What are ocarinas capable of?

To understand the ocarina's capability, it is important to take the right point of view: the ocarina is a limited instrument which works brilliantly in some situations. All instruments have their strengths and weaknesses, and much of the skill involved in creating a musical performance is knowing the situations where a given instrument can hold its own.

Ocarinas can play quite a wide range of music from lyrical vocal melodies to more upbeat music like Scottish dance tunes. They are functionally similar to the tin whistle, Uilleann pipe, and cornemuse du Centre. They can also play in a wide range of scenarios, solo, in ensemble with other ocarinas, and with other instruments.

My own experience is limited to solo playing and I have found ocarinas very effective as a lead instrument in live performances. The pure tone always rises to the top of a mix and easily cuts through a raucous crowd. They have proven very effective at getting people's attention as I have silenced the audience at many open mics.

Ocarinas are also played in groups.

Technical capabilities

Articulation

Articulation refers to how the notes in a performance are separated, and ocarinas can articulate notes in a number of ways. Firstly, notes can be articulated using the tongue to control the breath. Multiple notes can be slurred together in a continuous breath.

Ocarinas can also create articulation using cuts and strikes, pitched articulations commonly used in Celtic folk music. They involve sounding a higher or lower pitch for such a short duration that it is perceived as an atonal blip or click. These sounds can be used in much the same way as tonging.

Ornamentation

Ocarinas respond very quickly to both changes in breath pressure and in fingering. This allows them to perform a wide range of ornamentation, including:

  • Breath and finger slides
  • Vibrato
  • Trills
  • Turns
  • Mordants
  • Grace notes

Celtic ornaments like including rolls, cranns, and strike cranns may also be easily performed. These are essentially an ornamental articulation of multiple sequential notes.

Varying timbre

There are a few ways of varying the timbre of an ocarina:

  • By humming or singing while blowing.
  • By varying initial blowing pressure. Starting a note abruptly can cause it to briefly squeak, creating a percussive effect.
  • If multiple ocarinas are used the timbre of the instrument can vary a lot, from extremely pure to noticeably 'buzzy'.

Volume dynamics

As the pitch of an ocarina varies with blowing pressure you cannot create volume dynamics by changing blowing pressure alone. Volume dynamics can be attained if the player both increases or decreases their blowing pressure, and simultaneously partially covers or vents a hole to correct the pitch.

Microtones

As the pitch of an ocarina can be bent multiple semitones sharp or flat with blowing pressure, playing microtones is easy. To do so you just choose a fingering that gives a pitch close to the desired one, and increase or decrease blowing pressure as required.

Achieving this reliably requires both a good ear, and good breath control. Using alternative fingerings may allow the desired pitch to be attained at a higher or lower volume.

Creating expression

Given that their pitch changes with blowing pressure, ocarinas only sound in tune at one pressure for a given fingering. Creating volume dynamics is technically possible, but challenging. Thus expression is mostly created using varied articulation and ornamentation.

First, ocarinas have a natural volume dynamic whereby the high notes are considerably louder than the low notes. If you are composing your own own music, this can be kept in mind. You can also look for existing music where the strong notes are always higher notes.

Notes can be emphasized by beginning them with an different articulation, or ornamentation. They can be deemphasised by reducing the notes duration. Short staccato notes create an impression of lower volume. I find this technique useful when playing with other musicians.

Sliding into or out of a note with the breath can give an impression of volume dynamics, but must be done with care. As pitch changes, one needs to ensure that a pitch slide begins or ends in tune.

The instrument's unstable pitch is also an effective expressive tool. Vibrato can be used to draw attention to notes. Rhythmic, subtle de-tunings may be used to imply an underlying beat, and the intonation of notes in itself can be used expressively to create tension and various effects.

Things that ocarinas aren't good at

Like all instruments, there are a number of things that ocarinas are naturally poor at. The same characteristics that make the instrument effective at lead melody make it function poorly as an accompanying instrument. They are too prominent and steal focus from the lead.

As noted previously, ocarinas have an innate volume dynamic leaving the high notes much louder. Consequently, they work well in some pieces of music, and terribly if the situation calls for a loud low note. Even if a player is good enough to control volume dynamics, the range of control is quite limited. The highest notes will always be louder than the lowest notes, as they have a minimum pressure to create a clean tone, and the low notes can only be pushed so much before they sound too harsh.

Lastly, ocarinas have a limited sounding range, meaning that there is a lot of music they cannot play. Multichambers do a lot to address this, but their range is still limited, and some note transitions are technically difficult. Music selection is very important. There is no guarantee that anything you may want to play will actually fit on the instrument unmodified.

Closing

People often consider instruments as having built-in capabilities. For example, the recorder is often dismissed as a child's instrument, whereas the violin and piano are considered 'real' instruments to which skilled musicians will aspire. If you actually take the time to examine this assumption, however, you will see that it is flawed. The recorder, violin, and piano are all inanimate objects. All they can do by themselves is gather dust.

Because of how they are viewed in culture, violins and pianos have numerous virtuoso players, people who have put in the effort to create truly moving performances. As people often look down on the recorder, few discover its full potential but, if you look into it, you'll discover that recorder virtuosos do exist. They produce truly excellent music with their seemingly simple and limited instruments.

Visually simple instruments often hide their potential underneath their appearances, and the ocarina is no exception. If you explore its potential, you'll find that the ocarina more capable than you think.