romeo and Juliet Orchestra Suite No. 2 by Sergey Prokofiev to successfully sustain the high B against a slow moving tempo and an added ritardando from the conductor. I also used this in the piccolo part to Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 2 which also features passages written in sustained screaming high B naturals. (Unfortunately I do not have the scores to these parts any more to post as examples) Screaming high B naturals are quite common in orchestral works from the late Romantic to early 20th century compositions. This fingering will help you to muster the stamina required to sustain the note without losing tonal support.
There are of course many other trick fingerings for the piccolo. An added G# key to a middle A, for example, will help to sustain the sound and adding any of the keys on the right hand will bring a middle or low C or C# lower in pitch but these fingerings will also work on the flute. The above fingerings have become my most used, and most loved, fingerings over the years and have helped pull me out of some shockingly out of tune and squeaky musical moments.
What is your favorite trick fingering on the piccolo? Do you have your own memories using one of these trick fingerings to save an otherwise dying note or passage? Do you have other trick fingerings for the piccolo that you use and love? Please comment below!