Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Piccolo Trumpet Answers (FAQs)

I often get questions like these from trumpet players:

● When can I begin to learn how to play the piccolo trumpet?
● What is it like playing the piccolo trumpet?
● How difficult is it to play the piccolo trumpet?
● What kind of mouthpiece do you use on the piccolo trumpet?
● What is the fourth valve for?
● What kind of music can you play on the piccolo trumpet?
● Why do most piccolo trumpets come with two leadpipes so that you can change them from piccolo trumpet in Bb to piccolo trumpet in A?
● How should I shop for a piccolo trumpet?

The following article provides answers to all of these questions, and also has some other general information about the piccolo trumpet.

You don’t want to get a piccolo trumpet and start trying to play it until you have a high range of at least an F above high C above the staff (on Bb trumpet). If you have this range already, then it is possible for you to begin playing the piccolo trumpet. (I will have some tips in a future article on this blog for increasing your high range.) The piccolo trumpet sounds brighter than the larger trumpets, such as the standard Bb & C soprano trumpets but, contrary to popular belief, the piccolo trumpet does not enable you to play high notes more easily than the larger trumpets do.

Piccolo trumpets do have smaller bore sizes than the more common larger trumpets. Since higher notes require a faster air stream, the smaller bore size does enable you to play longer phrases in the upper register without running out of air so quickly. Of course, this is also the case when playing on “smaller” mouthpieces on any size or key of trumpet, especially if any combination of the component features of the mouthpiece make the mouthpiece seem generally small and tight, aiding the upper register with more resistance: bore (throat) and/or backbore and/or cup depth and/or inside rim diameter. (NOTE: I will be soon be posting an article to this blog site that goes into detail about each of these various component features of mouthpieces.)

Since the Bb piccolo trumpet is half the total length of the common Bb soprano trumpet (when both instruments are unwound to make straight tubes), you generally shouldn’t use the same size mouthpiece for both of these instruments. Instead, you should use a “smaller” specialty mouthpiece on the piccolo trumpet. Using a large or medium sized Bb trumpet mouthpiece on a piccolo trumpet would be like trying to play a standard Bb (soprano) trumpet with a trombone mouthpiece! You would have to work too hard at it, and it would be difficult or impossible to get the proper tone color. A mouthpiece that is good for playing piccolo trumpet is also good for playing lead trumpet (i.e., first trumpet in a jazz band) or “screaming” or “screech” trumpet solos. Likewise, a good lead trumpet mouthpiece generally also makes a good piccolo trumpet mouthpiece. (NOTE: I will be posting a new article soon about how to choose good mouthpieces for the piccolo trumpet, for lead trumpet playing, and for classical music and general use on the Bb trumpet or other larger trumpets.)

BRANDS: Several manufacturers make very fine piccolo trumpets these days. (Unlike the early days when the first truly modern types of piccolo trumpets were manufactured in the 1950s.) Schilke piccolo trumpets are probably played by more professional players than any other brand, followed closely by Yamaha (who, decades ago bought plans for their trumpets from Reynold Schilke, so the two brands have many models of instruments that are very similar in design).

Maurice André, the most famous and most admired piccolo trumpet player of all time, played a Selmer (Paris) piccolo trumpet for most of his career, but now plays on a (Spanish) Stomvi piccolo. I and my friend Bob Odneal (who once played in Maynard Ferguson’s band, among others) both play on vintage Getzen piccolos made in the mid-to-late sixties. These instruments have trumpet mouthpiece receivers. Currently manufactured Getzen piccolo trumpets have a very similar design, only with a cornet mouthpiece receiver. Most brands and models of newer piccolo trumpets do have a cornet mouthpiece receiver, but some are also made with trumpet mouthpiece receivers. These newer Getzen piccolo trumpets are also a popular choice with many players. Schilke started the cornet mouthpiece receiver trend on piccolo trumpets in the late 1960s, and many other instrument makers have followed their lead. But, honestly, I don’t think that the difference really matters that much, although the smaller diameter shank of the cornet mouthpiece does help to decrease the overall bore size of the instrument. Dick Schaffer (a trumpeter who retired from the Houston Symphony Orchestra some years back after many years with the orchestra) played on a piccolo (I forget now what brand) that had a trumpet mouthpiece receiver. But, he used a cornet mouthpiece on it, making it fit the instrument by using a cornet-to-trumpet mouthpiece-to-leadpipe adapter.

Some of the more customized (and more expensive) brands of piccolos are also very good, especially Blackburn piccolo trumpets. Blackburn also sells custom replacement piccolo trumpet leadpipes that are very good. I like the stock Getzen Bb leadpipe that came with my vintage Getzen piccolo, but I hated the stock A leadpipe because I felt that it was too open and free-blowing for a piccolo trumpet. (And I use the piccolo trumpet in A, with the A leadpipe for LOTS of baroque pieces.) So, to solve this problem, I replaced the Getzen A leadpipe with a Blackburn A leadpipe designed to fit Getzen piccolos. Kanstul also makes a piccolo trumpet that is popular with many players. (See link at bottom of page for more information and specifications on different brands of piccolo trumpets.)

No matter what brand of piccolo trumpet you get, make sure to get a model that has four valves. (NOT one with just three valves!) This is because you (1) need the fourth valve to extend the instrument’s range downward low enough to handle the full range of the piccolo trumpet’s repertoire and (2) you will need to use the fourth valve to use to play certain notes in tune, especially fourth line D, which is fingered fourth valve (instead of first & third valves) and third space C#, which is fingered second & fourth valve (instead of 123). And (3) you will need the fourth valve to play certain trills more cleanly (such as trilling from C to D, which is an open to fourth valve trill.) And remember, trills and ornaments are very important in baroque music, which is the bulk of the piccolo trumpet’s repertoire! (NOTE: I plan on soon posting a four-valve piccolo trumpet fingering chart here on this same blog site.)

As a side note, be careful not to confuse pocket trumpets (and pocket cornets) with piccolo trumpets. These instruments are basically just like regular Bb soprano trumpets, only with the instrument’s tubing wrapped around much tighter for a more compact size. These pocket instruments are designed and used mostly as (1) novelty items and (2) for ease in carrying and travel (they fit in a backpack or suitcase very easily). Generally, the quality of these instruments is not as good as regular Bb trumpets (and cornets), because the bell diameter is smaller, and it is more difficult (sometimes impossible) to throw out valve slides and tuning slides while playing to fix the intonation of notes that are very sharp, such as these valve combinations: 13, 123, & (to a lesser degree) 12.

Like all other wind instruments, piccolo trumpets have their own intonation issues and tuning tendencies. My piccolo trumpet, like most brands and models, tends to play sharp in the lowest register and flat in the very highest register (unless my lips are getting tired, in which case it might be sharp in the upper register.) When I tune the instrument, I generally try to compromise between these two registers, but I tend to favor tuning the instrument a little more on the sharp side, overall. This is because it is usually easier to relax and lip a note down than it is to lip a note up to get it in tune. (Plus, your lips get tired quickly from having to lip up a lot.) In addition to this, I think that you can more easily get away with being a little sharp than a little flat. If you’re flat, it dulls the tone quality and really stands out, in a bad way. (And is consequently more painful to listen to.) Being very slightly sharp brightens the tone quality and is not so offensive to the ears. (Listen to the old analog recordings of Bill Chase’s lead trumpet playing and screech solo playing. He is just about always a little above pitch, and it sounds great.)

It is usually more difficult to find used piccolo trumpets (than it is to find used standard Bb soprano trumpets) and, because they are less commonly found, it is also less likely that you will find an incredibly good deal on a used one. However, you might try Ebay or other used instruments for sale listings on the Internet. It might be easier to just search for a good deal on a new instrument. Several reputable companies sell them online or via toll-free phone numbers. These companies can be easily located with Internet search engines.

Local music stores also sometimes stock piccolo trumpets and a variety of different mouthpieces. It is nice to be able to try out these instruments and mouthpieces at a local music store, but most of the mail-order/online stores mentioned above will send you instruments and mouthpieces to try out on approval. You usually only have to pay a small re-stocking fee for instruments or mouthpieces that you return (read about their returns policy or ask them about it if you can’t find it posted on their website.) You can also try out lots of different brands of trumpets, piccolo trumpets, and mouthpieces at trumpet, brass, and music educator conventions. For example, in the United States, many states or regions have annual music educators conventions or conferences that include exhibits of all kinds of new instruments that you can try out. The International Trumpet Guild convention (held in the USA every other year, held in other countries on alternating years) always has an excellent exhibition of instruments from a wide variety of manufacturers and distributors. Check the web sites of organizations such as these for exact convention or conference dates and locations.

Since the Bb piccolo trumpet plays an octave higher than the standard Bb soprano trumpet, when reading Bb trumpet music on the piccolo trumpet, you must transpose everything down an octave, in terms of fingerings. For example, fourth space E is played with valves 1 & 2 down, not open as on the standard Bb soprano trumpet. (This is the same fingering as for bottom line E—an octave lower—as fingered on the standard Bb soprano trumpet.) NOTE: Most publishers and music notation software programs, when printing parts specifically for the piccolo trumpet, actually place the notes an octave lower than they would be for the common Bb soprano trumpet. I think that this is to help make the fingerings a little easier to read for most people (since the fingerings will therefore be more like that of the Bb soprano trumpet this way) and also perhaps to keep the ledger lines from getting too high above the staff (although this never seems to stop a lead trumpet player!) I personally prefer reading a piccolo trumpet part written in the same octave as it would be written in for the standard Bb soprano trumpet. (Probably because I am used to so often reading off of regular Bb trumpet sheet music when playing the piccolo trumpet.)

REPERTOIRE: Very little sheet music is actually written specifically for the piccolo trumpet, so when you hear this instrument played, the printed part usually just says “trumpet” (or “Bb trumpet”, etc.) at the top of the page. Professional classical trumpet players most often use the piccolo trumpet for baroque period (c.1600-c.1750) trumpet concerti, sonatas, arias, voluntaries, solos, and orchestral trumpet parts. (Works by Telemann, Vivaldi, Torelli, Corelli, Bach, Handel, Purcell, Jeremiah Clarke, Stanley, etc.) Sometimes, these pieces are instead performed on antique instruments or reproductions of antique instruments that were played at the time that that these composers lived (natural trumpets without valves, etc.), especially in “period instrument” orchestras. Using these instruments, while certainly more historically authentic, results in a much more unrefined sound from today’s modern trumpet players. Perhaps baroque era trumpeters were more skilled on these instruments since these were their ONLY instruments and they practiced and performed on them all of the time. I personally still prefer the advanced manufacturing technology and craftsmanship and the brilliance of sound of the modern piccolo trumpet, even though the tone quality is brighter than those original instruments from the baroque period.

Other common and interesting uses of the piccolo trumpet:
The piccolo trumpet is also occasionally (although rarely) used in some non-baroque classical music. For example, virtually every modern orchestral trumpet player uses the piccolo trumpet (with piccolo straight mute) to play the difficult “Samuel Goldenberg” trumpet solo from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at An Exhibition (orchestrated by Ravel). In general, whichever trumpet lays well (technically) in the key that the music is in and also has the best or most appropriate tone quality or timbre for the piece in question is the one that is used. (This is mostly a matter of personal judgment. However, in some instances, there are certain traditions as to which key trumpet is used for what specific piece of standard orchestra trumpet repertoire.)

This is why orchestral trumpet players rotate the use of four different trumpets in their performances: (1) the standard Bb (soprano) trumpet; (2) the slightly smaller C (soprano) trumpet (used for the bulk of orchestral trumpet section work); (3) the rather small Eb trumpet (with a longer extra tuning slide or slide set that changes it to a D trumpet), used for the Haydn and Hummel trumpet concertos and also used for a fairly good amount of orchestral trumpet parts (especially classical period and some baroque period trumpet parts); and (4) the tiny piccolo trumpet in Bb (with an extra, longer leadpipe that changes the instrument to piccolo trumpet in A). The piccolo trumpet in A is especially useful in performing baroque music that is written in key signatures with a good number of sharps in them. For example, to make it easier to perform a piece of music on the piccolo trumpet that was written for Bb trumpet with a written key of E Major (four sharps), simply play the piece on the A piccolo trumpet, transposing the music up a half-step to the key of F Major (a much easier key to play in, in terms of technique). Almost all professional piccolo trumpet players do this when performing Jeremiah Clarke’s Prince of Denmark March, also known as Trumpet Voluntary (formerly attributed to Henry Purcell).

The Canadian Brass has used the piccolo trumpet in many of their brass quintet arrangements with great popular success. Especially notable are their ragtime arrangements that use piccolo trumpet to add another interesting tone color to the ensemble.

Pop music sometimes effectively uses the piccolo trumpet as well. Perhaps the best known classic example of this is in the Beatles’ recording of “Penny Lane”. Paul McCartney grew up frequently attending symphony orchestra concerts, which is where he first heard the piccolo trumpet. Being attracted to this tone color, McCartney decided that he wanted to use the instrument in the Beatles’ arrangement of “Penny Lane”. (The Canadian Brass later did an interesting instrumental arrangement of this tune for brass quintet.) The piccolo trumpet is also often used in television commercials and movies that have a Christmas theme. The bright, shiny sound of the piccolo trumpet seems well suited to certain Christmas music arrangements.

NOTE: As a follow-up to this article, be sure to read my soon-to-be-posted article, “How to Choose Trumpet Mouthpieces & Piccolo Trumpet Mouthpieces”, which will be posted here on this same blog site.

To learn more, here is an excellent link to a site that has some additional information about piccolo trumpets:

I hope that all of the above information has been helpful to you
Good luck with the piccolo!


Randy Dunn
Trumpet soloist
http://www.youtube.com/HoustonTrumpet (YouTube demo videos)


Rambler said...

This was extremely helpful. Just played picc for the first time. Thanks so much.

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Anonymous said...

Good article. Very thorough and informative. Keep up the good work.

Wade said...

I just bought a used Getzen Capri Piccolo trumpet. It has 3 valves and has a range starting at F#, one octave above that of a regular trumpet. I have read that the 4th valve that most piccolo trumpets have lowers the possible range, but I haven't been able to find out what the lowest note is that you can play on a 4-valve piccolo trumpet. If it will bring it down a bit from an F#, I may try to sell mine and buy one with 4 valves.

Another question: I'm using a Schilke 14A4A trumpet mouthpiece on my Getzen Capri, but it doesn't fit into the leadpipe as far as it does on my Bb and C trumpets, and the piccolo trumpet seems to be still a little flat with the (Bb) leadpipe pushed in all the way. I was wondering if I was supposed to use a special mouthpiece for the piccolo trumpet, so I called Getzen, but the lady there said they sold them with a regular trumpet mouthpiece. She didn't know what brand. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

I've also heard about people using aftermarket leadpipes on Getzen piccolo trumpets, and I'm wondering if it's buying a $160 or so leadpipe (for a $500 trumpet).

Wade ten Bensel