How to play the high notes of single chambered ocarinas

Side Note

Too complicated for you? Multichambers are simpler.

In order to play the high notes effectively it is important to understand the ocarina's plains of balance. These allow you to support an ocarina with only a few fingers. Ocarinas have two plains of balance. The primary plain runs between the right thumb hole and the right tail of the ocarina.

The second plain runs between the left pinky hole and the mouthpiece. Note that this plain can only be used when the pinky hole is placed on the side of the instrument.

While playing the lowest notes there are so many fingers on the ocarina that these balance plains don't matter, but as you play higher support transitions to the primary. This begins by placing your right pinky finger onto the ocarinas tail.

With this finger in place you can play up to D, the ocarina balanced along it's primary plain with supplemental support from the secondary. Notice that it is important to keep the ocarina parallel to the ground. Tilting it forward places a lot more weight onto the left pinky which can become painful. In the diagram below the red line depicts the plain of balance, the blue dotted line shows supplemental support.

E is played by rolling the right thumb off it's hole. Rolling off the thumb shifts the point of support back from the plain of balance, so the supplemental support of the left pinky is essential. Due to the 3 contact points I call this technique the 3 point grip.

This roll off is achieved by bending the thumb in it's resting position, straightening the thumb then opens the hole. As this happens the wrist raises slightly and rotates around the right pinky, see the video below. You don't have to be able to bend your thumb back to do this but it is useful. Without this ability the hand must rotate more.

You can play up to E using the support provided by the left pinky hole, but to play F another means of support is required. This is provided by placing the left index finger on the cappello.

Notice the vertical orientation of the index finger. As the index finger is used to carry some of the ocarinas weight the finger must be quite vertical to the ocarina. Placing the finger flat on top of the cappello achieves nothing as the ocarina is free to fall downwards. My latest designs have moved and angled the thumb hole to make this easier.

From here the ocarina is supported by the left index, right thumb and right pinky. You can safely remove the left pinky to play the high F.

I recommend practicing this by playing the 4 highest notes in a loop, C, D, E, F, E, D.

Other considerations

When to place the index finger on the cappello

As long as your ocarinas left pinky hole is placed on the side of the instrument you can play up to E without using the cappello. However it is good practice to use the cappello when you switch between high C and D. This places the support in place in advance. Aim to move both fingers at the same time, as shown in the video below.

Sliding onto the cappello to play leaps

When moving from notes below B, you have to slide the left index finger onto the cappello. To do this you straighten the finger while simultaneously sliding it sideways. The finger will end up with the second or 3rd joint from the tip resting against the ocarina's body. Sliding movements are much easier to do on unglazed ocarinas.

Leaping between the ocarinas highest and lowest notes

The sliding technique described above can be used to leap between the highest and lowest notes. At the same time as you slide the finger off the cappello, you must also slide the left pinky finger onto the tail and roll off the right thumb. Making leaps this wide requires a large change in breath pressure. I recommend practicing with a tuner until you get used to it.

Other techniques

The 3 point grip described above has a lot of advantages:

  • It maintains right thumb, the strongest finger, as main support point.
  • It distributes ocarina weight over both hands so works effectively with larger ocarinas.
  • It keeps all fingers close to their respective holes.
  • It permits leaping between high and low notes.
  • It keeps center of support relatively constant.

However it does have one con, it can limit the playing speed of the right thumb hole. The palm grip is a technique which can work around this. In the palm grip the entire weight of the ocarina is taken by the right hand, which allows the right thumb to be removed.

Whenever you are playing a higher note, if you do not need to play a low note first and know that you need to access the high E or F, slip the right ring and pinky finger around the tail. This grips the ocarina into the palm. While doing this there is a tendency to extend the remaining two fingers vertically upwards. I strongly recommend keeping them bent, so they remain close to their hole and have less distance to move when returning to a lower note.

This is useful for situations where the high E needs to be trilled or otherwise played quickly. However this technique has a lot of technical problems:

  • It locks right hand fingers a long way from their holes, effectively immobilizing them. This prevents finger articulations being used.
  • Doing this places the entire weight of the ocarina onto the right pinky and index finger. This is impractical with large heavy ocarinas due to the physics of leavers.
  • Takes time to switch into which practically divides the range in half. This requires forward planning while playing and makes it impossible to leap between the high and low notes. While this is fairly uncommon it does occur in real world music and you have to be able to handle it.
  • The technique only works with ocarinas that where designed for it, with an elongated tail.

Because of these problems I only recommend using this as a supplement, rather than primary technique. If you do use this take care not to shade the right pinky hole as doing so will flatten the high note. If you compensate by blowing harder its tone will be worse and may even squeak. This is especially problematic if you are already playing in a cold environment.

Exercises

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