Every year in late November you feel a knot in your stomach. It nags, it distracts, maybe it even keeps you awake at night. But there’s no putting it off. You dig out the dusty case, undo the latch and hear the foreboding creak of the hinge, and behold your neglected, vengeful piccolo trumpet.
Does this sound familiar? For a lot of people, Messiah season is the only time that the piccolo trumpet gets attention in the practice room. No wonder the results are often less than what we might like. The piccolo is like the scary dog next door when you were a kid: terrifying when encountered only fleetingly, but a great friend once you get to know each other.
Once you accept that the piccolo trumpet is a real instrument just like your C trumpet and begin to treat it as such, rather than a toy that by its very nature feels bad and sounds tinny, real progress can begin. Most things don’t change much from playing big horns, like technical facility, articulation, and musicianship; but sound production, which is always the highest priority, needs to be calibrated for the smaller instrument. Sure, we often draw on different styles of playing on piccolo than we do on big trumpets, but there’s no essential difference in how those styles would be applied on either horn. One other thing we need to do on the piccolo is make sure we’re able to play in tune in all keys, something that is often overlooked.
We can address production on the piccolo the same way we do on big horns. Most people will be playing a smaller mouthpiece on piccolo than they usually do, so it’s best to start with mouthpiece buzzing to get comfortable with the different interface. Make sure to buzz the entire range of the instrument, which means on the piccolo that you’ll eventually be going well above the break on the mouthpiece around high D or so. Get used to working through it, smoothing it out. Next, I like to do some Stamp or Cichowicz exercises, making sure to get comfortable in the pedal register of the instrument. I haven’t yet figured out how to make pedal notes on the piccolo trumpet sound palatable, but they’re a great way to find a free, resonant vibration of your lips in the smaller mouthpiece.
Many of the exercises we frequently think of for big horns don’t transfer well to the piccolo. One exception is the book of 70 Little Studies by Clodomir, many of which can be adjusted to fit the piccolo, though given this treatment many become quite difficult. My very favourite resource is Chris Gekker’s 15 Studies for Piccolo Trumpet, which contains not only Clarke-style exercises in every key tailored specifically for the piccolo, but insightful and well-written text on most aspects of piccolo playing. Phil Collins has written a book of etudes for piccolo practice as well. Many baroque pieces are simple or well-known enough to make good practice material too.
We’re usually required to play the piccolo either in the baroque style, or in a powerful orchestral manner, think Rite of Spring or Bolero. The demands are very different, but luckily practicing those two different styles make for a well-balanced diet on the instrument.
I know a lot of people think otherwise, but for me it’s very important for me to practice the piccolo trumpet every day. I like to touch on it at the end of my first session of the day, and most days I try to come back to it for part of a second session. When I started on the job, I found my playing in general improved by leaps and bounds, but whenever I needed to play piccolo I felt like it hadn’t improved at all. No wonder, I hadn’t been practicing it to keep the quality level with everything else. Since I got in the habit of picking it up, it has caught up with the rest of my playing, and sometimes I even think of it as a strength.
Finally, another benefit of playing picc every day is that I find it helps me be more comfortable in the upper register on my big trumpets. Playing high is a big part of my job, not to mention something on most trumpet players’ minds. When I can improve several critical areas at the same time I know that I'm doing high-value practice, and that's always something to shoot for.