Piccolo Pickles

Here’s a comparison photo of three piccolos: (left) a Pearl Grenadite, (center) a Philipp Hammig with an August Richard Hammig headjoint, and (right) an Anton Braun.

The photo is pretty bad and overexposed, but you can see the difference in length and taper. Notice that although each piccolo was built to A= 442 specs, that the Braun is shorter and much more tapered at the end. Does anyone have an explanation for that?

I spent years trying to decide whether to spend over 5,000 Euros for a Braun piccolo. The Hammig hybrid I had been playing on is a very good instrument, but I often play in situations where I needed to play louder. People roll their eyes when I tell them that, but the piccolo is not always a deafening beast. In the low and middle registers, especially articulated passages, I was often struggling to project. It doesn’t help that those registers are used often with E-flat clarinet, trumpet or percussion with hard mallets. Some composers seem to think that the piccolo will always dominate. However, it’s only the third octave that really penetrates. (Then you get the composers who think you can match a pianissimo third octave note with a violin playing the same dynamic. NOT.)

I spoke about my dynamic and articulation problems in the middle and low register with Patricia Morris. She asked me what kind of piccolo I had. When I said Hammig, she said that’s likely the problem. Then she allowed me to try her Braun piccolos and I could feel the difference. I could certainly have continued with my Hammig, but we now have a concert series in which our performances are recorded live for CD, warts and all. So I decided to take the plunge.

When my piccolo came from Herr Braun (photo left, with daughter Antonia), I asked him for some guidelines to break in, or rather play in the instrument. Everyone has their theory about new wooden instruments. He gives his general guidelines here but added the following information by telephone. He told me to give it a good 4 to 6 weeks to play in. I was bummed about that as I had a Xenakis program with Thallein and Jalons in 2 weeks, but I took his advice to heart. He said to start with the low register for the first week or so, then move to the middle and only then up to the high register. He said to not let anyone else play it (of course someone trying the piccolo for a few minutes is ok), that the instrument needed to get used to the way I blow on it. And most importantly he said, that I should try to blow more like on the flute than a typical piccolo, that he had made his instruments expressly so, that they could be played more flute-like. It should be a quite relaxed approach. By the way, if you can read German, here is his story, it is amazing!

Herr Braun’s advice turns out to be crucial because the instrument can easily go sharp. I expected trouble as I played on my own with a tuner, but when I got with the ensemble, I was so happy that I could just blow and relax, and not have to reach up for any of the notes. I play pulled out a few millimeters. In short, this is a completely different animal from the Hammig! I am liking it very much, though.

I’ll put in a good word also for the Hammig and the Pearl. For about 9 years I played on the Hammig with a Werner Fischer head. These are very colorful, flexible and light head joints. Easy to play and very dolce. They are good for non picc specialists or specialists for whom projection is not an issue. I then heard the A. R. Hammig was making very good heads, and ordered a grenadilla one. It gave me an improvement in depth for the middle and low register, and I really liked the overall sound. The Pearl grenadite is the best cheap piccolo on the market, in my opinion. I couldn’t believe how well it played compared to Yamaha and the others. For me, anyway.

contemporary music Ferneyhough piccolo rhythm

Tips for Complex Rhythms à la Ferneyhough’s Superscriptio

Below is some advice for works by composers (such as Brian Ferneyhough) who use complex rhythms not based on pulse-centered activity. I spoke with Mr. Ferneyhough about this subject and he was very clear that in his music, the measure is a “domain of a certain energy quotient” not related to a pulse.

In other words, a measure can be interpreted as an “area of activity”. The level of activity can easily be reckoned using the starting tempo. From there we can calculate the length of any measure or individual note through simple mathematics.

So if the rhythm cannot be felt as a pulse, one can at least memorize the speed in which it is supposed to happen. Surprisingly, it’s sometimes much slower than one thinks!

Ferneyhough’s Superscriptio for solo piccolo is a good example. The basic tempo is an eighth-note at 56. This means a whole note in 4/4 equals 7, because there are 8 eighth notes in a 4/4 bar, and 8 divided by 56 = 7.

From this number 7 you can deduce all the “odd” time signatures that are not based on divisions of the eighth note. An eighth note quintuplet (or a “1/10” bar) will equal 70 because there are 10 quintuplets in a 4/4 bar (7 x 10 = 70). To find the length of a 3/10 bar you would divide 70 by 3. If you have a 5/10 bar you would divide 70 by 5. An eighth note triplet (or a “1/12” bar) will equal 84 because there are 12 triplets in a 4/4 bar (7 x 12 = 84). To find the length of a 3/12 bar you would divide 84 by 3, and to find the length of a 5/12 bar you would divide 84 by 5.

What if the compound rhythms are stacked on top of each other, as in Ferneyhough’s other works? This is an imaginary example:
Let’s imagine as in Superscriptio the starting tempo is an eighth-note at 56. The last six 16ths (at the end of the bar) roughly equal two 16th-note triplets at 64. The nine 32nds under the 9:5 are roughly equal to three sets of 32nd triplets going at 116.

It could have been notated thus (among other possibilities):

Here’s the math:
From above we know that a 1/10 bar equals 70.
A 4/10 bar will equal 17.5 (70 divided by 4 = 17.5).
Each 11-tuplet will be 192.5 (17.5 x 11 = 192.5).
There are 6 of these 11-tuplets at the end. If we think of them as two 16th-note triplets, divide 192.5 by 3 = ca. 64

5 of those 11-tuplets equals 38.5 (192.5 divided by 5 = 38.5).
In the 9:5, if you think of the 9-tuplets as 3 sets of 32nd triplets, those triplets go at ca. 116 (38.5 x 3 = 115.5)

A click track will ensure accuracy without a doubt. However, if you opt for another approach, try the following: memorize the speed of each bar by practicing related bars together. Keeping Superscriptio as an example, you can practice all the bars based on “1/12” while keeping the metronome at tempo 84. (Yes, you will be jumping from measure to measure, or page to page.) Then do the same for all the “1/10” bars, then “1/8” etc. You are not trying to achieve musical continuity yet, this is just an exercise to help relate all the bars with this tempo, and to keep them consistent. When you finally put the piece together, your “internal conductor” will hopefully have a kinesthetic memory of the pulse of each measure and make the tempo changes accordingly.

Also see my post Seminar with Brian Ferneyhough.
Other thoughts?

masterclass notes piccolo

Notes from Patricia Morris, Oxford ’06

A few posts back, I suggested the guideline “the ears are more intelligent than the lips”. Now I’m reading my masterclass notes from Patricia Morris (Oxford, 2006). I noticed one of her points: “Your lips learn from your ears”. Exactly! She put it more succinctly.

Her class on piccolo playing was full of these great ideas. Her experience with Feldenkreis made things all the more intereting. The piccolo can be hard on the body!

  • In general, try placing the piccolo higher on the lower lip than the flute, and keep it turned out.
  • Tensing your shoulders is like jumping in water and hoping you’ll swim! If you untense your shoulders, you will improve without having practiced.
  • The key to playing piccolo in the top register: increase the air speed without blowing more. You can keep the air speed fast by: 1) making the embouchure hole smaller and 2)putting more pressure behind the embouchure.
  • You don’t need to practice hours and hours on the piccolo. Thoughtful, sensible transferrence of flute technique to piccolo every day regularly instead.
  • Ascending crescendos: build sound up at bottom, then let it alone. High notes are naturally loud.
  • For low notes, you need to be able to lift the top of the lip. It helps to use the inside of the top lip, instead of having the top lip always rammed down. Don’t let bottom lip drop. To apply this to the low register: think of starting low notes from lifted upper lip.
  • Practice Moyse Tone Development through Interpretation on the piccolo.

Her recommendations about taking the repeats in the Vivaldi Concerto at auditions:
You may ask if they want the repeats. If you are shy about asking, repeat the 1st section, then immediately play the ornamented version of the 2nd half.

I wish I could attend more of her classes! Years ago I bought her Piccolo Practice Book, but gave it away. Pretty silly, but I hope whoever has it is getting a lot of use.