How to become a great ocarina player

Allow yourself to suck, I promise you will get better

We are not born great musicians and we do not spontaneously become them. Music is a skill we can become competent in through continued practice.

Our first experiences with a new skill and instrument will not be our best. Everything will feel strange, require a lot of effort and many mistakes will be made. This is normal. It is very important that we stick with these challenges. Trust me it does start to get easier.

Find somewhere safe to play

Regardless of whether you are completely new to music or an experienced musician, learning the ocarina will make sounds that may bother others. We may have to repeat the same phrase over and over until we get it.

It is extremely important to find a space where you can play unhindered. Having someone tell you to stop as you are annoying them can be really off-putting.

How easily you will be able to find a private place to practice will depend on where you live:

  • Perhaps you could find a park or field within walking or driving distance.
  • Perhaps you are in college or university - which often have practice spaces available.
  • Lastly, you could play at a time where people/neighbours are out and you're alone.

Leading up to my first attempts to play the ocarina I began to feel self conscious. I was afraid of receiving negative comments. To ease these fears I found a field close to where I was living with no observers for miles.

Be creative - there are always options if you look hard enough.

Stick with one ocarina

I know it can be tempting to try all of the different ocarinas that exist, but if you want to learn to play well, you'll get far more out of sticking to one ocarina, at least for some time.

Ocarinas are not standardised, and the playing characteristics and ergonomics of ocarinas from different makers vary a lot. For example the exact shape of the breath curve of different ocarinas may be steep or shallow.

By sticking with one ocarina, you can deeply learn it subconsciously, allowing you to play music without thinking about how you are interacting with the instrument.

A double or triple can be a good option, as they have the range to play a wide range of music. But single chambers can also be remarkably versatile.

Play music that you like as soon as possible

If you're completely new to music you may have doubts about your ability. Nothing can break these feelings faster than the moment you realize: 'Hey, I'm actually playing my favourite song!'.

Exactly how you do this doesn't really matter:

The first few things I played where from an impromptu ABC notation transcribed from Synthesia videos on YouTube, a computer program which displays the 'piano notes' of a MIDI file.

It took several weeks, cross referencing the notes with a fingering chart and playing short phrases over and over again. But still several weeks later I could play one of my favourite songs. It was at this point that I realized that music, something that previously made no sense to me, could be learned.

Accept the journey

Learning to play the ocarina takes time. While the components that make up a musical performance are simple to understand in isolation, the number of topics means that you will not become a master overnight.

Learning to play the ocarina is similar to walking a long distance trail. The process is simple: know which direction to head and keep putting one foot in front of the other. As long as you keep going you will get there eventually.

By regularly devoting some time to practice you will slowly move towards your destination. Learning to be happy with small successes and gradual improvement is important, instead of focusing totally on an end goal.

Small gains add up greatly over time, and you will get there sooner than you think.

Read, listen to and watch any information you can find about music

Have you ever tried to learn something only to give up, then try again in the future and immediately get it? I certainly have.

Exposure to a subject is the single most important factor to learning. Early on the information we encounter won't make much sense to us, but our subconscious minds are still making connections. Over time and continued exposure things begin to make sense.

Immersing oneself in information about music has never been easier. Books and web pages are plentiful, There are thousands of tutorial videos on YouTube and elsewhere. You can even reach out to other ocarina players online for advice.

Don't limit yourself to ocarina tutorials though. Music is a subject with common underpinnings and it is quite easy to transfer information from one instrument to a different one.

Be wary of shortcuts

When faced with a challenging problem it can be tempting to look for shortcuts - ocarina tabs for example. Making use of these tools is fine if it allows you to get started, but you should be aware of the limitations.

The apparent simplicity of shortcuts arise because they leave out information. Ocarina tabs for example make no attempt to notate rhythm or stylistic details, and will quickly limit your ability to progress.

Instead of choosing a path that will limit your progress, learn to understand why you are doing what you are doing:

It will pay off in the long term. When you understand something you are able to bend it to your will and use it to express yourself. Rather than just hitting the notes like a computer playing a MIDI.

Lay guides to keep you on track

The human mind is prone to wandering, from it's constant ticker-tape of thoughts to the larger-scale flitting from interest to interest. When we first begin to learn the ocarina we have lots of enthusiasm and drive, but that can fade over time.

The reality is that learning to play any instrument well takes a lot of time. It can be helpful to So what guides can we lay down in the peak of our interest to get us back on track when we inevitably wander?

One option is to create social commitments. For example, when I first started to play the ocarina, I made a commitment to perform at a local open mic. As I was present at almost every event, people began to expect me, and the positive comments and questions people asked encouraged me to practice.

Once we create an expectation in someone else, we enter a social contract to perform. There will be lows and highs, but it helps to keep us on track.

Learn music theory

Learning to play a few songs is a great place to begin, yet it leaves you with a gap in your knowledge: you don't understand the music you are playing.

Music theory fills this gap:

  • It allows you to understand the music you are playing.
  • It frees you to improvise around melodies and make them your own.

Once you have a basic understanding of music theory, other things will begin to make sense. You will start to realize why the tunes you play are structured as they are.

Know how your ocarina actually sounds

Like all acoustic instruments, ocarinas do not project their sound equally in all directions. The sound that you hear as a player is not the same thing that an observer will hear. Be it a audience, friend or microphone.

It is very valuable to know how your ocarina actually sounds from different perspectives. But how do you actually do this?

Simple, ask someone else to blow your instrument, holding long tones. Then you can have a walk around and observe first hand how it actually sounds. You may notice that:

  • Ocarinas project most of their sound forwards, away from the voicing. They can sound considerably louder to an observer in front of the instrument than to the player behind it.
  • Ocarinas sound less airy at a distance. the 'airyness' component of the timbre is high frequency, and high frequency sounds drop off quickly with distance. You will notice it far more as a player than as an audience will.
  • Ocarinas sound more airy below the instrument. A lot of the airiness in an ocarinas sound is projected downwards, as the voicing is on the bottom of the instrument.

Keep working on your intonation

learning how to control the ocarina's wobbly pitch can feel overwhelming.

To play in tune we have to develop a sense of relative pitch. As a complete beginner we do not know what to listen for, so we cannot tell if we are in tune. However as we develop our ear we begin to notice when we are off. We begin to hear what it should sound like in our mind and our intonation errors become apparent to us.

It is easiest to hear your intonation errors when you have other notes to reference. When multiple tones sound simultaneously the interactions of the tones creates an audible beating . This is covered in Ocarina intonation.

Learn to read sheet music and play by ear

Musicians are often divided into 'ear players' and 'note readers', but both skills have their benefits:

  • Sheet music allows us to easily communicate with players of other instruments. While it cannot represent every little stylistic nuance of a human performance. Learning from sheet music alone can sound dull and mechanical.
  • Playing by ear allows us to learn directly from a performance, so we may pick up all the details. Yet exclusively playing by ear can make it difficult to communicate with other musicians. The common language of sheet music and theory is missing.

Both are skills that you can develop, and neither are as difficult as you may think. There are dedicated articles on both of these:

You can learn to do both, just keep putting time in and don't worry if you're finding one method harder. Put more work in and it will get easier.

Get over your fear and play in public

Playing in public for the first time can be a scary experience. The mind explodes with questions like 'will they like what I'm playing?, 'will they hate me?,' and 'what if I make a mistake and stop?'

The thing is, playing in public is a great way of learning how to improvise on the spot. Everyone makes mistakes, even the best musicians. What matters is being able to handle it, to keep time with the beat and get back on track.

The first time I played in public I literally got the shakes badly and locked up for what felt like several minutes. Yet I was still able to play a few tunes. After this I went back and played again next month, with slightly less shakes, and carried on at the same music club for several years. Over time the fear went away and I don't even think about it any more.

The only way to get over your fear is by playing in public regularly and making mistakes. The first time I did stop, but over time I developed the capacity to keep a tune going even if I do make a mistake.

Find a venue that is supportive and won't bash on you for making mistakes. A quiet, listening music club or similar would be a good place to start. Open mics by comparison can be a bit raucous.

But in my experience people are very supportive of new musicians. People will generally see that you are making an effort and do what they can to support you.

Learn to play ocarinas in other keys

Single chambered ocarinas have a limited sounding range. While there is a lot of music that will fit within this range, it is frequently only possible to play it in only one, or a small number of keys, despite the instrument being fully chromatic. One way of solving this problem is to change the base-tuning of the instrument itself.

Changing to an ocarina in a different key gives us access to a different range of sounded notes. It allows you to use higher or lower notes to fit the style toy are trying to express in your music.

Being able to play ocarinas in different keys also allows you to fit in with the music that other people are playing, rather than forcing them to fit around you, and may also allow playing in a desired key with much simpler fingerings.

Play other instruments

All instruments have limitations, and those limitations constrain what you can learn. For example:

  • The ocarina is a monophonic instrument, and thus you can't easily understand harmony.
  • Instruments like piano and keyboard provide a great avenue for learning harmony, yet their pitch is fixed, you can't learn to use changes in pitch for expression.
  • Drums provide a great platform for understanding rhythm and harmony, yet most can't play melodies or chords.

Playing different instruments gives you a slightly different view onto things, and causing realisations one wouldn't have playing a single instrument. And you don't have to play an instrument well in order to gain valuable insights.

Share your experience with others

The process of learning the ocarina will be much more enjoyable if you find someone else to learn with you. A friend can help you practice, and you can offer each other encouragement if you are struggling.

But also, teaching is a fantastic way of learning. Explaining something to someone else changes your own perspective, and can lead to valuable insights.

Working with someone else allows you to test each other, to practice your intervals in sheet music or by ear. Writing out random melodies in notation to practice your sight reading and music composition.

Music is a learned skill you can always improve

Regardless of your current ability improvement is always possible. You may be interested in some tips for practising effectively.