The Piccolo Trumpet is really two instruments in one. All Piccolo Trumpets come equipped with devices that allow for the instrument to be pitched in either B-flat or A. This is accomplished by means of different tuning slides and changeable bells. The choice of B-flat or A depends wholly on the situation at hand. When performing music of the Baroque era, players will most often use the A Piccolo Trumpet, as the majority of the music is in the key of D. Most modern music will use the instrument in B-flat which is written one octave higher than the standard B-flat Trumpet. Do not have the player switch between B-flat and A Piccolo Trumpet during the course of a work. This will require extensive reshuffling of an existing instrument.
Contrary to popular belief, the Piccolo Trumpet cannot play one octave higher than the B-flat or C Trumpets. Instead, it makes the higher partials of the overtone series easier to hit. This is the myth of brass instruments. A trumpet player has the exact same high range on any member of the family no matter what pitch the instrument is in. So if a trumpet player can only hit a written high C on the B-flat Trumpet, they will only be able to hit a B-flat on the C Trumpet, an A-flat on the D Trumpet, a G on the E-flat Trumpet, and a written C in the staff on the B-flat Piccolo. The high range is solely due to how well-developed the player’s lips are.
All this said, it is not uncommon to see notes up to a sounding high F written for the Piccolo Trumpet. This note corresponds to the highest note seen in Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto. No matter what instrument is used, this is a perilous note. I would advise never writing above this note, ever.
Almost all modern Piccolo Trumpets possess four valves, which means they can descend to a written low D below middle C. However, the fourth valve is more for securing intonation, than for extending the range (though to perform some Baroque music intended for the old D Trumpet, these notes are useful).
The sound of the Piccolo Trumpet is very delicate, but with a piercing edge. Of all the brass instrument, it is most like that of a woodwind, and it can blend in seamlessly with the woodwind choir. It works especially well with the flutes, oboes, and clarinets. For an exciting finale to a Bassoon concerto I composed, I used two Piccolo Trumpets playing in harmony with a very high Bassoon part to dramatic effect. We expect an element of agility and dexterity to the Piccolo Trumpet. It’s clear and triumphant sound can cut through any large ensemble.
I know several works for larger band that do use one or two Piccolo Trumpets, and their passages are always met with excitement. Look at some of the works by David Maslanka (notably his Symphony 4 and In Memoriam) to see some wonderful uses of Piccolo Trumpets.
When scored for, the Piccolo Trumpet will usually be a doubling instrument for the first (and second) trumpet player. Most, if not all, professional trumpet players will possess a Piccolo Trumpet, so procurement is almost assured. Younger players are usually discouraged from played the Piccolo Trumpet due to the extreme pressures involved in playing.
Marcello Oboe Concerto on Piccolo Trumpet
Bach Brandenburg Concerto 2 – Maurice Andre on Piccolo Trumpet
David Maslanka’s In Memoriam. The highest trumpet parts are on Piccolo.