Getting the piccolo in tune with itself is a huge accomplishment, but it’s only the first step to sounding great in the ensemble. Tuning in orchestra or band can be a labyrinth, so here are a few navigational tools to find your pitch.
TUNE DOWN OR ACCROSS?
You’ve likely heard a conductor say, “tune down” at some point in your life. This well-intentioned saying is technically right—the harmony originates in the bass, and we do need to tune in accordance with the harmony. But it can have negative implications when we assume the tuba is the be-all and end-all in establishing pitch, or when we rely exclusively on one group or player, especially one as far away (both physically and sonically) as the tuba or bass. For this reason, I prefer the expression “tune across.” In a strong ensemble, you should be able to ascertain a pretty good sense of the pitch by taking an “average” of the collective pitch center.
It sounds complicated, but we all do it automatically without realizing it, and so does the audience. Rather than zeroing in on one particular player and trying to adhere to his pitch, clinging to every inflection like a magnet, its easier—and surprisingly more effective—to listen for the overall pitch center of the group, and focus your attention on audiating, or hearing the perfect, ideal pitch in your head.
This doesn’t mean completely ignoring the player you need to match if you are playing in unison with someone; take it all in. Remember, you are both hearing the same chord structure and the same orchestral balance. Simply trust that you both calculated the same “average” pitch center as listeners, and you’ll naturally play together. Think of choir or singing duets: the more you try to focus on other singers, the harder it is to sing your own part. It works best when everyone trusts his own inner ear, assuming it’s well trained.
This method should be helpful for all musicians, but it is especially helpful for piccolo and flute players because it helps to counter our inadvertent tendency to lower our pitch when we tune to lower-ranged instruments. It sounds silly, but it’s easy to fall into that trap. We play with a low bassoon and we instinctively think we need to come down to him, when in all likelihood, he might be playing on the sharp side.
We know that flexibility and adaptability are important, but now comes the hard question: How do I “go with the flow” if the current is going in different directions? In other words, if the group is out of tune with itself, how do I, as a lone piccolo player decide which team to join?
The answer is always going to depend on the context, and will require a quick cost/benefit analysis and ultimately, a judgment call. While this may be hard for purists to hear, your decision must take diplomacy, orchestra politics, and the hierarchy into account. Even if you think you are right, the principal flute is your section leader, and you are obligated to follow him if you want to keep your seat.
However, if you are playing a passage in unison with another section or instrument (piccolo and principal oboe play together a lot), it goes without saying that you need to tune to them. If you are in a full tutti section, it’s usually best to go with the loudest unified instrument group, or the first violins, because they are who the audience will hear most prominently, and consequently, from whom they will derive their perception of pitch. The second clarinet might be perfectly “in tune” right behind you, but the audience isn’t hearing that—they’re hearing the trombones, trumpets, first violins, and you, so you’d do well to match them.
CONQUERING YOUR FEAR
Beside having great pitch, the best orchestral piccolo players all have something else in common: they are able to remain calm and collected under pressure. When they play a note that doesn’t quite match, they maintain the integrity of their tone, and refrain from rash, over-adjustments. Remember, everything is smaller on piccolo, so physical corrections aren’t as big as they are on flute. Plus, if we suddenly make a huge correction and (heaven forbid) it’s in the wrong direction, we are only going to bring more unwanted attention to ourselves. Instead, we should calmly test the pitch by moving gradually in the direction we think is right.
Fear also causes bodily tension and embouchure clenching, and unless we want to fall off a high note or blow a raspberry, piccolo players must avoid it at all costs. Maintaining a relaxed embouchure is also essential to producing a beautiful, controlled sound, which is supremely important at all times.
The old adage “you can’t tune a bad tone” is true. Even if our pitch is “perfect,” if our tone is questionable, it will sound like we’re wrong, and it will be difficult for anyone to match us if they can’t blend with us. On the bright side, this also means that if our tone is beautiful, confident, and compelling, our colleagues and audiences will be more likely to accept our pitch as the correct one if there is a discrepancy, and other players will also be more easily able to match and blend to us. Like the Bible says, “love” (or in this case, a lovely tone) “covers a multitude of sins.”