You’ve heard the perennial band joke, “How do you get two piccolos in tune?”
Well, the answer doesn’t necessarily have to be to “shoot one,” as the punchline morbidly suggests.
Admittedly, the piccolo is a humbling, vexatious little beast. We’ve all had our share of less-than-stellar piccolo moments, and unfortunately, those moments are rarely discreet. Not only that, any attempt to disappear into the texture usually results in compounding the original problem. Most likely, the issue was related to pitch and/or tonal control—neither of which get any better by depriving them of breath support, or squashing the sound into submission. We are then left with no choice but to maintain the best sound we can produce, and confront our tuning issues head on.
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL: HIGH NOTES ACTUALLY DO SOUND MORE OUT OF TUNE
I say this not to stroke our delicate egos or to make excuses for piccolo pitch problems, which can admittedly be egregious. It’s just physics, and it’s unforgiving to those of us at the top of the orchestra. The higher the frequency of a sound wave, the more rapid the vibrations—as well as the telltale “beats” of poor intonation. It’s unfair, but when our tuning is off by only a few cents, it can sound more out of tune than a bass or cello section playing 10 or 15 cents out of tune. (Think of it as a trade off; at least we don’t have to buy plane seats for our piccolos.) Practically speaking, this means that even when it sounds like we need to make a huge pitch adjustment, it might just need a slight, incremental change. So the only question is: which way to adjust?
The tuning mistake I hear most frequently with inexperienced piccolo players is their assumption that the high register is always sharp. It could be, but not necessarily. Even seasoned conductors aren’t immune to this common mistake. We hear a screaming high note, out of tune, and we automatically think that it sounds bad because it’s too high. The piccolo also has a bright, piercing tone color, which reinforces this perception of “sharpness.”
Then in the moment, our instincts as players kick in. And unless we play the piccolo a lot, our instincts are typically “flutistic" instincts. Remember, the piccolo is not a miniature flute; it’s an entirely different instrument. As such, we need to treat it with that respect, and establish an independent relationship with it. During this quality time, you’ll discover its pitch tendencies are not only different, but often opposite to those of your flute. (High E-flat, anyone? If it’s anything like mine, it’s sharp on my flute and flat on my piccolo). Every flute and every piccolo is different, each with it’s own strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. There’s no shortcut to simply getting acquainted with your instrument, and finding out exactly where each note sits. During this process, the tuner will be your best friend—but only up to a point.
“BUT THE TUNER SAYS I’M RIGHT!”
I know, it sounds shocking to suggest that hours with a tuner isn’t a panacea for intonation ills. But for great intonation, there’s no substitution for our own two ears (which we should be protecting with musicians’ earplugs every time we practice). While the tuner will definitely get us in the ballpark, the piccolo’s high range is so high that it can actually sound flat when we play it “perfectly” in tune. As listeners, we simply like high notes to be slightly on the upper edge of the pitch. You can test this theory yourself by recording yourself playing along with a a few drone pitches (long tones), and a tuner. Figure out the pitch range of what sounds “in tune.” You might be surprised!
This is not an open invitation to soar into the stratosphere. We are talking about a range of a few cents (or ticks on the tuner), max. We can’t be so high that they make other players sound flat or that we don’t fit into the chords below. It’s a bit like a drummer playing on the “front of the beat” or the “back of the beat.” Both are “in time” but one is slightly driving forward, and the other is slightly laid back. Now translate that to pitch. As a piccolo player, you want to be slightly on the upper edge, not the lower edge.
JUST TEMPERAMENT VS EQUAL TEMPERAMENT
Another tuning phenomenon to consider, which applies to all registers and instrumentalists, is the pitch placement within the context of the harmony. In a nutshell, the equal-temperament tuning system, which also dictates the “correct” pitch of electronic tuners, is imperfect. To facilitate passable tuning of keyboard instruments within all chords, intervals, and key centers, true or just intonation is compromised. In other words, rather than being perfect in only one key but unplayable in all others, equal temperament is kinda just OK in all of them.
Why does this matter? For orchestral or band players, it means that we don’t tune like a piano; we strive to tune each chord to a just temperament. Practically speaking, a fifth of the chord sounds correct (or just) when it is about 2 cents higher than the tuner indicates, and a third sounds correct (just) when it is about 13.7 cents lower than the tuner indicates! Compound that with the variability of collaborative performance, as well as the enigmatic “high notes should be high” phenomenon, and it’s clear that the tuner will not solve all of our problems—in fact, it can be part of the problem if we are following it blindly.
DONT BE THAT GUY
Unless you are principal oboe (which i’m assuming you aren’t if you’ve read this far), whatever you do, don’t be the legalistic, unyielding scold with a tuner strapped to your instrument in rehearsal. If you really must know where the collective pitch is, then fine. But you still have to go with the flow, within reason. One renegade piccolo player is not going to restore “correct” pitch and order to the entire ensemble. Lest you think I’m casting stones here, I’ll fully admit that I’ve absolutely been that guy, and I can tell you from experience, it doesn't fix anything, and nobody likes you.
Now comes the hard question: “but how do I go with the flow, if the current is going in all different directions?”
Find out in my next article, Pesky Piccolo Pitch Problems And How to Remedy Them Part II: Tuning in the Ensemble
TO BE CONTINUED . . .