An introduction to the ocarina's fingering system

Side Note

This assumes you understand octave registers and how they are named. If not, please read 'Octaves and scale formation'.

The transverse ocarina uses a simple linear fingering system similar to the tin whistle and Boehm flute.

Single chambered ocarinas have eight main holes on top of the instrument and two thumb holes—one hole for every finger and both thumbs, which are labelled in the diagram below. These eight finger holes and two thumb holes are universal across all single chambered ocarinas, regardless of if you have a 10, 11, or 12 hole ocarina. The far right hole of the four right hand finger holes is sometimes split into two smaller holes, but should be treated as a single hole.

Ocarinas always have at least one more hole called the voicing, which is labelled above. This is where sound is produced, and it should never be covered while playing. Ocarinas may also include one, two, or rarely three subholes, one of which is shown below. They are additional holes positioned next to one of the eight main finger holes, and allow you to play lower notes. Subholes should not be confused with split holes; a split hole is a single hole which has been split into two smaller holes to make an accidental (sharp or flat) easier to play.

Under normal circumstances, you can treat a split hole as a single hole, covering both of the holes with the pad of the pinky finger. Within naming conventions, split holes also count as a single hole. While an 11 hole ocarina with a split hole technically has '12 holes' in the sense of having 12 holes to be covered by the fingers, it is still an 11 hole ocarina in naming and practice.

The natural notes

The 10 main finger holes holes, not including the subhole(s) if applicable, can be considered 'home base'. Whenever they are covered and the right pressure used, the ocarina will sound the note of its key—C if you have a C ocarina. The diagrams below depict equivalent fingerings for a 10 hole ocarina with a split pinky hole, and a 12 hole ocarina with 'Taiwanese' style subholes. Different subhole configurations exist which are explained later. Notice that the fingerings of the 10 main holes does not change.

The circles positioned next to the diagram represent, from left to right, the left and right thumb holes. Black means that the hole is covered, and white means it is uncovered.

10 hole

12 hole

As an ocarina's pitch depends on the total area of open holes, you can play higher notes by opening holes. Beginning at the fingering given above, you can play a major scale by lifting your fingers from right to left. The examples given here show a C ocarina, but the same fingerings apply to ocarinas in any key; just substitute the notes of that key, such as G A B C D E F♯ G for a G ocarina. The fingerings are as follows:

  • First, lifting the right pinky sounds the second note of the scale.
  • Lifting the ring finger sounds the third.
  • The middle finger sounds the fourth scale note.
  • Finally, and the index finger sounds the fifth.

Note that low C on the staff technically refers to C4 or middle C. Ocarinas typically consider this 'low C', regardless of their octave.

The next notes are played by the left hand:

  • The sixth is played by lifting the left ring finger.
  • The seventh of the scale is played by lifting the left middle finger.
  • Lifting the left index finger sounds the octave.

I have seen a lot of people instinctively lift the left pinky instead of the ring finger, which is wrong. The pinky is used to support the instrument and to play one of its highest notes. Incidentally, this pattern of using the ring finger is the same as the concert flute, recorder, and tin whistle.

There are two different fingering systems in existence for the second octave: Asian and Italian. The Asian system is the most common. In this fingering the high notes are played as follows:

  • The second octave begins by lifting the left thumb to play D.
  • The right thumb is rolled off to play E.
  • Finally, the left pinky is lifted last to sound the highest note.

The Italian fingering is almost identical, and just reverses the ordering of two notes. Instead of playing the E on the right thumb (assuming a C instrument), you play it on the pinky. This is arguably superior as it allows one more note to be played without moving the right thumb and thus [removing the instrument's primary support point. The downside of this system is that it makes the pinky hole a lot bigger and is thus impractical for lower pitched ocarinas, and can be a problem for people with small hands.

Subhole notes

Many ocarinas have subholes, which add a range extension below the fingerings shown previously. On an C ocarina, subholes allow you to play B and, theoretically, A on a 12 hole. They are handled by sliding the finger forwards, covering two holes with the pad of a finger. The fingerings for a 12 hole ocarina are shown below. On an 11 hole ocarina, the fingering is the same but the second subhole does not exist, and the single subhole may be placed on either finger.

As was noted in 'Ocarina keys and pitch ranges', subholes do have limitations. 12 holes is on the limit of what an ocarina is physically able to do, and having two subholes tends to be a compromise. The second subhole is usually tuned with a pressure drop leaving the note very quiet; in practice, it is more useable as a B♭. These notes also have ergonomic problems as sliding fingers is harder than lifting and placing them.

Several different configurations of subholes exist. In the Taiwanese system one subhole is positioned on each hand for the middle fingers. If the second subhole instead appears in the position of the right index finger, the ocarina has 'Japanese' subholes. The numbers indicate which order they are covered in when descending the diatonic scale.

Taiwanese subholes

Japanese subholes

On an 11 hole ocarina, the single subhole can be positioned for either middle finger. In general when a subhole is being played the right hand fingers are quite active. Putting the subhole on the left index finger divides the work between the hands, although the ergonomic difference is quite minor.

11 hole left hand

11 hole right hand

Personally, I don't find subholes very useful. They can serve as passing weak notes, but you generally wouldn't want to start or finish a performance on them unless you are deliberately aiming for a weak effect. If you wish to use lower notes in a performance, I think playing a multichambered ocarina in a lower key is superior, such as a double alto G.

The chromatic notes

In most cases, the ocarina's chromatic notes do not have holes of their own. They are played by 'cross fingering', covering the holes out of sequence. This works as the whole chamber is always oscillating, and the sounded pitch is determined by the total area of open holes. The following shows some example cross fingerings, but do note that the pitch produced by a cross fingering depends on the acoustic behaviour of a given chamber. Consequently, the best tuned fingerings vary from one ocarina to another, and especially between ocarinas in different octaves. I recommend instead using the fingerings given in the fingering chart for your ocarina.

The above fingerings show the application of a split hole, covering only one of the holes to play the sharp. Cross fingerings result in well tuned accidentals on higher notes because there are many possible combinations available, so there is a good chance one of them will be well tuned. This is not true of the low notes, and playing C♯ with a subhole forces a compromise between the sub hole and the C♯. Split holes can significantly improve the tuning of the accidental, as they give it a dedicated hole.

Split holes are common on 10 hole ocarinas, as the only way to play the sharp otherwise is to partially vent a hole. Split holes are also very common on the higher chambers of multichambered ocarinas for the same reason.

Alternate fingerings

Because the pitch of an ocarina depends mostly on the total area of open finger holes, you can frequently play notes using fingerings different from the ones shown. These are sometimes given in the fingering chart for your instrument, but often you have to work them out by experimentation. Alternative fingerings can be used for a number of reasons, including to simplify a fast passage, play microtones and, with enough skill, to create volume dynamics.

Generally, the fingerings given in a fingering chart are chosen such that the breath curve increases smoothly between sequential notes. This is often not true of alternative fingerings, which may require an irregular increase or decrease in blowing pressure. Because of this, the primary fingering should be preferred as it will balance better with the volume of surrounding notes.

Alternate fingerings can be used to deliberately make notes stand out. They can also be useful at speed. When playing fast, rhythmic errors are often more obvious than the pitches of individual notes. Consequently, it is OK to allow tuning to drift slightly if it allows you to play smoothly.

Alternative fingerings also allow you to vary the volume of the instrument. This can be achieved by finding a fingering that is sharp or flat, then compensating by changing your pressure, and thus correcting the pitch and changing the volume. In many cases this requires partially venting holes, so it takes a lot of skill to control.

Ocarina keys and pitch ranges The ocarina's breath curve and tuning

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