Improving the poor approach of players learning the ocarina

Over the time I have been involved with the ocarina, one thing which has stuck out to me is the poor approach of players learning the ocarina. There is a tendency for new players to make little progress. Many are either stuck at a basic level, or give up pretty quickly, leading to a lack of advanced, and even intermediate, players.

I made a post questing this on the 'The Ocarina Network' Facebook group. The post got a lot more feedback than I expected, with over 100 comments. I have summarised the key points below. The first of these relate directly to poor attitude:

  • Some people were just apathetic to the idea of getting better, as they only play for personal enjoyment. Others cited a belief that musicians must start at an early age, or that music is a very low priority interest.
  • Others felt there is a perception of the ocarina as a novelty or 'toy' instrument, due to it's inclusion in The Legend of Zelda. People who enter from this path may be more interested in it as a visual prop, and may only learn a handful of basic melodies.
  • Others still saw no professional outlet for the skill, and thus have no drive to play better. There is a view that other instruments have clear paths: keyboard, drums or guitar allow one to join a band, while bowed strings can let one join an orchestras. With the ocarina one must drive their own path.

However, the issue with players making no progress is not always the fault of the players, as some aspects of the ocarina, as well as other life factors have an impact:

  • Ocarinas are loud, and many people don't have an environment where they can play, as they live with their family or in apartments/dorms. The ocarina's tone can be quite annoying to listen to for a long time, and others may not be aware that everyone plays badly at first.
  • Many people do not have a lot of time and don't practise very often. Regular, repetitive practice is essential to getting better on any instrument. Practice approach was also a problem, due to a lack of guidance. There are no teachers to offer encouragement and correct mistakes.
  • Also, finding music to play on the ocarina can be difficult. The limited range means a lot of music isn't playable, and adapting music to the instrument requires theory knowledge that many may not have. A small number of music collections for the ocarina exist, but people may not be aware of them.

This article explores some probable causes of these problems, and offers some solutions. I hope that progress can be made with this, as the current situation is very uninspiring, especially to me as a maker. Very few players are good enough to appreciate the value of quality ocarinas.

Hypotheses of causes

The lack of accessible information and guidance

In comparison to many other instruments, a lot of information is required to get started with the ocarina due to the mass of variations that exist. People need to understand keys and ranges, single chamber ocarinas vs multichambers, and even how to distinguish playable ocarinas from novelty items. I don't think this information is easy enough to find, as very basic questions often appear on ocarina player communities.

There is also a big lack of information to guide players learning the ocarina in comparison to other instruments. Many method books exist, but players may not be aware of them, or may not feel they are needed due to the perception of the ocarina being 'easy to play'. Also, the existing guides may not include enough details about less intuitive things, such as playing in tune and creating emphasis using ornamentation.

Access to a good teacher can also provide many benefits, such as correcting basic mistakes, finding appropriate music and exercises for a student to play, and pushing students to progress through barriers, like playing more complex or faster music. Yet good ocarina teachers are virtually impossible to find in person. Some people offer remote tuition via Skype, but they may be difficult to find as they don't advertise well.

How players approach practice is also very important, as practising in a haphazard way won't lead to much progress. Practice must be regular, and things must be done slowly and accurately. Approaches such as breaking out difficult passages are also essential. In the absence of a method book or teacher, someone may never learn these things.

Drawing in a poor audience

Many marketing efforts around the ocarina play on the visual simplicity of the instrument and market it as 'easy to play' to people with no musical experience, or rely on other gimmicks like visual design. I think that this in itself is a large part of the problem.

There are many people who fantasise about the idea of playing a musical instrument. As one of the comments on my post says: 'I think a lot of people yearn to make sounds pleasing to the ear, to make people happy and entertained.' I suspect that these people are naturally drawn to the ocarina, and the aforementioned marketing, as it looks simple.

However, I think that this leads people down a false path. Playing an instrument well requires a general knowledge of music, and the mechanical complexity of an instrument has very little to do with this. I suspect that these people mostly end up practising with a complete lack of guidance, or very poor guidance formed from haphazard internet research. Many of them may also have a false belief that they will be playing very well in a small amount of time, due to a flawed mental model built on the perception of the instrument being easy.

Over time it will become apparent that they are not progressing as they would like, but they may not know why. Under this situation either giving up, or continuing to play badly.

The lack of good players and role models

Many of the serious players who were around when I first got involved with the ocarina have moved to other instruments, or quit playing music entirely, and nobody has replaced them. This lack of intermediate and advanced players is a problem as it reduces the opportunity for people to know the ocarina's real ability. I suspect it is a self-perpetuating cycle:

  • The volume of bad playing may discourage people who would commit to playing the instrument well.
  • It discourages listeners as there are few virtuosic performances that appeal to a general audience.
  • It may be discouraging players from pushing to achieve better, as they have no role models.

There seems to be a culture of playing relatively trivial music among ocarina players, and very few people are able to play the ocarina at high tempo. Even the advanced players still play the same basic music, mostly from video games and anime. Due to this people do not realize the full musical potential of the instrument.

Solution ideas

Seeking to create highly impressive performances

We seriously need to get away from marketing the ocarina using gimmicks, and attract attention through genuinely impressive musical performances.

I think it would be beneficial if the best players start seeking ways of creating performances that 'wow' a general audience, and stand a chance of going viral. This needs to be a substantial step above anything that has been done so far with regards to musicianship, performance art, and recording and editing.

As an example of an unusual instrument that has attracted a lot of attention, take a look at this video of a musical marble machine my partner shared with me. As of writing it has over 100 million views, and the creator of it is now making a better one with the intent of doing a world tour of performances.

It is worth studying successes like this, and I think the marble machine resonates with people for a number of reasons:

  • It is entirely new to most people.
  • It is unexpected that a machine like this can make interesting music.
  • The melody being played is an earworm.
  • All of the intricacies of the machine in action are technically impressive to watch.
  • The person playing the instrument is a great performer and is entertaining.
  • The audio recording, and video editing are to a high standard, which does a great job exhibiting all of the technical complexities of the machine, as well as the performer.

While not all of these things are directly applicable to the ocarina, I believe that a similar 'high production value' performance, blending virtuosic ocarina performance with visual entertaining stagecraft of the performers could resonate with a large audience.

There was a Taiwanese group who performed at Budrio festival in 2019, with a performance blending stageplay and ocarina. I don't think this performance was entirely up to the standard needed, and my video also misses out many of the more interesting parts of it. But it is going in the right direction and was awesome to watch.

Starting to get some seriously impressive performances of this nature into the world, and onto social platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter would do a lot to show people what the ocarina can do. I don't think it would take that many performances to start making an impact. And using an approach grounded in good music is more likely to attract people that are actually interested in learning to play well.

Promoting the ocarina to players of other instruments

In addition to trying to passively attract new serious players via good performance, I think that it would be worthwhile making a direct effort to market the instrument, and its abilities, directly to serious musicians and players of other instruments:

  • Try to get the ocarina featured in existing media targeted at serious musicians. There are multiple ways of approaching this, such as writing articles talking about the abilities and history of the ocarina as a serious instrument, or seeking interviews. Having a few 'big impact' performances to point to is sure to help with this.
  • Aim to do the same with folk music media channels such as websites and magazines. Talk about how the ocarina fits well into this genre, being similar to existing instruments, like the tin whistle, and working well for playing many bagpipe tunes.
  • Contact players of wind instrument involved with well known bands. Tell them about the ocarina, and how playing this uncommon instrument could attract attention to them as a group. I have found the ocarina highly effective at attracting attention in an armateur setting.

I can see a lot to be gained from this, as skilled players of other instruments will already know basic details like how to practise effectively, have a good understanding of musicality and theory, and there is a good chance that they also have an audience of their own. Making an effort here should also help to break down the barrier between the ocarina and 'other instruments', and help the ocarina be seen as a 'real instrument'.

One problem that any effort in this space is going to have is that the term 'ocarina' is really ambiguous, and web searches present a very 'wishy-washy' image of what it is, with serious instruments competing with novelty items. Due to this, there may be considerable value in renaming the instrument and casting off this baggage. If we were to rename it, I think a big impact performance would be the best time to do it.

In any regard, giving consideration to naming, and the use of classifiers like 'transverse' ocarina, is essential.

Providing great support for new players

When potential new players come to the ocarina from, it is essential that they can find the information and support that they want, or they may just bounce. In particular:

  • Make sure that information that players need to get started is easy to find. My book Serious Ocarina Player was written to fill this need, and it may be good to offer a summary of key points. Additionally, more traditional method books, as well as music collections, should be readily available.
  • Better players can offer teaching services to advise people how to improve their playing. Teaching face to face is unlikely to be practical due to geographic issues, so this would probably happen over Skype. Having this opportunity would give players direct feedback on their skills, and what they can do to improve. Teachers can also offer advice on music theory, and effective practice techniques such as breaking down difficult problems. This could also be a source of income for those doing it.
  • Organise more in-person meetups for players. Due to the disperse nature of ocarina players, there is little opportunity to learn from others in person. This is a problem as learning often happens socially, and I think that the inability for players to do this is a big limiting factor. Budrio festival is great, but it doesn't happen often enough, and many cannot travel to it. My personal experience is that making and playing an instrument where I only get to see other players once every two years is really dry.

Players also need to know how to find music for the instrument that they want to play. This must include information regarding adapting music to fit the ocarina, such as transposing music. Some curated collections of music exist from people like Hans Rotter, but I don't know if most people are actually aware of them.

I also believe that players need to be driven to play faster and more demanding music, to really push the instrument to its limits. I've had a few people say that they are put off from doing this as it feels unduly difficult, so they revert to simpler music. I think that players need to know to push through this tension, as it starts to feel easier with time. Having a teacher for accountability and encouragement would surely help.

Providing awesome resources on theory and practice technique

Another common point of contention is theory, as people often find it hard to understand. I suspect this is caused by factors like teaching it out of context, using poor or no visualisations, and the fact that different people learn differently.

Band classes in schools may offer a good source of reference, as in that environment music theory may be taught in conjunction with practice so that it is never out of context. Offering good visualisations, and making sure that players know that different teachers may connect better to them would also be good.

Practice technique matters too. One of the issues noted in the original Facebook question was a lack of time. This doesn't matter as much as one may think, as with good practice approach, it is still possible to make progress. Practising in short 5 to 10 minute sessions may be more effective due to the spacing effect.

Players should also be aware of basic practice and motivational techniques, such as:

  • Having a goal that one is working towards, such as a piece of music that means something to the student on a personal level.
  • Getting learners to create a social dependency on their playing, such as playing with a group of other musicians.
  • Keeping a log of what one has been practising, and what they need to improve. Human memory is not that reliable.
  • Teach students to practice hard sections in isolation.
  • Teach music broadly, not just the fingering system. This includes phrasing and emphasis/ornamentation (these are generally synonymous on the ocarina due to volume dynamics being very hard).

I would question why anyone even keeps trying to play an instrument if they are not interested in it enough to put in enough effort regularly to make progress.

Accepting that there are many cases where the ocarina is not a good fit

I think that there are many places where the ocarina is forced into, where it is simply not a good fit for the problem, such as:

Playing by one's self

Ocarinas are very loud and assertive, they will draw attention to you. So even if you think you are playing by yourself, there is a good chance people can hear you. This can be annoying to other people, especially during practice where one must repeat the same section over and over. It can result in people making rude comments, as they don't understand that doing this is required to make progress.

People often wish for quieter ocarinas or a means of muting the instrument, but neither works well due to physics. As holes are opened more air can escape, so the player has to blow harder and the instrument gets louder. Not increasing pressure causes the high notes to sound really airy in contrast with the low notes, and such an instrument isn't much use for anything.

Trying to mute an ocarina by covering the voicing, or restricting the air entering the windway are also bad ideas. Doing these things throws an ocarina out of tune, and makes it impossible to practise many critical elements of technique, such as intonation, or breath pitch slides.

There are other instruments that are a FAR better fit for this than the ocarina. One of the commenters mentioned the shakuhachi, and that it is quiet enough that it doesn't wake his wife or bother neighbours. Electronic instruments are also ideal as they can play on headphones.

As a first instrument without guidance

While ocarinas are often marketed as 'easy to play', this is only true with prior experience. Ocarinas are very loud, stand out above other sounds, and are not at all forgiving of poor technique. Playing an ocarina in tune can be very challenging, and without guidance players often have no awareness of their intonation.

I think that trying to learn any instrument without some form of guidance is a bad idea, as there are many easy mistakes that will cause a player problems. I also think that there are instruments that are better suited to new musicians than the ocarina is, like the xylophone and keyed instruments like the keyboard and piano. They have fixed pitch, and are mechanically simpler to play.

Playing in (some) group settings

The ocarina's loud and pure tone often cuts through the sounds of other instruments in group performances, creating a loud and clear voice in a mix. This is often a good thing, as it can produce an ear grabbing effect, and is especially true of soprano and higher pitched alto ocarinas. However, it can overpower the rest of the group if context is not accounted for.

This can be mitigated by playing a lower pitched alto or bass ocarina, but they may still be too loud in some situations even so. If the group features a singer, it is almost never a good idea to play over them, and instead play during interludes. Ocarinas with a more textured tone mitigate this, as they tend to blend into a mix much better.

Side Note

I have noted several times in my writing that a fully electronic 'ocarina' could offer many of the virtues that people incorrectly ascribe to the real instrument, such as being technically simple to play. Such an instrument could also play totally silently on headphones. I find it surprising that nobody has developed one commercially yet.

Promoting good players, and performance outlets

When good players start to surface, we need a means of promoting them so that they become more popular and start to develop their own following.

As of right now, many of the better ocarina players and 'media outlets' are commercially affiliated with makers. Consequently these are only interested in promoting themselves, and this is a problem as it is difficult for new people to gain publicity. As of writing, the only person really acting as an unaffiliated media outlet for the ocarina is David Erik Ramos, and I think it is unfair to place everyone's demands on one person.

I hope that as new skilled players start to surface, they can act to promote each other, and at least some of them will not affiliate themselves with makers, but remain independent. I also hope that more people take on the role of a public media outlet or figure head like David is.

I disagree with the notion that there are no professional outlets for the ocarina. The instrument can be used effectively in bands as long as a player is good enough to play in tune, and I have used the instrument in this setting in an armateur sense. With more time, it should be possible to push that to a professional space.

In my experience, ocarinas are extremely good at getting people's attention as they don't really sound like anything else. I have found them to be very effective at silencing the audience in noisy pub open mics, and I'd expect musicians in bands to be all over this, as getting noticed is exactly what most of them want.

There are many solo performers with things like guitar music, and in Irish and other folk traditions. People can develop a following by themselves. The ocarina is used in that way by people such as Milt in the Asian community. Should the ocarina gain more notability in English speaking countries, I can see the same being possible.

Even orchestral level performances shouldn't be out of the question. The ocarina is a new timbre for composers to explore. If there were enough good players in the world so that orchestra leaders can actually find one reliably, I can see that gaining traction.

Other potential barriers

Both myself, and my friend Reilly Walker have noticed that people seem to intuitively assume that the ocarina isn't capable of much before seeing it played. I don't know exactly what is behind this, but suspect that it relates to the following factors:

  • the ocarina is visually simple. Human intuition may be such that this leads people to assume that simple appearance equals incapable.
  • I suspect that many of the people who have seen an ocarina being played have seen it being played poorly.
  • Most people have no personal connection with the ocarina, or only have this in the context of the Zelda games, which only feature trivial music.

I have done many performances on the ocarina, and it always attracts a lot of questions and comments like, 'I have never seen one of those played like that before.' However this never translates into people actually wanting to learn to play. They have never seen it before being used in some context that is meaningful to them.

This issue with people not wanting to learn to play may be related to time and exposure. They may need to be exposed to the instrument multiple times, or they may need to wait for months/years before they consider it. It took about 4 years between my first exposure to an ocarina, to learning to play it myself.

There is also a problem given that many of the associations people hold about the ocarina are wrong. For example it is held that chamber shape doesn't matter, and that ocarinas can be both good art pieces and instruments at the same time. In fact, chamber shape does matter for ergonomic and functional reasons. Visual design is also a complex topic, as many of the things people add for visual effect get in the way of playability, such as affecting physical balance negatively and making the high notes harder to play.

Final thoughts

I think that the problem with the poor approach of players learning the ocarina is largely due to current circumstances, and can be addressed by making performances, supporting new players with information, and directly marketing the ocarina to serious musicians.

I believe that the general obsession with marketing the ocarina as easy to play is ultimately detrimental to the people doing this, as it keeps the general publics attitude towards the instrument low, and limits the number of good players. I think that this forces prices down as there are a lack of players who appreciate the value of better instruments. Increasing prices and demand is an easy multiplier.

Teaching ocarinas to children and teenagers is an option that I did not mention in the main article. This could be effective as children can learn quickly, and things that pose obstacles to an adult may be less of a problem. However, this is also risky due to the need for a good approach to teaching. It must not be taught like the recorder, by people who barely know what they are doing. That would quickly ruin its reputation.

In order to grow, the ocarina community MUST grow to a size that allows some people to make the ocarina their full time job, and preferably not live in poverty while doing so. The work that needs doing to promote the instrument is going to be very time consuming, and I feel only possible if people can fully commit. For example, writing (and rewriting) this article has taken about 3 full days.

Acting on most of the things mentioned in this article has to involve other people and i cannot do most of these things myself. For one thing, my personality is not that of an enthusiastic performer, so I could never make a performance engaging to the general public.

Finally, it would be awesome if the ocarina was known widely enough that the job of convincing people that it is worth playing was not on the makers.