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Fourth Of July: When The Piccolo Gets To Shine

Jul 4, 2013
Originally published on July 5, 2013 1:47 pm

Fourth of July means we’ll be hearing a lot of John Philip Sousa’s famous military march “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

The big highlight comes toward the end, when the piccolos in the orchestra stand and let loose over the rest of the orchestra.

But imagine being the piccolo player who has to play that part over and over.

“The first time I played it was in the seventh grade,” Jim Walker, the retired principal flutist and piccolo player for the Los Angeles Philharmonic told Here & Now.

Walker guesses he’s played the piccolo solo hundreds of times, “probably approaching thousands.”

The piccolo is much smaller than the flute, and harder to play. As a result, many flutists don’t enjoy playing the piccolo, and don’t especially enjoy playing the solo from Stars and Stripes Forever. But Walker relishes it.

“It really always was incredibly fun for me,” he said. “It’s a cool piece. It’s difficult actually. It’s not something you just kind of toss off.”

And Walker added, “How often, when you’re a member of a symphony orchestra, do you get to stand up while you’re playing?”


  • Jim Walker, retired Los Angeles Philharmonic flute and piccolo player.
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You undoubtedly know this tune.


YOUNG: It's the shining moment for the piccolos in John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." We hear it a lot around July 4th. But imagine playing it over and over every year or playing it even more if you're in a military band, which our next guest was. Jim Walker is the former principal flutist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and current flute teacher at University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music and also the Colburn Conservatory of Music, and he joins us from KCLU in Thousand Oaks, California. Jim, welcome.

JIM WALKER: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

YOUNG: Well, so how many times do you think you've played that moment in "Stars and Stripes"?

WALKER: Boy, I've thought about that. Certainly hundreds. The first time I ever played it was in the seventh grade. So that was many, many years ago. So, you know, it's at least hundreds, probably approaching thousands.

YOUNG: And we know that when we watch the Boston Pops here in the Boston area come to that moment, the piccolo section stands up. I mean, what's it like to have that moment? Is it sort of, oh, here we go again with the piccolo thing? Or is there, you know, kind of a thrill to have that spotlight?

WALKER: It really always was incredibly fun for me. I know a lot of people it's like, oh, my God, not again. But for me, I always enjoyed it. It's a cool piece. It's difficult actually. It's not just something you just kind of toss off. So I always looked forward to it. And, I mean, how often when you're a member of a symphony orchestra do you get to stand up while you're playing?

YOUNG: Yeah, yeah. Well, you've got your piccolo there. Can you give us a little sense - I mean, it does seem impossibly difficult. It's got so many thrills and, you know, you don't want to have a big clam in there, you know, and sort of wreck it.

WALKER: Right. The one thing about playing with multiple people, if there is a clam, you kind of get covered up because maybe the other two people are playing more correctly than you are.

YOUNG: Well, give us a little thrill there, will you? What, you know, a little "Stars and Stripes."

WALKER: OK. I'm going to back off so that I don't totally kill your ears.



WALKER: And it goes on and on and on. Towards the end, you get a lot of thrills falling on top of one another. Let me give you that part of it quickly.

YOUNG: OK. Mm-hmm.


YOUNG: Bravo. You know, it seems that the miniature-ness of it would be one of the difficult parts. I mean, the hole that you blow through is tiny. It seems like everything is, you know, it's small. How much - does that make it more difficult to do?

WALKER: I think it's - for someone who doesn't play the instrument, you would look at it - especially with someone like myself who has really large hands, you would think, how can that happen? But I think, you know, you just - you take it for granted. I mean, my fingers do seem to cover the spots and seem to still wiggle on time, so that's a good thing. But it is - it's a very difficult instrument to play, and that's why a lot of flutists don't really enjoy playing it.

YOUNG: Yeah. But you sort of have to, we understand. It's the rare flutist. And, by the way, we asked, you've all settled on flutist, right, not flautist?

WALKER: I have.



WALKER: I can't say we all.

YOUNG: It's a prettier word. But it's rare that if you joined an organization, you're only going to get to play the flute. You're going to be asked to switch.

WALKER: Well, there's a bit of a hierarchy. If you're the principal flutist, you don't really have to play it.

YOUNG: Because why? Does it mess up their technique?

WALKER: It does - actually, it's a more extreme embouchure.

YOUNG: Embouchure. You're talking about the lips?

WALKER: The mouth, you know, the mouth shape.

YOUNG: Yeah.

WALKER: It can be tighter. It certainly has to be smaller. And if you're not practicing the instrument, you have the same muscles but they're really used in a more extreme way.

YOUNG: Hmm. We also know that you play jazz flute. Is there a jazz piccolo?

WALKER: Oh, absolutely. For me it means improvisation. So, for example, if it were the "Stars and Stripes Forever," I might do something like this.


WALKER: So that's kind of my ditty of the morning based on the harmonies to the "Stars and Stripes Forever."

YOUNG: Boy, you would be out of that orchestra so fast.


YOUNG: There's a rogue piccolo player.


WALKER: Let me interject. One of the highlights of my youth was that my father was my band director back in Western Kentucky in a little town called Central City. And in our small school, we did have a marching band. And my dad did allow me to improvise on the piccolo when we were marching parades. And I absolutely had a ball doing that.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, smart man because you went on to have quite a career. Well, we also know that you are in the West Point concert and marching bands in the Vietnam era. And there's a very somber nature to the piccolos. Well, you can't hear it and not think of, you know, paintings of bandaged, you know, revolutionary era troops marching and playing the piccolo. There's something quite American about it.

WALKER: Right. And those instruments were more specifically a fife, but it's exactly like the piccolo in some cases. The piccolo is in the key of C. A fife is at - one inch longer and in the key of B flat and doesn't have quite so many keys. But many years ago, I was working for John Williams, playing on the soundtrack to the movie "The Patriot."

And one of the highlights of my whole film career, if you want to call it that, was on the final day of scoring, John decided to score this final closing credits for 15 piccolo players playing this wonderful Revolutionary War melody that he had created. And lo and behold, there is Mel Gibson in the booth, and it was quite a day. Fifteen piccolo players spread out amongst the orchestra recording this incredible piece.

YOUNG: Let's listen.


YOUNG: Well, so the piccolo can be somber. We've said it can be celebratory. And it can certainly be funny. Do you have a piccolo joke because we do?


WALKER: Well, you know, I don't. I'm not a great jokester. I love jokes, so I'm ready to hear yours. I do actually have one.

YOUNG: Go ahead.

WALKER: You've heard of the old ABC Sports quip was the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

YOUNG: Mm-hmm.

WALKER: We call the piccolo the agony of the tweet.


YOUNG: Before Twitter. Well, here's ours. Are you ready? How do you get two piccolo players to play in tune?

WALKER: I think I have heard this one. Is it you kill one of them?



WALKER: I've never participated in that, but I've been tempted.


YOUNG: Jim Walker, former principal flutist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, currently a teacher of flutist at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music and also the Colburn Conservatory of Music. Thank you so much for letting us celebrate the instrument, and maybe you can play us out a little something.

WALKER: Yeah. Let's see.


WALKER: Good whistling there.

YOUNG: Thank you. Jim, what a delight. Thank you so much.

WALKER: It's my pleasure. I really enjoyed doing this, and I can't wait to play this piece again.


YOUNG: Take care.

WALKER: Bye-bye.

YOUNG: I will never look at a piccolo the same way again.


You mean the agony of the tweet?

YOUNG: That's right.


YOUNG: We wish everyone a happy Fourth of July, a happy and safe one. This is HERE AND NOW from NPR and WBUR, Boston. I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: And I'm Jeremy Hobson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.