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 can be really confusing if you are looking for a serious musical instrument, 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 identify playable ocarinas from this soup.
Be aware that ocarinas are normally made from clay, and all of the types listed here 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. Sculptural ocarinas can be designed with ergonomics in mind, but 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.
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.
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 questionable that the word existed at the time. I think it would be more appropriate to use a native Peruvian name for them, even if it was anglicised.
English pendant ocarinas (4/5/6 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 marginal as musical instruments. Production quality and tuning accuracy varies between makers, and 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.
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 usually have at least 8 finger holes on top with 2 thumb holes and use a linear fingering system similar to the flute or tin whistle. Transverse ocarinas are fully chromatic, achieving chromatic notes by covering the existing holes in a different order, a technique called cross fingering.
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. Conversely, 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.
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 before is critical.
Ocarinas must provide areas for you to support the instrument while playing the high notes. Most critically, there must be space to rest your right pinky finger next to its hole. A different technique called the palm grip entails grabbing the end of the chamber, and if this is going to be used, this section of the chamber must be longer to avoid shading finger holes. Any ocarina that butts the right pinky hole right up against the end of the chamber is a bad instrument.
It is also possible to use the left index finger to support the ocarina on the high notes, so having a similar space beside the left index hole is also very useful.
The two diagrams below contrast a good and bad design. In the good design, a notable space is left besides the right and leftmost 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. 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 it 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, 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.
Ocarinas should have a clean 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.
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. 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 in the pictures, 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 important as it determines if the instrument will balance on the primary balance plane. Thus, the location of this hole is forced by the ocarina's weight distribution. 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. An ocarina designed in this way may have a forced misalignment between the finger and thumb holes and that 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 this variance should be regular. Large irregular changes between close notes generally indicate a poorly made ocarina.
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 4 different finishes: fired glazes, natural shellac, synthetic finishes, 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 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 2 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.
It is worth noting that the ergonomics of inline ocarinas differ from transverse ocarinas. They retain two thumb holes, 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.
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.
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 is 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.
While the majority of multichambered ocarinas available today are designed to produce a larger sounding range, other multichambered ocarinas are designed to play in harmony with themselves. These instruments can sound wonderful in the right setting, but are very limited due to technical constraints.
The technical challenge of making an ocarina play in harmony with itself imposes a minimum standard of quality, and objectively bad ones are rare. However, harmony ocarinas are not standardised at all, with shape and fingering varying between makers. They usually resemble something like the following image, with two separate chambers, one played by the left hand and one by the right.
As noted, harmony ocarinas are technically limited, and these limitations arise form the fact that the pitch of an ocarina changes a great deal with blowing pressure. If you have two chambers blown by a single player, either both chambers must be tuned to sound at a constant pressure, or they must always be played at a fixed interval. Otherwise different pressures would be required, and the instrument goes out of tune with itself.
Tuning all of the notes to sound at the same pressure allows for the most versatility, as arbitrary notes can be fingered. Yet this may not produce the best tone quality. The pressure required to produce a clean sound on an ocarina tends to increase as holes are opened, as the air can escape more easily.
Alternately, tuning with an identical pressure curve allows the instrument to play in harmony at a fixed interval, by using identical fingerings on both chambers. This is more limiting as, with such a tuning, fingering different notes will cause the ocarina to go out of tune. It is possible to correct for this somewhat by shading the windway of the sharp chamber with the tongue or lips.
Many harmony ocarinas use a very wide sound hole with the labium close to the exit of the windway, as this design allows for a flatter pressure curve. But while this helps, it doesn't fully solve the problem. 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.
The fingering systems of harmony ocarinas typically assign one hand to one chamber. This allows them to be played independently, but is also limiting as fewer fingers are available for each chamber. A linier fingering system, where each finger is assigned to a note sequentially, means that only about 6 notes can be played on each chamber.
The example below depicts such a fingering with the chambers tuned at an interval of a fifth. The chambers have identical fingerings, but sound different notes. The top letter is the note sounded by one chamber and the lower letter the note sounded by the other. 1, 2, 3, 4 and T are the fingers: pinky, ring, middle, index, and thumb.
Some harmony ocarinas utilise a variation of the 4 hole cross fingered system, where each chamber has a separate 4 hole pattern arranged linearly, fingered by 4 fingers of each hand. With this system each chamber can attain a range of about an octave, but the accuracy of tuning of varies between fingerings, as this fingering system is a compromise.
The example fingering below demonstrates an ocarina with two chambers tuned to the same base pitch, so using the same fingering on both chambers would sound the same note. Ocarinas using this system may also be tuned with the chambers at a different base interval, like the previous example with linier fingering.
Transverse double, triple, and quad ocarinas may be able to sound in harmony close to their chamber break. Ocarinas made by Giorgio Pacchioni for instance allow a small number of thirds, fourths and fifths to be played in this way. Transverse multichambers are more often designed to produce a larger range, and there is no guarantee that any given ocarina will be able to do this unless it was designed to by the maker. See 'The fingering systems of multichamber ocarinas'.
Closing notes on harmony ocarinas
While they are technically limited harmony ocarinas have been used in impressive performances, such as those by Nancy Rumbel. Due to their limitations, I believe that harmony ocarinas are best suited as an instrument for improvisation.
Another related topic is the playing of regular ocarinas in ensemble, which avoids the technical limitations of harmony ocarinas. However this, and how to approach playing harmony ocarinas, really needs to be addressed by someone with more experience.