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. Limited does not mean useless, and no instrument is inherently 'better' than any other. Music is a collage of sound, and which instruments are best depends on the desired musical effect. Musical interest comes from the interplay of multiple instruments, rarely any single instrument in isolation.

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. In my experience, ocarinas are most effective as a solo instrument with limited simple accompaniment. The pure tone always rises to the top of a mix and easily cuts through a raucous crowd. I've found them very effective at getting people's attention and have silenced the audience at many open mics with the ocarina.

Ocarinas can be used to play quite a wide range of music from lyrical vocal melodies to more upbeat music like Irish dance tunes. The musical function of the ocarina is similar to the tin whistle, Uilleann pipe, and cornemuse du centre. Single chambers sound about an octave and a fourth, with multichambers breaking two octaves. Ocarinas respond very quickly to both pressure changes, and to finger movements.

As their pitch is highly unstable, ocarinas only sound in tune at one pressure for a given fingering. Creating emphasis and phrasing thus depends on varied articulation and effective application of ornamentation. Ocarinas have a natural volume dynamic whereby the high notes are considerably louder than the low. Varying from this is technically possible, but requires considerable player skill to achieve reliably; this is covered below.

Regarding articulation and ornamentation: like all wind instruments, notes can be articulated using the tongue and by slurring multiple notes in a continuous breath. Ocarinas can also create articulation using cuts and strikes, pitched articulations commonly used in Celtic folk music. They work by sounding a higher or lower pitch for such a short duration that it is perceived as an atonal blip or click. They are placed exactly on the sub-beat and function very similarly to tonguing. They can be used interchangeably with it.

Possible ornamentation includes breath and finger slides, vibrato, trills, turns, mordants, and grace notes under limited circumstances. Ornamentation can also be created using cuts and strikes, including rolls, cranns, and strike cranns—essentially an ornamental articulation of multiple sequential notes. While it's a challenge for new players to control, the unstable pitch is also an effective expressive tool. Rhythmic, subtle de-tunings may be used to imply an underlying beat, and the intonation of notes in itself can be used expressively. Blue notes being a practical example.

Ocarinas are capable of varying their tone colour to a limited extent. It is possible to colour the ocarina's tone by singing while playing. Varying the posture of the mouth and the angle at which the instrument is blown affects how airy the sound is, and varying the pressure at the start of a note varies the sound of its attack. If a note is tongued beginning with a lot of pressure, it will begin with a brief squeak. This is easiest to do on the high notes. There is additional freedom if multiple ocarinas are used, as timbre can vary from extremely pure to noticeably 'buzzy'.

While true volume dynamics are technically difficult, they can be implied in a number of ways. One way to do so is to play a pitch slide into the note using the breath. This causes both the pitch and volume to ramp up, and as long as the note starts or finishes in tune, the result sounds fine. As the note's volume changes over its duration, it is perceived as quieter than it actually is. A similar effect can be created by varying note duration: short stacatto notes, for example, create an impression of lower volume.

Ocarinas work best when paired with limited and simple accompaniment like Acoustic guitar, ukulele, harp, and piano. An ocarina's tone is close to but not exactly a pure sine wave: they have other tonal components including some quiet overtones and a portion of wind noise. These things are required to make the instrument listenable. However, it's very easy to drown them out with overpowering accompaniment, leaving you with an unpleasant sound as a result.

I feel that the ocarina is best used as a 'seasoning' among other instruments. Their pure sound is enjoyable in short bursts, but can become fatiguing over long periods of time.

Difficult techniques

There are a number of things that the ocarina technically can do that require considerable player skill to pull off. True volume dynamics are one of these. The ocarina's pitch depends on the total area of open holes, and blowing pressure changes both volume and pitch simultaneously. Consequently, volume dynamics can be attained by partially covering or venting a hole and changing one's pressure so the note sounds in tune at a higher or lower volume. Extending from this, it would be theoretically possible to combine a descending finger slide with an ascending breath slide. If synchronised, they would cancel, resulting in the volume raising while the pitch stays almost constant.

Microtones beyond the 12 tone scale are also possible. The ocarina's pitch is highly unstable and most notes can be bent multiple semitones sharp and flat. Consequently, doing this is really just a matter of using the right breath pressure to sound at the desired pitch, and would require a very good ear to control. It is possible to simplify this using alternative fingerings in some circumstances, and it can be combined with partially venting holes to create volume dynamics.

Playing ocarinas in unison is possible, but is also difficult to do. If multiple ocarinas sound the same note simultaneously but are out of tune, an audible beating results. When the pitches are close, this can add a pleasant depth to the sound. Large errors, however, sound obnoxious. Pulling this off requires a very tight connection between the players; it is easiest with two people and only gets harder from there. With more players, it becomes increasingly difficult for any single individual to even hear when they are in tune, without reference from an instrument with a different timbre.

When playing in a group, it is more common to have an ensemble of players (normally 7) playing ocarinas in different keys and octaves. This tradition goes back to the early origin of the instrument in Budrio. The octave separation makes slight errors are far less obvious.

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 always tend to rise to the top of the mix and stand out too much, stealing focus from the lead. That being said, lower pitched ocarinas can be effective for infill and interludes.

Singular ocarinas also tend to blend poorly when playing in unison with a large number of other instruments. When a large group of people play in unison on the same instrument, such as the flute, there are always slight tuning errors. As long as they are not excessive, these serve to add an interest and depth to the sound. However, this means that the group is not playing a single note like C, but a compound note from the flattest to sharpest player. If an ocarina joins in, it stands out like a sore thumb as its timbre is so distinct. The sounds don't blend well, almost like you're playing two songs in different keys simultaneously.

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 the ocarina's 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.

Music which makes extensive use of leaps, particularly repeated sequential leaps to a single note, frequently sounds unbalanced as the high note will stand out far more. It is also technically difficult to reliably keep the low note in tune. There is a considerable pressure difference between high and low notes, and the pitches of low notes are very unstable.

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; it may still only be possible to play something in a single key, even with the extended range that multichambers provide. People often seem to get tripped up by this, assuming the instrument is as flexible as others, such as concert flute, when it isn't. If you want to incorporate the ocarina, 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. They are transformed into capable instruments by the skill of their players.

Because of how they are viewed in culture, violins and pianos have numerous virtuoso players, people who have put in the effort to push the instruments to their limits and 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. To draw a comparison, even the humble Jew's harp is capable of producing interesting music ranging from complicated rhythms to deep trances and polyphonic melodies, much more than the simple 'twang' and 'boing' sounds that many people know it for.

Thoughts on...

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