Piccolo: A Small Flute

One of the most interesting woodwinds is the piccolo, a small flute. It is also called an ottavino, from the Italian for octave, because its range is an octave higher than a flute. A concert flute is already a soprano, so the bright piping of the piccolo carries over the other instruments in a band or orchestra. Many piccolos are made of wood-usually granadilla wood-but they can be formed from plastic or various metals, including gold, silver and platinum.

The nature of a piccolo

Piccolo is the Italian word for small. A piccolo is half the length of a concert flute. It is held sideways to play, like most flutes. A piccolo player blows over the mouthpiece in a manner very similar to the way someone blows over an empty soda bottle to make a sound. The fingering is similar to a flute's, and many musicians play both instruments. The range of a piccolo extends for three octaves, beginning at the second D above middle C.

Piccolo relatives

Flutes come in two varieties. Most flutes are transverse, with the instrument placed sideways to the mouth and the player blowing across the mouthpiece. However, some are played horizontally, by a player blowing directly into the instrument. Flutes do not have reeds that vibrate to create notes; their sound is produced directly by the flow of air.

Western concert flutes, fifes, and piccolos are side blown. A fife is similar to a piccolo, but is smaller and simpler, with a louder and shriller sound. Anasazi flutes, quenas (the traditional flutes of the Andes), and dansos (traditional Korean bamboo flutes) are end blown.

The recorder appears to resemble an end-blown flute, but is actually a fipple flute, in which an interior block, the fipple, redirects the player's breath to create an edge-blown current of air, as if the instrument were held transversely.

Early piccolo music

In the eighteenth century Antonio Vivaldi probably used the piccolo in at least three pieces. He called it the flautino, and music scholars aren't positive that he meant the piccolo rather than a small recorder. Either way, his works are classics of the piccolo repertoire. Vivaldi himself did not play any wind instrument, probably because he had asthma, but he almost certainly instructed pupils in wind instruments.

An urban legend says Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which premiered in 1808, was the first orchestral music to use the piccolo, but it is wrong. The piccolo had already been heard in opera. In Mozart's Magic Flute, first performed in 1791, the piccolo doubles some voices and portrays the rustic bird catcher Papageno's panpipes.

Modern piccolo music

In the nineteenth century, piccolo music was in style. John Philip Souza highlighted the instrument in The Stars and Stripes Forever, with a delightful twittering obbligato traditionally played by one or three well-tuned piccolos; never by two.

In the twentieth century, symphonic and band music dropped out of favor, and the piccolo was heard less often. However, composers like Ravel, Prokofiev and Shostakovich included it in works that are still popular.

The piccolo has a sweet high note that soars over the other instruments. Therefore piccolo players need to tune their instruments and know their parts well.

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