The piccolo is the highest member of the woodwind family. The Italian word, “piccolo,” translates to “small,” and is actually a nickname for the instrument’s proper nomenclature, the piccolo flute. When playing the piccolo, performers use all the same fingerings as the flute and will sound exactly one octave higher. The piccolo divides into two sections: the headjoint and the body. Players blow into the mouth hole of the headjoint, covering a quarter to a third of the hole with their bottom lip and using the upper lip to blow downward. By blowing into the lip hole, the performer creates a vibrating column of air which makes a sound. The pitch of the sound is determined by keys which are depressed and thus change the length of the air column. To articulate notes, the piccolo player touches the tongue behind the upper teeth, as if saying “too.” Compared to the flute, the piccolo requires a smaller “embouchure,” (lip position) and higher placement on the lower lip.
Like the flute, the piccolo first appeared in Europe in the twelfth century where it was used in military bands and commonly referred to as a fife. In Renaissance times, flutes of various sizes were used to double soprano, alto, tenor and bass vocal lines. The piccolo developed similarly to the flute, and accordingly was influenced by Theodore Boehm’s innovations in the 1840’s. In the early 1900’s band composers often wrote for the D flat piccolo, an instrument that is rarely played today. Today, the piccolo is often heard in marching bands, concert bands and symphony orchestras. Band musicians tend to favor silver or silver plated piccolos, which are weather resistant and have a bright, projecting quality. Orchestral players perform on wooden piccolos, often made of grenadilla wood. Wooden piccolos have a warmer tone quality and offer more tonal possibilities. Because professional wood instruments can cost over four thousand dollars, students usually perform on metal or plastic piccolos. Correct intonation is a challenge on the piccolo, necessitating the use of alternate fingerings. The high register of the piccolo can be extremely loud, causing many professional players to wear earplugs when performing. In fact, hearing loss is a serious occupational hazard associated with playing the piccolo.
There is substantially less repertoire written for the piccolo than the flute. Fortunately, the soprano recorder was a popular Renaissance and Baroque instrument and much of its early repertoire adapts well to the modern piccolo, as demonstrated by Vivaldi’s numerous concertos. Because of its patriotic and militaristic connotations, the piccolo is often featured in band marches such as John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. The orchestral composers, Rossini, Shostakovich and Ravel also showcase the piccolo in their compositions.