The piccolo is the smallest number of the European classical music flute family, with a similar range as the flute but sounding an octave higher.

Despite being a highly (pun intended) melodic instrument, the piccolo is often classified as an “auxiliary” instrument. Perhaps it’s the pricey nature of the instrument, the lack of makers in comparison to other instruments, or the hard to tame intonation that puts off young musicians.

The Band Post interviews Peter Verhoyen, to begin demystifying the piccolo, and to gain a better insight into the piccolo world!

As piccolo solo of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Peter Vehoyen has built up an excellent reputation as a specialist on his instrument. Since 2006 he has developed various concert programs for piccolo and piano together with pianist Stefan De Schepper. With these projects he demonstrates that the piccolo earns a spot on the concert stage as a recital instrument. For a contemporary touch, Peter asked several Flemish composers to write new works for his instrument. The next step was the realization of a series of CDs (Piccolo Tunes, The Birds!, Piccolo Polkas, La Gazza Ladra, Ma Mère l’Oye, Mighty Metamorphoses) in which the piccolo is the central instrument. For his dedication to contemporary Flemish music, Peter has been awarded the Fuga Trofee from the Union of Belgian composers in 2017.

As a piccolo specialist Peter is regularly invited to give masterclasses and piccolo recitals in European conservatories (Paris (CNSMP), London (Royal Academy), Brno, Hannover, Weimar, Tilburg, Milan …) and flute and piccolo festivals in Europe (BFS Conventions, Adams Flute Festival, International Piccolo Festival) USA (NFA Conventions in New York, Washington, Anaheim, Las Vegas, San Diego, Salt Lake City …) Columbia, Brazil, Mexico and Australia.

Peter currently teaches piccolo at his private flute studio in Bruges, at the Universität für Musik and darstellende Kunst in Graz. and at the Royal Conservatoire in Antwerp, where he developed, as the first in Europe, a piccolo master program. This unique piccolo training program has a great international reputation with students of various countries, from Belgium to Australia. Peter’s piccolo master students profile themselves by winning prizes at international piccolo competitions and working in national and international orchestras.

In cooperation with Aldo Baerten, Peter is the organizer and driving force of the International Flute Seminar Bruges, where flute and piccolo players of all ages and different levels, education and ambition are inspired and motivated through individual lessons, workshops, masterclasses and chamber music.

When did you begin playing the piccolo, and how did you get acquainted with it?

I started playing the flute when I was nine years old. I was lucky to have a good music school, an excellent flute teacher and also a very good wind band in the village that gave me a lot of motivation to practise.

What are your favourite things about the piccolo?

I think the piccolo suits my character very well. I’m quite nervous and optimistic by nature. I like the kind of writing by good composers (Shostakovich, Ravel, Bartok) that can use the piccolo in short bits expressing joy but also melancholy.

How would you describe yourself? Are you a piccoloist? Piccolo specialist?

I’m a piccolo enthusiast.

What instrument do you play on?

I have the greatest respect for piccolo builders and found that excellent piccolos can be very different. Some instruments are better for certain repertoire. I have a C foot and a D foot Braun piccolo, a Keefe piccolo, a Burkart piccolo, and 2 Roy Seaman piccolos.

What do/did you look for in a piccolo?

The ability to blend with other instruments of the orchestra, and the ability to play soft in the high register are the two most important aspects of a piccolo you should consider. Apart from that, I always look for the ability to produce a singing and projective sound in all registers.

How would you advise students in looking for an instrument?

Definitely take a piccolo specialist with you to help you make a choice. A lot of the qualities of a piccolo should be listened to from a distance. Don’t focus on a nice middle register when making your choice. A lot of piccolos have a problem producing the high B (third octave). If this is not possible on the first day, it’s never going to happen! Also, a lot of piccolos have a dry and empty sound in the lowest register, which you should avoid.

How is playing the piccolo different from the flute?

The piccolo is in so many ways different from the flute that if you really want to get a high level of performance, you have to rethink all technical aspects : sound, intonation, articulation, vibrato, dynamics… One of the more obvious but still very often neglected aspects of difference is that while the piccolo sounds an octave higher, the notation stays one octave below, which results in a lot of players who play piccolo similarly to flute.

What are your favourite works written for piccolo?

My favourite piccolo concerto is written by Flemish composer Erik Desimpelaere. I think the Levente Gyongyosi sonate is really wonderful too, and the most exciting solo piece is Nidi by Donatoni. But these are only a few examples of the wonderful additions to the piccolo repertoire in recent times.

Flautists have Moyse’s De la Sonorite, Taffanel et Gaubert’s 17 Daily Exercises. There are many method books available today, what are the piccolo equivalents of these few big books?

Nicola Mazzanti’s book covers most of the standard exercises needed to master the instrument. I recently published “Peter’s Piccolo World” which has some fine practice materials too.

I notice in many of your flute recordings, you either play with a wooden headjoint, or a completely wooden flute. Is this to ease the switch between the piccolo and the flute? Would you say you play the piccolo differently partially due to the material it is made out of (wood)?

I love the feel of wooden instruments, both in my hands and on my lips. But unfortunately it doesn’t make the switch easier. On the contrary, a wooden flute has a thicker tube and for that reason there is also a bigger change in hand positions when alternating with piccolo.

You developed the Piccolo master’s program in Europe at the Royal Conservatoire Antwerp, what led you to bring about such a change?

This was actually an idea of my Antwerp Symphony Orchestra colleague, principal flute player and Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp flute teacher Aldo Baeten. We agreed it would be a good plan to give talented piccolo players the opportunity to study the instrument in depth, combining specific orchestral work with the development of piccolo recital skills.

Beyond being a performer, you are an active contributor to developing the piccolo playing scene through your teaching and commissioning. What drives you to keep going?

I have been lucky and honoured to work in a very inspiring environment, with a great flute and piccolo teaching team at the Conservatoire and an excellent pianist, Stefan De Schepper.

What do you hope to achieve with your piccolo playing?

I hope to convince flute players and the broader audience of the charm of the piccolo as a melodic instrument.

What is one thing you would like to say to flautists and aspiring piccoloists?

I truly believe every flutist should integrate piccolo playing in their daily practice. If you play the piccolo in a healthy way, it will even be beneficial for your flute level. To my knowledge, all flute players have to play the piccolo at a certain moment, and if this is part of your daily routine, it will certainly bring you more happiness.

What is the biggest misconception you’ve heard about the piccolo?

A lot of flute players consider piccolo playing to have a negative effect on their embouchure. I’m convinced that playing the piccolo can help you refine your flute embouchure skills.

In your opinion, what is the function of the piccolo in an ensemble setting?

People often think that the piccolo is only good for the imitation of bird noises, and to play marching band or polka tunes. The piccolo mostly works well in a soloistic role. Good composers are aware of the capability of the piccolo to bring out more extreme emotions of happiness,  aggression, but also melancholy and sadness.

Why do you think the piccolo has garnered so much negativity?

I don’t think there is real negativity about the piccolo. People are aware about the loud and high notes and the possible danger for the human ear when having an overdose of this. Because it is a quite difficult instrument to master, it is too often played at a low level of performance.

What is your dream for the future of piccolo playing?

I feel my dream is a reality at this time. We are living in a new golden age for the instrument, with plenty of excellent performers and well developed piccolo master programs at conservatories and universities. Piccolo builders are making excellent new instruments, and composers are taking the piccolo more seriously than ever before!

Written for conservatory students, professionals, and for amateurs who want to develop their inner piccolo player, Peter Verhoyen, together with piccoloists Anke Lauwers, Sarah Miller, and illustrator Ann-Sofie Verhoyen, have created a new piccolo method book – Peter’s Piccolo World

The book contains both teaching points and musical excerpts, as well as illustrations created to inspire and motivate the reader. It covers topics such as posture, finger technique, embouchure, airstream, and the throat – and all in a unique way. Along with the illustrations, readers will get to watch innovative teaching videos where the teaching points are clearly demonstrated. It also contains inside interviews with the writers and thought-provoking exercises, many of which are based upon well-known orchestral, opera or folk music melodies.


Written By Jaydn