Purchasing a Piccolo
by Nan Raphael
While the repertoire for piccolo has increased exponentially in the last few decades so have options for those who are ready to purchase a new instrument. There are many more choices in all price ranges for buyers than there were even 15 years ago. In addition, many improvements have been made in the scale, headjoint cut and design, padding etc. The intent of this article is not to recommend specific brands but to broaden awareness of the range of options one has in all price ranges that have been introduced within the last 20 years.
When purchasing an instrument, the first thing you should consider is how much are you willing or able to spend. Purchasing a used instrument may allow you to get more for your money. Once that is determined, consider testing new and used instruments to find the best fit. If you are trying out instruments at a showroom or flute fair you can seek a quiet area where you can really hear for evenness of sound, scale, tone quality, overall response etc. You can request a trial period so that the instrument can be tried out in familiar settings. If there are headjoints to choose from, ask how long exchanges can be made and try every cut to find the one that responds best for you. During the trial period, work closely with a tuner to make sure the scale is acceptable and that the tone is even throughout. What works for one person may not work for another.
The next thing to consider is whether to purchase a plastic, composite, metal, plastic with metal headjoint or wood instrument. The material a piccolo is made of will have an effect on tone quality and response. In general wood piccolos produce the mellowest sound but have more resistance. Wood piccolos are generally preferred by professionals for tone quality and the capacity to blend better within an ensemble. The most common wood used is grenadilla which is the most durable and stable. Some makers have experimented with and offer more exotic woods including Cocus wood, Cocobolo, Rosewood, Ironwood, Morado, Pink Ivory, Satine, Bocote or Kingwood (which is no longer being used to make piccolos since it is in very short supply). Piccolos made of Kingwood can now only be found in the used market and as a result have become very expensive. Some people do have an allergic reaction to exotic wood. While many high end wood piccolos have sterling silver or silver-plated keys and tenons, they can be purchased with gold keys and or gold tenons as well. Plastic or composite (blend of wood and resin) is an excellent choice for outdoor playing since these materials make the instrument more weather proof. While brighter sounding than wood, they are a little mellower than plastic. Plastic is the least expensive and is a good choice for those who need a “wash and wear” piccolo for marching band or summer community band/orchestra. Composite instruments are a little more expensive but still excellent options for outdoor playing. To expand the versatility of a composite instrument, some makers offer the option to purchase a wood headjoint in order to achieve a mellower sound for better blend without the expense of purchasing an all wood instrument. Options in metal can range from silver plated, nickel plated, to sterling silver or gold.
The bore (the inside of the body of the piccolo) comes in two shapes, conical and cylindrical. Conical bore piccolos taper toward the foot end of the instrument and generally provide more uniform sound throughout. Cylindrical bore piccolos are the same width throughout with easier response in the upper register, but thinner sounding in low register.
Once you’ve selected the make and model, decide what headjoint style you want.
Silver heads have a flute-like lip plate while most plastic, composite and wood piccolos have no lip plate. This could take some time getting used when starting out on piccolo. There are some models that offer a carved lip plate to make it easier for those who don’t play a lot of piccolo and who prefer the feel of a lip plate. There can also be a wide variety of embouchure hole shapes to choose from as well such as wave, or modified wave embouchure holes (which facilitate response in the low register).
If purchasing a mid priced or more expensive instrument, do inquire about pads used. Pads do have an affect on tone quality. Improvements within the last 30 years have made pads more durable and stable than the traditional felt pad which is still in use today after 100 years especially on less expensive instruments. Cork is also an excellent option for varying weather conditions. The disadvantage to cork is that frequent swabbing is necessary to prevent water buildup, especially when it’s humid. Straubinger pads are made with multilayered synthetic materials which make these more stable than traditional skin pads and are used on many high end instruments.
For the high end purchaser, there are several “extras’ to choose from such as pitch, extra keys, pad type and headjoint cut. There are three available pitches A-440, A-442, and A-444. Most players prefer A-442. Extra key options include split E (recommended), C# Trill, high G# mechanism.
Last but not least there are some essential accessories to have on hand. All piccolos come with a cleaning rod. What you need to provide is a cloth with stitched edges. There are several other swabs out there such as The Piccolo Flag which does a great job of collecting water on the inside edge of the cork, the Piccolo Snake. For cleaning pads and soaking up excess water BG soft clothes are good options. If one decides to oil the bore of a wood piccolo, take care not to get oil into the pads or mechanism. Almond oil or Naylor’s Bore Oil are best. For sticky or dirty pads, Pad Juice with applicator strips will keep pads healthy in between COAs.
Now that you are armed with what to look for, have fun shopping for your new piccolo. Hopefully, your purchase will give you many years of satisfaction.
Since retiring from the US Army Field Band in 2003, Nan Raphael, now an artist for Gemeinhardt Flutes, has been a guest artist/clinician nationwide, piccoloist with the International Flute Orchestra, Washington Winds, Columbia Flute Choir and Capitol City Symphony. Nan has written several articles about piccolo playing for Flute Talk and the Flute Society of Washington Newsletter as well as being published in the National Flute Association’s Pedagogy Anthology Vol. 2. She has 4 piccolo CD’s and a book of piccolo excerpts from the symphonic band repertoire. www.nanraphael.com