D-flat Piccolo Flute

D-flat Piccolo Flute

D-flat Piccolo Range

At one time, bands used Piccolos pitched a half-step higher in the key of D-flat.  While instruments are extant, none are currently being manufactured.  I only include the instrument here as a historical curiosity.  I do however, know a flutist who owns a D-flat Piccolo just for the sole purpose of playing the solo from Stars and Stripes Forever as the Piccolo part for the C Piccolo is in A-flat, while the D-flat Piccolo part is in the much easier key of G.  Everything is exactly like the C Piccolo except transposed up one half-step.

C Piccolo Flute

C Piccolo Flute 

C Piccolo Range

The Piccolo is the highest and smallest of all woodwinds.  It is a common sight in all bands.  In fact, some feel a band is not complete without a Piccolo.  Sousa’s famous Stars and Stripes Forever has solidified the link between the Piccolo and band to the point where the two are inseparable.  I find this practice abhorrent.  The Piccolo, pitched on full octave higher than the C Flute, is an instrument that should be reserved for special occasions.  Its piercing and shrill tones are more suitable for an outdoor setting than for a concert venue.  That said, I do still like the instrument (just not its constant use in the band!).

Every note from a Piccolo will stand out and be heard.  Remember this at all times when writing for the instrument!  Over use of the instrument can grow tiresome, and this is where I have a huge beef with most bandestrators.  When an instrument becomes overused, it loses its potency.  When I’ve written for the Piccolo, I tend to only reserve it for special occasions.  A rare tutti ensemble passage that requires brilliance is perfect for the Piccolo.  Menacing or stormy passages are equally suitable.  A standard unison for the band, in reality, is better off without the top octave.  Too often I have heard band directors crying out to their ensemble to make a dark sound, and too often it is the bandestrator’s fault for arranging the voices too high.  It is okay to leave out the Piccolo – no one will miss it!

Now, of course there are plenty of other uses for the Piccolo.  I love the sound of a solo Piccolo in its lower register.  It has a hollow and eerie sound, and is best accompanied by metallic percussion.  The Piccolo can also be used as a quaint, folksy sound, not unlike primitive flutes used throughout Europe.  Music of a martial quality is also suited for the Piccolo, although this is a very stereotypical role.

I like to think of the Piccolo as a gentle instrument with a great voice.  When played quietly, it is the most quaint and delicate sound, but at loud dynamics the walls of Jericho itself come a-tumblin’ down.

Please note, that the Piccolo never possesses the bottom C and C-sharp.

Evidendtly, that above statement is no longer true.  As of 2010, Braun, a flute maker in Germany is producing a high quality Piccolo with a low C.  This appears to be the instrument now used in the Berlin Philharmonic.

Of historical note, there is also a Piccolo pitched one half-step higher in D-flat.

Stars and Stripes Forever

Parable XII by Vincent Persichetti for solo Piccolo

Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony 3rd mvt.  Listen to how little the Piccolo plays, but how big of an impact it has.  Note: this excerpt is considered extremely difficult.

The Woodwind Section Part 10 – The Piccolo Register

In this post, I will define the piccolo register as the register that plays routinely one octave about the standard soprano instruments.  This register would start at roughly C5, one octave above the middle C.

There are three instruments that fall easily into this category (I will leave out the recorders for the time being as their whole family is skewed pitch-wise an octave higher than normal).  These instruments are:

  • Piccolo
  • A-flat Clarinet
  • Piccolo Saxophone

There is no member of either double reed family that extends into this range.  The mechanics and physics of a double reed simply will not allow this.

C Piccolo Range

A-flat Clarinet range

Piccolo Saxophone range

Acoustics of the Piccolo Register

It could almost be said that instrument choice makes little difference when it comes to instruments that are this high.  The overtones that form the basis of timbre are to some extent outside the range of human hearing, especially in the topmost octave.  Percy Grainger exploited this phenomena in his rarely performed Hill Song no. 1, which has 19 double reed instruments – and two piccolos.  I have heard this piece both live and on recordings and the piccolos do not detract from the nasal quality of the double reeds.  instead, they serve as the upward harmonics of the sound.

In this range, the note is important, the timbre is secondary.

The Three Instruments

Of the three piccolo instruments, only the Piccolo (Flute) is widely (ever?) available.  It is standard in both the orchestra and the band.  Nearly every flute player will possess and be able to play the instrument.

The other two instruments are far rarer. The A-flat Clarinet used to be a rare visitor to bands, especially European bands, but today it is a rare sight even there.  The Piccolo Saxophone is one of the newest of all woodwinds (marketed under the brand name “Soprillo” by Eppelsheim).  As the instrument has only been made for around a decade few are extant, but the numbers are increasing.  Due to the nature of the single reed, both of these instruments are exceedingly difficult to play well.

Compare/Contrast

The A-flat Clarinet is the middle ground between the two instruments, it has an even timbre and dynamic range from top to bottom.  The Piccolo, like all flutes will sound loudest in its upper register and softest in its bottom.  The Piccolo Saxophone is the opposite of this sounding loudest in its bottom register, though still able to play quite loudly as it ascends.

The A-flat Clarinet will be able to play the softest of all three instruments, whereas the Piccolo Saxophone will play the loudest.

Both the A-flat Clarinet and the Piccolo will have roughly three octave ranges, whereas the Piccolo Saxophone will have at most 2.5 octaves.  However, the Piccolo will be able to play an octave higher than either of the single reed instruments.

Orchestration and Use

This register of any ensemble should be used the least.  Human ears grow tired very quickly of high pitched sounds.  Perhaps 10-20% of a piece should/could contain passages for these instruments.  This advice is also keenly noted for the A-flat Clarinet and the Piccolo Saxophone whose players will tire extremely quickly due to the extremely firm embouchure.

These three instruments can easily be doubles for larger members of their family.

Final words

Unless you know for certain that the A-flat Clarinet and/or Piccolo Saxophone are available (or you’re crazy), only score for the Piccolo.

Flutes Part 4 – Flute Technique

Technique

           

            The technique of the flute family is probably the highest and most refined of all the woodwinds.  The bandestrator is thereby free to write nearly anything within the standard range of the instrument.

The only limitations are the bottom third of the instrument.  With the exception of the combination of the low C to low D, all combinations of notes E-flat and lower require the sliding of the little finger.  The D-flat to E-flat trill is the only impossible trill on the entire instrument.

For the entire flute family, the written low C is the standard bottom note.  There are a few exceptions to this rule:

1. First, all Piccolos only descend to the low D.  There are no exceptions.

2. The G Treble may or may not stop at the D, but this depends on the maker.

3. The C Flute itself is often equipped with a B-foot that allows the production of the lowest B natural.  You should be fairly safe in the writing of this note as all professionals and most amateurs possess this extension.

4. The low B may or may not be present in the larger flutes.  It is never present on the Alto and very rare on the Tenor.  Consult with your players before using this note.

The upper written range for all flutes is given as the C three octaves above middle C, but again there are some exceptions.  The top B and C on the Piccolo are extremely difficult to produce (owing surprisingly in part to the lack of the Low C) and can only be produced in forte.  Advanced technique on the C Flute has pushed the range upwards to around an F, but in practicality, only the D above the high C should be used.  The larger flutes are best kept out of their upper register (though the Alto has full use of all three octaves) and these notes are suspect and uncharacteristic of the instruments.

All flutes, from Piccolo to Contrabass, have the same sound signature.  That is, their sound is soft in the bottom of the register and gradually gets louder as the pitch ascends.  The softest sound in the flute family is a Contrabass on its lowest C (or B), while the absolute loudest sound is a Piccolo on its highest C.

By the way, the modern flute family, with all its new members, is the only family of winds that can cover virtually the entire range of the Piano (minus the low B-flat and A of the Piano).

One curious aspect of flute technique is that, as flutists are able to master the technique of their instrument fairly quickly (compared to most of the other woodwinds), many flutists venture out into performing works with extended techniques.  These include quarter-tones, multiphonics, beat-boxing, glissandi, breathy sub-tones, and many more.  Most of these techniques are used primarily in flute solos, and only rarely do they make their way into ensemble music.

When in doubt, ask a competent flutist.

Flutes – Flutes in the Band

The Flute in the Band

 

            First remember that you will only have C Flute and Piccolo at your immediate disposal.  You can basically ignore anything I said about the exotic species of flutes.

As I alluded to in the subsection on the C Flute, the flute family as a whole is alone in the band world.  As we only use the small members of the family, and the larger members are weak and powerless, we have an oddball situation on our hands.  Traditionally, orchestral woodwinds have been seen as thus:

Flute                Soprano

Oboe               Alto

Clarinet           Tenor

Bassoon           Bass

But, this arrangement really belies the instruments’ true capabilities.  If we were to really look at what their roles are it would be something like this:

Flute                Sopranino/Treble

Oboe               Soprano

Clarinet           Alto

Bassoon           Tenor/Baritone

Notice in this arrangement, the flue is move up one level to sopranino/treble and all other instruments shift up one spot.  Part of this is due to the flutes role.  Like the Basses doubling the Cellos at the octave lower, the flute is best at doubling the soprano voice at the octave higher.  This reserves the oboe, and not the flute as the true soprano of the woodwind section.  The flute now becomes the icing on the cake and not the cake itself.  Bands have yet to figure this out.  The C Flute is not your primary melody instrument.  It is best at countermelodies, descant lines, and octave doublings.  These roles allow for their part to also become more florid and embellished.

The Piccolo is yet another extreme.  It doubles the soprano, not at the octave, but at the double octave!  Less is more here.  The less you use the Piccolo, the more effective it becomes.  You do not have to have every single player playing in every single bar.  In fact, this is one of the great crimes of band music in general.

This leads me to a very curious example of orchestral efficiency.  It is Mahler’s Symphony 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand.”  No one in their right mind, you say, would call a symphony that is known for using 1,000 performers efficient, but I am making that case.  Mahler may use an exorbitant amount of players, but he uses them in a very selective manner.  The entire symphony is well over an hour long, and for one beat, only one single beat, does the entire ensemble play together.  This occurs just as the final moment comes crashing down, as the three choirs sing their final note and the brass band begins their triumphant paean.  Only by holding everything back until that moment, does this one moment of triumph have its dramatic impact.  Remember this in your own writing.

(By the way, there is a stunning Piccolo part in the last movement of Mahler’s 8th that bears looking into.  It is one of the very quiet moments, just before the Chorus Mysticus, where a solo Piccolo is accompanied by of all things a Harmonium and a Piano.  The result is magical!  The gentle Piccolo at its finest.)

The above performance starts at the Piccolo solo and culminates in the grand finale.  It is also of special note that all of the orchestral musicians are children!

I am going to lay out a very typical high school flute section.  I will make the assumption that there are roughly eight players in the section.  This is an average number for an average sized band.  The typical band music will have three parts for these eight players.

  1. Piccolo (player 1)
  2. Flute 1 (players 2-4)
  3. Flute 2 (players 5-8)

To me, this is a rather inefficient system.  Players 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8 are pretty much pointless.  They are there to beef up the sound of players 2 and 5.  A creative bandestrator can come up with some clever ideas.  Why not eight individual parts?  As I said in the subsection on the Alto Flute, many high schools I know now possess an Alto.  Why not have player 8 play the Alto?  In doing this we would even out the numbers of Flute 1 and Flute 2 to three players on each part instead of three on one and four on the other.  Flute 1 and Flute 2 can now be further subdivided.  Not necessarily into Flutes 3-6, but more along the lines of desks in a string section.  Use the term “one on a part” liberally.  Quiet sections greatly benefit from reduction of the clutter (and it helps with the overall intonation of the band).

With this new arrangement we have now three tone colors, four parts, and subtle gradations of two of those parts.  We have gone from three colors in our crayon box to six.

We can get even more colors if we have doubling.  Every flute, of any size, plays approximately the same as the C Flute.  Every flute player should be able to play the Piccolo.  Think of the terrific sound of eight Piccolos playing either together, or more horrific still, eight individual, contrapuntal lines!  What a wondrous sound that could be.

Next we could bring in our rare species of flutes.  The Tenor Flute is the first choice as it is by far the most common, but if you are assured of some of the rare species, by all means, plunder your riches.  The rare flutes should really be thought of as double instruments.  There is no reason in the world to have a Bass Flute playing when the full band is at fortissimo.  Reserve these rare flutes for quiet moments to reap the most rewards.

With just eight players, we really can have a whole palate of sound.  But remember, the flute family is only one flavor of sound; the ear needs more than just flute to survive.  If I had the option of eight players, all of whom can double on various instruments, I would probably choose an arrangement like this:

Player 1 – Piccolo, C Flute

Player 2 – Piccolo, C Flute

Player 3 – Piccolo, C Flute

Player 4 – Piccolo, C Flute

Player 5 – C Flute, Alto Flute

Player 6 – C Flute, Alto Flute

Player 7 – C Flute, Tenor Flute

Player 8 – C Flute, Bass Flute

This is of course a pie-in-the-sky scenario, but let’s think of the possibilities.  All eight players play multiple instruments.  At any one time we can have eight C Flute playing between one and eight different parts.  For forte sections, four first and four seconds would give the most impact.  Also at any one time we can have four Piccolos.  This scenario is useful for loud, bombastic, and terrifying passages.  (Think how much more terrifying this would be if all eight players switched to Piccolo!)  At the bottom end, we could see ourselves with a soft, low quartet of two Altos, a Tenor, and a Bass.  Would could have two Piccolos and six C Flutes; two Piccolos, four C Flutes, and two Alto Flutes.  The combinations are immense and exciting!

Here is what a full choir of flutes can do.

Flutes – Introduction

Flutes

 

Introduction

            The flute family is the highest voice in the band.  The C Flute, and its close kin the Piccolo, carry the top notes, and indeed are sometimes the only instruments capable of playing in the top soprano range with delicacy.  The flute, however is a loner in the band world.  It is a woodwind with no reed.  Its sound production is unlike any other instrument, and thus it becomes the one unique voice in the ensemble.  This fact, however, has gone unnoticed by most arrangers and bandestrators.  The traditional role of the flute is a simple soprano, but this role may be changing.

The Flute Family has recently undergone a massive expansion.  The popularity of flute choirs has seen a rise in the so-called “harmony” flutes.  When we think of the flute, we picture the traditional C Flute, but this is now only the tip of a much larger family.  These new voices are just waiting to be explored by creative orchestrators and bandestrators.

 

Nomenclature – Traditional flute nomenclature does not work.  For years the standard C Flute and Piccolo were the only flutes available for use, and then came along the slightly larger Flute in G, which we know as the Alto Flute.  However, the earliest composers to use this instrument, like Gustav Holst, called the instrument a Bass Flute.  Hence we have confusion already.  When a flute an octave lower than the C Flute was finally constructed, it was christened the Bass Flute entirely skipping over the terms tenor and baritone.  Over the past two decades, flutes even lower than the traditional “Bass” have been constructed and are seeing wider use.  In this volume, I am trying to do my part to rectify this situation.  I am using the terms Tenor, Baritone, Bass, etc. to refer to these instruments in their proper role.  What we generally know as the Bass Flute, now becomes the Tenor Flute.  The new Bass Flute is now the instrument pitched one octave lower (what we generally call the Contrabass Flute).

Traditional Name

Revised Name

Piccolo Piccolo
G Treble G Treble
E-flat Soprano E-flat Soprano
C C
Alto Alto
Bass Tenor
Contra-alto Baritone
Contrabass Bass
Sub-Contra-Alto Sub-Bass
Double Contrabass Contrabass

Many of these flutes are rare and not widely used, but I am including them for the sake of presenting the complete family.  Ten years ago, some of these instruments were represented by only a few individual specimens, but today can be seen more regularly.

For the majority of band writing, the bandestrator need only to familiarize themselves with the Piccolo, C Flute, and perhaps the Alto Flute.  All others are rare visitors.

 Species

D-flat Piccolo

C Piccolo

G Treble

E-flat Soprano

C Flute

B-flat Flute d’Amore

A Flute d’Amore

Alto Flute

Tenor Flute (Bass)

Baritone Flute (Contra-alto/Contr’alto)

Bass Flute (Contrabass)

Sub-Bass Flute (Sub-Contrabass)

Contrabass Flute (Double Contrabass)