Identifying playable ocarinas

In common language, the term 'ocarina' is often used as a catch-all term for vessel flutes, instruments based on a hollow chamber. This situation can be really confusing, as the term can refer to anything from serious musical instruments to untuned whistles with no finger holes. While classifiers do exist for these different types, many mainstream outlets don't know what they are selling, and you will see all of these listed blindly under the term 'ocarina'. This page gives an overview of what you are going to encounter, and features to look out for to help you find playable ocarinas from this soup.

Be aware that ocarinas are normally made from clay, and all of the types listed below can be found in sculptural forms, including serious instruments. While ocarinas can function in many shapes, this is usually at the expense of playability. How playable an instrument is depends on how it relates to the human body and hands, called ergonomics. While sculptural ocarinas can be designed with ergonomics in mind, they often do the opposite, forcing the hand to fit around the design. This is difficult to recognise without experience, and I do not recommend them as a first ocarina for this reason.

Clay whistles

As the name implies, they are whistles made from clay. Generally, they are sculptural and only sound a small range of pitch by varying blowing pressure, though they are also found with one or two untuned finger holes. These should be considered art pieces or novelty items as they are not tuned. Avoid them if you are looking for a playable instrument.

Peruvian 'ocarinas'

These are easily identified by their oval shape, and are normally made from red clay with artistic designs on the top. They are modern reproductions of historic South American instruments made as tourist items. As such, they are poorly made and normally no effort has been made to tune them. You can easily identify untuned ocarinas as all of the finger holes will be the same size. If you want a serious instrument, these should be avoided universally. They only have value as art pieces. .

I have quoted the word 'ocarinas' in the heading, as it is doubtful they were actually called this historically. The word 'ocarina' comes from a dialect of Italian and is known to have existed in the 19th century, although its exact origin is unknown. As far as I know, the South American vessel flutes are considerably older than this, and thus it is doubtful the word existed at the time. It would be much more appropriate to use a native Peruvian name for them, even if it was anglicised.

English pendant ocarinas (4/6 hole ocarinas)

These go under several names including 'English pendant ocarina', 'pendant ocarina', and '4/5/6 hole ocarina'. Pendants have 4 to 6 holes and are able to sound about an octave and a 3rd, using binary-like fingering system. They are easily recognised, having 4 finger holes on the top with 0–2 thumb holes. Pendant ocarinas are usually round, although they are also made in various sculptural forms, including birds and other animals.

In my opinion, they are very marginal as musical instruments. Production quality and tuning accuracy vary enormously as they are frequently made as novelty items. Even in a well made example, this tuning system is a compromise; if you measure the tuning of the notes, you'll find tuning can vary by as much as half a semitone flat or sharp. While this can be compensated for with breath pressure, it places additional work on the player. These irregular changes in blowing pressure also make the timbre and volume of adjacent notes sound unbalanced.

The 4 hole system also offers little flexibility with ornamentation, as there are so few holes. Performing a pitch side normally requires sliding two or more fingers at once and, in many cases, ornaments like trills or mordants are practically impossible due to the tight multi-finger control it would entail. Some chromatic notes can only be performed by half-covering holes, and the rounded shape of these leaves a lot to be desired from an ergonomic perspective since fingers can easily slide off the instrument.

Because of these issues, I don't think they are worth the effort, besides possibly as a challenge for an experienced musician. Transverse ocarinas exist and have none of these problems. Because their pitch is so unstable, ocarinas are already challenging to play in tune, so dealing with the tuning irregularities and ornamental limitations of the 4 hole system on top of this is just making unneeded work for yourself. I'd only consider them as art pieces or novelty items.

Transverse ocarinas

As the name implies, transverse ocarinas are held across the body similar to a flute. Yet they are both shorter and wider, being shaped like a cone with a protruding mouthpiece. They have roughly 8 finger holes on top, with two thumb holes and use a linear fingering system similar to the flute or tin whistle. Transverse ocarinas are fully chromatic, achieving chromatic notes using cross fingering—that is, covering the existing holes in a different order.

Transverse ocarinas are on the whole designed as serious instruments, but their quality varies a great deal. Before getting into specifics, there are a number of plastic examples on the market which should be avoided outright. These are easily identified as they have a notable ridge around the centre of the chamber. Most of the notes are over a semitone out of tune and the voicing is really poor, resulting in a unpleasant harsh and airy timbre.

How the ocarina is balanced

An ocarina's balance plays a large part in whether or not it is comfortable to play. This is especially important with single chambers as they have two thumb holes. A poorly balanced instrument will be difficult to play and will feel a lot heavier than a well balanced one—at best, making your job harder and, at worst, causing hand or wrist pain.

Ocarinas have two planes of balance, primary and secondary. The primary plane runs between the right thumb hole and the right tail of the ocarina. It allows you to support the instrument using only the right thumb and pinky when held parallel to the ground.

The secondary plane runs between the left pinky hole and the mouthpiece. It is less important, being used in combination with the primary and rarely, if ever, by itself. Note that this plane can only be used when the pinky hole is placed on the side of the instrument.

Poorly balanced ocarinas will fail to balance on one or both of these planes. Of the two, the primary plane is absolutely essential, and an ocarina with no primary balance will be very difficult to play. In absence of it, many more fingers must be used to support the ocarina, preventing them from serving their normal function. There are two things to consider when evaluating an ocarina's primary balance plane: how the ocarina is balanced left to right, and how it balances front to back.

Left to right, an ocarina should balance between the right thumb and pinky, with a slight upward force on the pinky, when the instrument is parallel to the ground. If the ocarina falls away from the right pinky when you try to do this, you have a bad instrument. Inversely, if you feel an excessive amount of force pushing up on the right pinky, this is also poor balance and may lead to hand pain.

Front to back, the ocarina should either balance perfectly or have a slight tendency to roll toward the mouthpiece. Any ocarina which rolls forward is a bad instrument and will be exceptionally difficult to play. Working around this demands that more fingers support the instrument, as noted previously.

On visually centred designs, it is not uncommon to see small or large protrusions added to ocarinas for aesthetic preposes. Unless their mass is counterbalanced by adding the same amount of mass to the opposite side of the balance plane, this will upset the instrument's balance. Such features will also get in the way of the hands, forcing them into a given posture which may or may not be uncomfortable for you. Consequently, you should avoid such designs if looking for a serious instrument.

Chamber shape

The physical shape of an ocarina must serve two functions: it must work acoustically and it must be ergonomic. While ocarinas will make a sound in many shapes, the ergonomic demands make the majority of these unplayable, or at least not optimal.

The ergonomics of single chambered ocarinas are quite complicated because they have two thumb holes; the right thumb both supports the instrument and plays a note. In order to deal with this, the primary balance plane mentioned above is critical. Because of this, ocarinas must have space to rest the right pinky finger next to its hole. If the palm grip is going to be used, this section needs to be considerably longer so that the player isn't inadvertently shading finger holes. Consequently, any ocarina that butts the right pinky hole right up against the end of the chamber is a bad instrument.

The two diagrams below contrast a good and bad design. In the good design, a notable space is left besides the right and left pinky holes, shown by the vertical lines. The right hand section of the chamber is pretty straight to prevent the pinky finger sliding off the end of the chamber. It is also possible to use the right pinky finger to support the ocarina, so having a similar space beside the left pinky hole is also very useful. Contrast this with the bad design; the chamber is very rounded with the holes butted right up against the end of the chamber. There is nowhere to rest the pinky to support the instrument, and utilising the palm grip is almost impossible because the rounded shape offers nowhere to grip. Consequently, such designs feel unstable in the hand.

As was implied in previous sections, features added for visual effect often work against playability. For example, placing a protrusion on the inside of the tail may look good, but will dig into your hand if you use the palm grip. Curved chambers can also look good but cause numerous problems; if the chamber curls away from the mouthpiece as shown below, the instrument will tend to be front-heavy. The ergonomics are also poor as the left hand must turn inwards more than normal to counteract the curve. The overlaid lines show the average angles of the two hands. The opposite of this design, with the chamber curling toward the player, is even worse as the centre of balance is a long way back. The right hand is scrunched very close to the face and the tail slopes inwards, encouraging the pinky to slide off the end of the chamber.

Sound

Ocarinas should have a pure sound underlain by a small amount of airiness, and this sound should be fairly consistent over the whole range. Airiness will increase towards the high notes, as they must be blown harder, but this should never drown out the ocarina's primary tone. An ocarina which sounds especially harsh or airy indicates either that it is being blown too hard, or its voicing and windway are terrible. Listen to the sound samples below. To me, that second sound sample is unpleasant to listen to; the tone contains a large portion of wind noise and has a harsh edge.

Good sound

Bad sound

If an ocarina sounds fine on its low notes, but its high notes are exceptionally airy, this can also signify a bad instrument. But do note that ocarinas are very sensitive to playing technique, particularly on the high notes, so this can also indicate poor player technique. If an ocarina is sold as 'needing an acute bend', it is probably a bad instrument. 10 and 11 hole ocarinas typically don't have this problem, and multichambers are vastly superior to 12 hole ocarinas if you want more range.

Hole placement and size

Hole placement is a somewhat difficult topic to discuss, as everyone's hands are different. Thus, what works for one player may not for another. The main point to note is that an ocarina's hole placement should never force your wrist to fold hard forward or backward. The fingers are controlled by muscles in the forearm through a number of long tendons. These run through a small channel in the wrist, and folding the wrist hard in either direction compresses it. Consequently, playing with the wrist in this position for a long time is liable to cause repetitive strain issues and/or wrist pain.

For my own hands, keeping the wrist straight entails having my fingertips directly above my thumb, evident from the pictures above. But as everyone's hands are different, this may or may not work for you. You can get an idea of the relative lengths of your fingers if you hold your hand like above, with the wrist straight and your thumb as horizontal as possible. Keep a slight curl along your fingers and note where the fingertips are relative to your thumb. Notice that the angle of your palm relative to the thumb and the angle of your forearm also matter.

While ocarina makers rarely document the hole alignment of their instrument, you can learn to recognise it from photographs. For example, a design which places the right hand finger holes very close to the edge of the chamber would work if you happen to have a long thumb relative to your fingers, but would force the wrist to fold if you don't. A reasonable starting point is to look for an ocarina where the finger holes are placed directly opposite the thumb holes, and you can normally adapt from this by allowing your fingers to overhang the holes. 10 hole ocarinas are in theory better able to adapt to differences in players' hands, as there is no need to hold fingers back to avoid covering subholes unintentionally.

The placement of the right thumb hole is extremity important as it determines if the instrument will balance on the primary balance plane. The location of this hole is forced by the ocarina's weight distribution because the ocarina must balance on the right thumb. Ideally, an ocarina will be designed to balance such that the thumb hole aligns well with the finger holes, but this isn't always the case. I suspect that it is fairly common to design the instrument first, then put the right thumb hole wherever the design happens to balance, instead of changing the overall design of the instrument. An ocarina designed in this way may have a forced misalignment between the finger and thumb holes, and may be a problem depending on your hand proportions.

Hole placement is frequently one of the biggest compromises made in sculptural ocarinas, as the design is often made first and the holes placed to fit around it, not the player's hands. This often forces the hands to make awkward compensations like folding the wrists back, and may cause hand pain as a result.

Breath curves and tuning

As holes are opened, air can escape and an ocarina will become increasingly airy sounding. To compensate for this, the player has to blow harder. How the pressure changes from note to note is called an ocarina's breath curve. Breath curves vary a great deal between ocarinas: they can be relatively flat, or ramp up exponentially towards the high end. You can get a reasonable idea of the pressure required to play an ocarina by looking at the sizes of the finger holes. Larger holes generally indicate an ocarina tuned a higher pressure, but this isn't foolproof as hole size also depends on chamber shape and wall thickness.

The breath curve should be relatively consistent over the entirety of an ocarina's range, with no large arbitrary changes. You can verify this by checking the tuning of sequential notes. If you finger a note, then lift the finger for the note above without changing your breath pressure, this note will fall flat. You can measure these changes using a chromatic tuner; they may gradually increase or decrease between sequential notes, but should not arbitrarily increase and decrease by a large amount within a note or two. Large changes generally indicate a poorly made ocarina.

Good breath curve

Poor breath curve

Surface finish

Because general playing technique requires sliding fingers over the surface of the instrument, surface finish has a big impact on playability. Ocarinas are commonly available with 3 different finishes: fired glazes, natural shellac, or the plain finish of the ceramic itself. Excessively smooth and shiny finishes can pose problems. If you have any moisture on your fingers, the skin will tend to cling. This is not a problem with plain finish ocarinas as the earthenware absorbs finger moisture. It is also far less of a problem with rougher 'matte' glazes and shellac. In any case, applying a small amount of talk or chalk dust to the fingers greatly reduces this problem. It prevents the gripping surface of the skin touching the instrument.

Finishes which are excessively textured, often for sculptural effect, can also be a problem. Unlike texture on a microscopic scale, this will frequently physically block the fingers from sliding over the surface, unless an ocarina is designed such that the areas around its finger holes are left smooth.

Inline ocarinas

Inline ocarinas are very similar to transverse ocarinas, but the windway and chamber are inline with each other, resembling a tubular instrument, but shorter and wider. They are usually rectangular in shape and use a fingering system that is identical, or very close to a transverse. Thus, you will find roughly 8 holes on top, with two thumb holes. Inlines are generally designed as serious instruments, and I don't have much to say that hasn't already been said in the previous section.

The ergonomics of inline ocarinas differ. They retain two thumb holes like transverse ocarinas, but due to their design typically lack the balance planes found in a transverse. In the rectangular designs, supporting the instrument on the high notes is instead achieved by pressing the pinky finger against the end of the instrument, balancing it between the pinky and the lips. This works in higher pitched instruments but doesn't scale that well, as increasing the chamber volume both increases the weight of the instrument and moves it farther from the body, increasing leverage. Transverse ocarinas don't have this issue, as the design keeps the weight closer to the body. The instrument is normally balanced perfectly on the primary plane.

I'd question the playability of ocarinas which are both perfectly inline and rounded in shape. Due to the absence of the balance planes, there is usually no good way of supporting such an ocarina on its high notes. The trick with the pinky is generally not effective if the chamber is rounded, as there is nothing to grip.

Multichambered ocarinas

Most multichambered ocarinas are a direct extension of the single chambered transverse design. Their fingering system is almost identical, but additional chambers are added to extend the range. Note that there are multis which instead focus on harmony. These are covered in the next section.

Once you get into multichambers, the percentage of novelty items or poor quality instruments reduces a lot, so you have a lot less to worry about. The points made regarding single chambers mostly apply to multis as well, though there are three things you should look out for: physical balance, the design of the mouthpiece, and pressure balance between chambers.

Physical balance

Like a single chamber, how a multichamber balances has a big impact on its playability. It is very useful to retain the ability to balance the instrument between the right thumb and pinky. As most multichambers lack a right thumb hole, this makes the instrument effortless to support. Triples and quads will often balance like this, as the third chamber counterbalances the first. Achieving this balance in a double is more tricky, and generally requires using the mouthpiece to counterbalance the first chamber. The mouthpiece must be angled to do this effectively, so I'd question the balance of double ocarinas lacking an angled mouthpiece.

The shape of the mouthpiece

Each chamber of a multichambered ocarina has its own windway and typically only one is blown at a time. The air is directed into the desired windway by forming an aperture between your lips. As the interior of the lips are rounded, it is easiest to do so when the mouthpiece is also rounded in a complementary way. However, it is not uncommon to see multichambers with the mouthpiece coming to a sharp rectangular edge. This isn't very ergonomic, and will dig into your lips.

Pressure balance between chambers

Like the pressure curve of a single chambered ocarina should be regular over its sounding range, the same should be true of a multichamber. When you play through the instrument linearly, the pressure should increase regularly across the first chamber, and this should continue onto the second. There should be no irregular increase or decrease between two chambers.

Because an ocarina's breath curve is approximately exponential, maintaining a completely regular pressure change over the entirety of a multichamber is impossible, as the high notes would be tuned to an insanely high pressure and would squeak. Instead, the second and higher chambers are usually tuned with a flatter increase. This is possible as smaller chambers are easier to drive, and the higher chambers produce less range than the first.

Harmony ocarinas

The majority of multichambered ocarinas are designed to produce a larger sounding range, not play in harmony. Some transverse doubles and triples can sound in harmony close to their chamber break, although this is not their main focus. Other multichambered ocarinas are designed explicitly to play in harmony. They can sound wonderful, but are very limited due to technical constraints.

The problem with harmony ocarinas is that pitch changes with blowing pressure, and a given fingering only sounds good within a limited pressure range. If you have two chambers blown by a single player, this is a problem. The only way to have both chambers receive the optimal amount of pressure is to always have them play at a fixed interval, such as a 3rd or 5th. If different notes are fingered, different pressures are required and the instrument goes out of tune with itself. One of the notes will be underblown and the other overblown, which also negatively affects timbre.

This pressure difference can be addressed to some extent by using a very wide sound hole with the labium very close to the exit of the windway. But while this helps, it doesn't fully solve the problem. Ocarinas are lossy instruments; as holes are opened, more air is needed to drive the chamber. Such a voicing design will sound at the same pressure over a larger range, but total range is reduced. This voicing design also creates a relatively 'buzzy' timbre which many players don't seem to like.

One player playing two chambers simultaneously means that the hands must be divided between the chambers, leaving at most 5 fingers per chamber. This limits fingering options; only about 6 notes can be attained with a linear fingering, though more could be added with multiple split holes at the cost of ergonomics. Adopting the 4 hole system may appear to be a solution, but that causes more problems due to unavoidable tuning errors. Playing such an instrument in tune would require a lot of partial hole venting, and the issue with overblowing would result in poor timbre even if this was done.

I don't think that these are 'bad', but they are very limited. In my opinion, ensemble playing offers much more scope for playing ocarinas in harmony and creating musically interesting results. An electronic simulation of an ocarina could bypass these problems to some extent, but the limited number of available fingers would still be a problem. The design of keyboard and stringed instruments better address that, as there is no need to simultaneously depress all of the keys or finger every fret, and the whole hand can be moved to reach higher or lower notes.

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