Thursday, February 18, 2010

Grandpa's Piccolo

When I was in high school, my grandfather got into the habit of giving me things of his.  For as long as I could remember, there was a zither hanging on the living room wall of my grandparents' apartment.  One day, without warning, grandpa just took it off the wall and gave it to me.  One moment it was familiar  decor, the next moment it was my personal property.  The zither was severely out of tune and I've never been able to make anything more than hideous noise with it.

Around the same time, my grandfather gave me a piccolo.  Unlike the zither, I'd never seen the piccolo before.  The piccolo was exciting because I'd never played a wind instrument before (whereas I plucked on zither-like things in The Nature Company all the time).  I didn't have it for very long because as soon as my little sister learned of it, she swiped it.  As the only woodwind player in the family (Lauren played clarinet for two years in middle school), she felt entitled to any other wind instruments that should enter our house.  I picked my battles with Lauren and this was one of those that I let go.

My grandfather passed away last month and I got to thinking about that piccolo.  At the funeral, I asked Lauren about it and she actually still had it.  A decade removed from her foray into woodwinds, she was now willing to part with it.  My parents gave it to me this past Sunday and I attempted to play it.  I have just as much experience with wind instruments today as I did twelve years ago, so the result was something that sounded a lot like wind and not so much like instrument.

The next day I went out with some gay musicians and brought along the piccolo for an appraisal.  Oboist Matthew and tubist Jack sat enthralled in my back seat for a while examining the instrument.  Matthew remarked that he'd never seen anything like it, and he kept calling it a "conservatory model," noting that it was very difficult to play.  Both of them blew into it and neither was able to eke out a sound much better than what I'd done.  Matthew had a lot to say about the piccolo's composition, but ultimately he suggested I have a professional flautist take a look.

Tonight I brought the piccolo to orchestra rehearsal and showed it to flautists Scott and Craig.  They both had similar reactions to Matthew's.  Scott questioned whether it was a piccolo or a fife.  Craig noted that the fact that it was in three pieces was unusual.  He also said that the fingering was obsolete and they don't make piccolos like that anymore.  This piccolo was made before piccolo manufacturing conventions changed in the early twentieth century.  The instrument might be in D-flat, which also indicates that it's a very old model.  Craig was the only one who tried playing the piccolo who was actually able to get notes out of it.

Nobody thinks that it's worth a lot of money, and in fact, it would probably require a lot of money in repairs if it were ever to be played again, and that might be a waste of money considering this type of piccolo is no longer used.  I think I might just keep it around for kicks.  Break it out at parties and watch the flautists ooh and aah.

More interesting than the piccolo itself for me is why my grandfather owned it.  To my knowledge, grandpa never played a musical instrument, and all the feedback I've gotten on the piccolo brings me to the conclusion that it's a pretty difficult instrument to play, and it's not something an amateur would pick up.  My mom says he probably got it in Germany when he was there during the War.

My next idea is to show it to my cousin Allison who is a flautist.  It might be meaning for her since she actually knew Grandpa Joe.


  1. Glad you're back! Can't wait to hear how the cello is going!

  2. I have a metal clarinet that was my grandfather's. I _do_ know how to play it, but it's a terrible instrument and I don't think he ever played it. I also had a violin of my other grandfather's, but I lent to someone to use as a theatrical prop and never got it back (which was idiotic of me, but I was young).