Cons of the ocarina as a first instrument and what they cannot teach you

When you learn your first instrument you are doing two things simultaneously:

  • Learning how to physically play the instrument
  • Developing a general understanding of music

As you play more, your understanding of music will naturally develop. It's important to realize that this happens 'through the eyes of your instrument' and its limitations restrict what you can learn. Some things will come naturally while others will be difficult. Being aware of these limitations means that you won't get trapped by them.

The following issues affect the ocarina, in no order of importance:

  • Visually misleading
  • Only play one note at a time
  • Lack of a pitch reference
  • Difficulty of volume dynamics
  • Limited sounding range

Ocarinas can be visually misleading

Ocarinas can be visually misleading in the sense that playing well is a lot more involved than their appearance would have you believe. As ocarinas have fixed finger holes you may think that using the correct fingering will give the desired note. This is not the case: every note requires a different pressure to play in tune.

Having finger holes does help with intonation when moving from one note to another on a well made instrument but it is easy to drift. You can end up with the high notes flat relative to the low notes for instance. Ocarinas are loud and unforgiving. When played out of tune they sound rather obnoxious.

Holding the ocarina is also complex. In most wind instruments the right thumb carries most of the instrument's weight. It does this on the ocarina too but is also required to open a hole. This can be difficult to handle in practice as opening the hole removes the primary support point. How the instrument is supported changes constantly while playing. There are several techniques used to address this but they are quite complex.

Ocarinas only play one note at a time

Ocarinas can only play one note at a time; at first this can be a good thing as there is less to comprehend but it will hold you back as you progress. Understanding harmony is very useful for playing melodies as the two are closely related. When you intuitively know how notes sound together improvisation becomes approachable which extends naturally into creating your own tunes. Harmony also helps with adapting music that goes out of range.

Unfortunately you cannot develop an intuition for this without an instrument that can play multiple notes at once. I only started to understand this after learning the basics of keyboard. Harmony ocarinas do little to help as they have serious technical limitations.

Ocarinas provide no pitch reference

As noted above the ocarinas pitch is very unstable and playing in tune requires both the correct fingering and breath pressure. It is easy to be out of tune without being aware unless you have past experience. The easiest way to develop an intuition for this is to play with accompaniment. The following tool demonstrates what flat and sharp sound like against a drone. After clicking 'start' drag the slider left or right and notice how the sound changes.

Some instruments provide a reference: the Violin for example as the pitch of their open strings is stable. A player can bow a fingered note with an open string and adjust their fingering to get the cleanest sound. The same technique can be used with the ocarina but an external reference is essential: this can be a simple drone, chordal accompaniment or playing in unison with a recording.

When working on your intonation it is important to use simple exercises as people can only consciously focus on one thing at a time. If you need to think about your fingering you won't hear your intonation as readily.

Ocarinas only play in tune at one volume

The most common way of creating emphasis in music is by changing volume. I'm sure you've observed pieces of music which start softly, then ramp up for the big finale. Ocarinas have a forced volume dynamic with the high end notably louder. Varying from this is very difficult as changing pressure alone causes the instrument to go out of tune. To achieve a louder or softer note this pitch must be corrected by partially venting or shading another hole. As this is so difficult the ocarina is a poor instrument to understand volume dynamics.

Emphasis can be created using other techniques like varying the duration of articulations, using finger articulations and ornaments. These are not exactly a substitute for volume dynamics and less limited instruments frequently use both. This doesn't mean that the ocarina is inherently bad and many other instruments have the same limitation but it is obstacle to learning.

Ocarinas have a limited sounding range

In music 'range' refers to the highest and lowest note an instrument can play and ocarinas don't play many notes. This can be both a good and bad thing, on one hand fewer notes can be easier to understand, progressing naturally into multi-chambers as you get comfortable with music. Limited range also forces you to adapt music to fit, demanding a good understanding of transposition and keys.

On the other hand the lack of range can block progress. A lot of western music is written for instruments with a larger range and there is no guarantee that any music you want to play will actually fit, even on a multichamber. Higher and lower notes are used in music to create different moods and like harmony it is difficult to grasp this when your instrument can't play them.

Limited range is also a barrier to learning to play by ear. I think the most intuitive way of developing this skill is to play over a recording. This is very hit and miss on the ocarina as things will frequently go out of range, leaving you hunting for a note that doesn't exist on your instrument. I find it easier to work things out on the flute or keyboard first, then adapt to the ocarina.

In closing

It is important to note that I'm not trying to put you off, the most important thing is to play an instrument which inspires you. Learning any instrument is a lot of work and you're more likely to stick it out if you enjoy what you are doing. However, music consists of numerous layers: for example, melody, accompaniment, bass and rhythm. Developing an understanding of all of these is essential to becoming a well rounded musician.

As you get more experience I strongly recommend that you try as many instruments as you can get your hands on. This is not difficult once you get over the mental barrier as all western instruments are based on the same system of notes. Aim to use good technique but don't worry about playing well. Instruments can be approached as learning tools and as such you don't have to play them well to get valuable insights.

Playing other instruments is always a valuable exercise as it broadens your perspective. Musicians are often associated with a single instrument, you might say that someone is a pianist, violinist, or guitarist for instance. However I doubt that anyone would go through their career without trying others. Plus if you never try other instruments you'll never know if there is something else you prefer playing.

The ocarina wasn't the first instrument I played but it was the first I understood. With my current experience I wish that I'd branched into other instruments sooner. Limited instruments are not useless; they have there place and can create interesting music. However I believe that it is easiest to understand them from the perspective of more flexible instruments.

Guiding principles: How to become a great ocarina player Five common ocarina mistakes to avoid

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