Robert Hickman Interviewed by The Ocarina Museum

I (Robert Hickman) was recently interviewed by Zijun Luo of the website "The Ocarina Museum". The interview goes into some detail about my history with the ocarina, how Pure Ocarinas came to exist, and what motivated me to write my two books.

You can read the full interview here:

How to promote the ocarina as a serious instrument

Note:This summarises some points from the article Improving the poor approach of players learning the ocarina .

Promote the ocarina using skilled performances, not visual gimmicks

  • These performances must appeal to and wow a mainstream audience, giving people a baseline of the ocarina can do in skilled hands.
  • Publicly visible skilled performances can draw in new players, and serve as role models. I believe that people attracted in this way will be more willing to put in the effort to learn to play well.
  • Performances must include a wide verity of music, at high and low tempo, and from a wide range of genres.
  • The higher visual complexity, and added range of multichamber ocarinas may help to appeal to both the general public, and to musicians.

Promote the ocarina to skilled players of other instruments

  • Tell them how the ocarina's pure sound is very good at attracting attention, this is exactly what bands want.
  • Try to get features in media targeting at skilled musicians, such as magazines or blogs.
  • Actively contact players of wind instruments in existing bands.

This is potentially effective as skilled players will already have an audience and know how to practice. Having some good performances to point to will definitely help.

Teaching the ocarina to children

This has some obvious pros and cons:

  • It could lead to very good players in the future, as children easily learn things that adults find difficult.
  • But it is risky and could lead to the ocarina being viewed as a child's instrument and incapable, if approached as the recorder has been.

These things can be addressed as follows:

  • It is exceptionally important that children have access to good teachers, who actually play to a good standard themselves.
  • They should be taught in a setting conducive to noticing and correcting mistakes, i.e. NOT in a group, at least not initially.
  • Create awareness of everything that goes into playing, and do not obsess over fingerings.

I believe that this is best approached one to one, in the same way as other instruments are taught. The issue with perception can be mitigated if virtuosic ocarina performances exist and the general public is aware of them.

Make good instruments available

  • Ensure that ocarinas are available which are designed as musical instruments from the start.
  • Ideally, these should be available in general music stores, so that people can actually try them.
  • If visual features are included, they must not compromise playability.

Make required information available

A lot of information is needed to understand and get started playing ocarinas due to the number of variations that exist, so:

  • Make sure that people can easily find the learning materials and music collections that already exist.
  • Create new teaching materials to fill any known gaps. Teaching materials should cover all aspects of playing well.
  • Good players should offer teaching services. Teachers can help to point out common mistakes, offer encouragement, and provide accountability to push people through challenging times.

Organise more in-person meetups

  • A great deal can be learned from talking to other players in person, and opportunities to do so need to be easier to access.
  • A larger number of player meetups are needed in different countries, so that players can get to them easily.
  • Events like Budrio festival are too infrequent, and too expensive for many to travel to.

There is a chance that people in the general public would see and become interested in playing through groups like this.

Accept that there are places where the ocarina is not a good fit

Ocarinas are often forced into situations that they are not terribly appropriate for, such as:

  • Playing by one's self for personal enjoyment. Ocarinas are loud, assertive, and do not respond well to muting.
  • As a first instrument without guidance. The ocarina has a number of technical challenges which are difficult to notice by intuition, and will limit progress if left unknown.
  • Some types of group performance. Ocarinas tend to cut through other instruments, and often do not work well if they are not in a lead role.

Improving the poor approach of players learning the ocarina

Over the time I have been involved with the ocarina, one thing which has stuck out to me is the poor approach of players learning the ocarina. There is a tendency for new players to make little progress. Many are either stuck at a basic level, or give up pretty quickly, leading to a lack of advanced, and even intermediate, players.

I made a post questing this on the 'The Ocarina Network' Facebook group. The post got a lot more feedback than I expected, with over 100 comments. I have summarised the key points below. The first of these relate directly to poor attitude:

  • Some people were just apathetic to the idea of getting better, as they only play for personal enjoyment. Others cited a belief that musicians must start at an early age, or that music is a very low priority interest.
  • Others felt there is a perception of the ocarina as a novelty or 'toy' instrument, due to it's inclusion in The Legend of Zelda. People who enter from this path may be more interested in it as a visual prop, and may only learn a handful of basic melodies.
  • Others still saw no professional outlet for the skill, and thus have no drive to play better. There is a view that other instruments have clear paths: keyboard, drums or guitar allow one to join a band, while bowed strings can let one join an orchestras. With the ocarina one must drive their own path.

However, the issue with players making no progress is not always the fault of the players, as some aspects of the ocarina, as well as other life factors have an impact:

  • Ocarinas are loud, and many people don't have an environment where they can play, as they live with their family or in apartments/dorms. The ocarina's tone can be quite annoying to listen to for a long time, and others may not be aware that everyone plays badly at first.
  • Many people do not have a lot of time and don't practise very often. Regular, repetitive practice is essential to getting better on any instrument. Practice approach was also a problem, due to a lack of guidance. There are no teachers to offer encouragement and correct mistakes.
  • Also, finding music to play on the ocarina can be difficult. The limited range means a lot of music isn't playable, and adapting music to the instrument requires theory knowledge that many may not have. A small number of music collections for the ocarina exist, but people may not be aware of them.

This article explores some probable causes of these problems, and offers some solutions. I hope that progress can be made with this, as the current situation is very uninspiring, especially to me as a maker. Very few players are good enough to appreciate the value of quality ocarinas.

Hypotheses of causes

The lack of accessible information and guidance

In comparison to many other instruments, a lot of information is required to get started with the ocarina due to the mass of variations that exist. People need to understand keys and ranges, single chamber ocarinas vs multichambers, and even how to distinguish playable ocarinas from novelty items. I don't think this information is easy enough to find, as very basic questions often appear on ocarina player communities.

There is also a big lack of information to guide players learning the ocarina in comparison to other instruments. Many method books exist, but players may not be aware of them, or may not feel they are needed due to the perception of the ocarina being 'easy to play'. Also, the existing guides may not include enough details about less intuitive things, such as playing in tune and creating emphasis using ornamentation.

Access to a good teacher can also provide many benefits, such as correcting basic mistakes, finding appropriate music and exercises for a student to play, and pushing students to progress through barriers, like playing more complex or faster music. Yet good ocarina teachers are virtually impossible to find in person. Some people offer remote tuition via Skype, but they may be difficult to find as they don't advertise well.

How players approach practice is also very important, as practising in a haphazard way won't lead to much progress. Practice must be regular, and things must be done slowly and accurately. Approaches such as breaking out difficult passages are also essential. In the absence of a method book or teacher, someone may never learn these things.

Drawing in a poor audience

Many marketing efforts around the ocarina play on the visual simplicity of the instrument and market it as 'easy to play' to people with no musical experience, or rely on other gimmicks like visual design. I think that this in itself is a large part of the problem.

There are many people who fantasise about the idea of playing a musical instrument. As one of the comments on my post says: 'I think a lot of people yearn to make sounds pleasing to the ear, to make people happy and entertained.' I suspect that these people are naturally drawn to the ocarina, and the aforementioned marketing, as it looks simple.

However, I think that this leads people down a false path. Playing an instrument well requires a general knowledge of music, and the mechanical complexity of an instrument has very little to do with this. I suspect that these people mostly end up practising with a complete lack of guidance, or very poor guidance formed from haphazard internet research. Many of them may also have a false belief that they will be playing very well in a small amount of time, due to a flawed mental model built on the perception of the instrument being easy.

Over time it will become apparent that they are not progressing as they would like, but they may not know why. Under this situation either giving up, or continuing to play badly.

The lack of good players and role models

Many of the serious players who were around when I first got involved with the ocarina have moved to other instruments, or quit playing music entirely, and nobody has replaced them. This lack of intermediate and advanced players is a problem as it reduces the opportunity for people to know the ocarina's real ability. I suspect it is a self-perpetuating cycle:

  • The volume of bad playing may discourage people who would commit to playing the instrument well.
  • It discourages listeners as there are few virtuosic performances that appeal to a general audience.
  • It may be discouraging players from pushing to achieve better, as they have no role models.

There seems to be a culture of playing relatively trivial music among ocarina players, and very few people are able to play the ocarina at high tempo. Even the advanced players still play the same basic music, mostly from video games and anime. Due to this people do not realize the full musical potential of the instrument.

Solution ideas

Seeking to create highly impressive performances

We seriously need to get away from marketing the ocarina using gimmicks, and attract attention through genuinely impressive musical performances.

I think it would be beneficial if the best players start seeking ways of creating performances that 'wow' a general audience, and stand a chance of going viral. This needs to be a substantial step above anything that has been done so far with regards to musicianship, performance art, and recording and editing.

As an example of an unusual instrument that has attracted a lot of attention, take a look at this video of a musical marble machine my partner shared with me. As of writing it has over 100 million views, and the creator of it is now making a better one with the intent of doing a world tour of performances.

It is worth studying successes like this, and I think the marble machine resonates with people for a number of reasons:

  • It is entirely new to most people.
  • It is unexpected that a machine like this can make interesting music.
  • The melody being played is an earworm.
  • All of the intricacies of the machine in action are technically impressive to watch.
  • The person playing the instrument is a great performer and is entertaining.
  • The audio recording, and video editing are to a high standard, which does a great job exhibiting all of the technical complexities of the machine, as well as the performer.

While not all of these things are directly applicable to the ocarina, I believe that a similar 'high production value' performance, blending virtuosic ocarina performance with visual entertaining stagecraft of the performers could resonate with a large audience.

There was a Taiwanese group who performed at Budrio festival in 2019, with a performance blending stageplay and ocarina. I don't think this performance was entirely up to the standard needed, and my video also misses out many of the more interesting parts of it. But it is going in the right direction and was awesome to watch.

Starting to get some seriously impressive performances of this nature into the world, and onto social platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter would do a lot to show people what the ocarina can do. I don't think it would take that many performances to start making an impact. And using an approach grounded in good music is more likely to attract people that are actually interested in learning to play well.

Promoting the ocarina to players of other instruments

In addition to trying to passively attract new serious players via good performance, I think that it would be worthwhile making a direct effort to market the instrument, and its abilities, directly to serious musicians and players of other instruments:

  • Try to get the ocarina featured in existing media targeted at serious musicians. There are multiple ways of approaching this, such as writing articles talking about the abilities and history of the ocarina as a serious instrument, or seeking interviews. Having a few 'big impact' performances to point to is sure to help with this.
  • Aim to do the same with folk music media channels such as websites and magazines. Talk about how the ocarina fits well into this genre, being similar to existing instruments, like the tin whistle, and working well for playing many bagpipe tunes.
  • Contact players of wind instrument involved with well known bands. Tell them about the ocarina, and how playing this uncommon instrument could attract attention to them as a group. I have found the ocarina highly effective at attracting attention in an armateur setting.

I can see a lot to be gained from this, as skilled players of other instruments will already know basic details like how to practise effectively, have a good understanding of musicality and theory, and there is a good chance that they also have an audience of their own. Making an effort here should also help to break down the barrier between the ocarina and 'other instruments', and help the ocarina be seen as a 'real instrument'.

One problem that any effort in this space is going to have is that the term 'ocarina' is really ambiguous, and web searches present a very 'wishy-washy' image of what it is, with serious instruments competing with novelty items. Due to this, there may be considerable value in renaming the instrument and casting off this baggage. If we were to rename it, I think a big impact performance would be the best time to do it.

In any regard, giving consideration to naming, and the use of classifiers like 'transverse' ocarina, is essential.

Providing great support for new players

When potential new players come to the ocarina from, it is essential that they can find the information and support that they want, or they may just bounce. In particular:

  • Make sure that information that players need to get started is easy to find. My book Serious Ocarina Player was written to fill this need, and it may be good to offer a summary of key points. Additionally, more traditional method books, as well as music collections, should be readily available.
  • Better players can offer teaching services to advise people how to improve their playing. Teaching face to face is unlikely to be practical due to geographic issues, so this would probably happen over Skype. Having this opportunity would give players direct feedback on their skills, and what they can do to improve. Teachers can also offer advice on music theory, and effective practice techniques such as breaking down difficult problems. This could also be a source of income for those doing it.
  • Organise more in-person meetups for players. Due to the disperse nature of ocarina players, there is little opportunity to learn from others in person. This is a problem as learning often happens socially, and I think that the inability for players to do this is a big limiting factor. Budrio festival is great, but it doesn't happen often enough, and many cannot travel to it. My personal experience is that making and playing an instrument where I only get to see other players once every two years is really dry.

Players also need to know how to find music for the instrument that they want to play. This must include information regarding adapting music to fit the ocarina, such as transposing music. Some curated collections of music exist from people like Hans Rotter, but I don't know if most people are actually aware of them.

I also believe that players need to be driven to play faster and more demanding music, to really push the instrument to its limits. I've had a few people say that they are put off from doing this as it feels unduly difficult, so they revert to simpler music. I think that players need to know to push through this tension, as it starts to feel easier with time. Having a teacher for accountability and encouragement would surely help.

Providing awesome resources on theory and practice technique

Another common point of contention is theory, as people often find it hard to understand. I suspect this is caused by factors like teaching it out of context, using poor or no visualisations, and the fact that different people learn differently.

Band classes in schools may offer a good source of reference, as in that environment music theory may be taught in conjunction with practice so that it is never out of context. Offering good visualisations, and making sure that players know that different teachers may connect better to them would also be good.

Practice technique matters too. One of the issues noted in the original Facebook question was a lack of time. This doesn't matter as much as one may think, as with good practice approach, it is still possible to make progress. Practising in short 5 to 10 minute sessions may be more effective due to the spacing effect.

Players should also be aware of basic practice and motivational techniques, such as:

  • Having a goal that one is working towards, such as a piece of music that means something to the student on a personal level.
  • Getting learners to create a social dependency on their playing, such as playing with a group of other musicians.
  • Keeping a log of what one has been practising, and what they need to improve. Human memory is not that reliable.
  • Teach students to practice hard sections in isolation.
  • Teach music broadly, not just the fingering system. This includes phrasing and emphasis/ornamentation (these are generally synonymous on the ocarina due to volume dynamics being very hard).

I would question why anyone even keeps trying to play an instrument if they are not interested in it enough to put in enough effort regularly to make progress.

Accepting that there are many cases where the ocarina is not a good fit

I think that there are many places where the ocarina is forced into, where it is simply not a good fit for the problem, such as:

Playing by one's self

Ocarinas are very loud and assertive, they will draw attention to you. So even if you think you are playing by yourself, there is a good chance people can hear you. This can be annoying to other people, especially during practice where one must repeat the same section over and over. It can result in people making rude comments, as they don't understand that doing this is required to make progress.

People often wish for quieter ocarinas or a means of muting the instrument, but neither works well due to physics. As holes are opened more air can escape, so the player has to blow harder and the instrument gets louder. Not increasing pressure causes the high notes to sound really airy in contrast with the low notes, and such an instrument isn't much use for anything.

Trying to mute an ocarina by covering the voicing, or restricting the air entering the windway are also bad ideas. Doing these things throws an ocarina out of tune, and makes it impossible to practise many critical elements of technique, such as intonation, or breath pitch slides.

There are other instruments that are a FAR better fit for this than the ocarina. One of the commenters mentioned the shakuhachi, and that it is quiet enough that it doesn't wake his wife or bother neighbours. Electronic instruments are also ideal as they can play on headphones.

As a first instrument without guidance

While ocarinas are often marketed as 'easy to play', this is only true with prior experience. Ocarinas are very loud, stand out above other sounds, and are not at all forgiving of poor technique. Playing an ocarina in tune can be very challenging, and without guidance players often have no awareness of their intonation.

I think that trying to learn any instrument without some form of guidance is a bad idea, as there are many easy mistakes that will cause a player problems. I also think that there are instruments that are better suited to new musicians than the ocarina is, like the xylophone and keyed instruments like the keyboard and piano. They have fixed pitch, and are mechanically simpler to play.

Playing in (some) group settings

The ocarina's loud and pure tone often cuts through the sounds of other instruments in group performances, creating a loud and clear voice in a mix. This is often a good thing, as it can produce an ear grabbing effect, and is especially true of soprano and higher pitched alto ocarinas. However, it can overpower the rest of the group if context is not accounted for.

This can be mitigated by playing a lower pitched alto or bass ocarina, but they may still be too loud in some situations even so. If the group features a singer, it is almost never a good idea to play over them, and instead play during interludes. Ocarinas with a more textured tone mitigate this, as they tend to blend into a mix much better.

Side Note

I have noted several times in my writing that a fully electronic 'ocarina' could offer many of the virtues that people incorrectly ascribe to the real instrument, such as being technically simple to play. Such an instrument could also play totally silently on headphones. I find it surprising that nobody has developed one commercially yet.

Promoting good players, and performance outlets

When good players start to surface, we need a means of promoting them so that they become more popular and start to develop their own following.

As of right now, many of the better ocarina players and 'media outlets' are commercially affiliated with makers. Consequently these are only interested in promoting themselves, and this is a problem as it is difficult for new people to gain publicity. As of writing, the only person really acting as an unaffiliated media outlet for the ocarina is David Erik Ramos, and I think it is unfair to place everyone's demands on one person.

I hope that as new skilled players start to surface, they can act to promote each other, and at least some of them will not affiliate themselves with makers, but remain independent. I also hope that more people take on the role of a public media outlet or figure head like David is.

I disagree with the notion that there are no professional outlets for the ocarina. The instrument can be used effectively in bands as long as a player is good enough to play in tune, and I have used the instrument in this setting in an armateur sense. With more time, it should be possible to push that to a professional space.

In my experience, ocarinas are extremely good at getting people's attention as they don't really sound like anything else. I have found them to be very effective at silencing the audience in noisy pub open mics, and I'd expect musicians in bands to be all over this, as getting noticed is exactly what most of them want.

There are many solo performers with things like guitar music, and in Irish and other folk traditions. People can develop a following by themselves. The ocarina is used in that way by people such as Milt in the Asian community. Should the ocarina gain more notability in English speaking countries, I can see the same being possible.

Even orchestral level performances shouldn't be out of the question. The ocarina is a new timbre for composers to explore. If there were enough good players in the world so that orchestra leaders can actually find one reliably, I can see that gaining traction.

Other potential barriers

Both myself, and my friend Reilly Walker have noticed that people seem to intuitively assume that the ocarina isn't capable of much before seeing it played. I don't know exactly what is behind this, but suspect that it relates to the following factors:

  • the ocarina is visually simple. Human intuition may be such that this leads people to assume that simple appearance equals incapable.
  • I suspect that many of the people who have seen an ocarina being played have seen it being played poorly.
  • Most people have no personal connection with the ocarina, or only have this in the context of the Zelda games, which only feature trivial music.

I have done many performances on the ocarina, and it always attracts a lot of questions and comments like, 'I have never seen one of those played like that before.' However this never translates into people actually wanting to learn to play. They have never seen it before being used in some context that is meaningful to them.

This issue with people not wanting to learn to play may be related to time and exposure. They may need to be exposed to the instrument multiple times, or they may need to wait for months/years before they consider it. It took about 4 years between my first exposure to an ocarina, to learning to play it myself.

There is also a problem given that many of the associations people hold about the ocarina are wrong. For example it is held that chamber shape doesn't matter, and that ocarinas can be both good art pieces and instruments at the same time. In fact, chamber shape does matter for ergonomic and functional reasons. Visual design is also a complex topic, as many of the things people add for visual effect get in the way of playability, such as affecting physical balance negatively and making the high notes harder to play.

Final thoughts

I think that the problem with the poor approach of players learning the ocarina is largely due to current circumstances, and can be addressed by making performances, supporting new players with information, and directly marketing the ocarina to serious musicians.

I believe that the general obsession with marketing the ocarina as easy to play is ultimately detrimental to the people doing this, as it keeps the general publics attitude towards the instrument low, and limits the number of good players. I think that this forces prices down as there are a lack of players who appreciate the value of better instruments. Increasing prices and demand is an easy multiplier.

Teaching ocarinas to children and teenagers is an option that I did not mention in the main article. This could be effective as children can learn quickly, and things that pose obstacles to an adult may be less of a problem. However, this is also risky due to the need for a good approach to teaching. It must not be taught like the recorder, by people who barely know what they are doing. That would quickly ruin its reputation.

In order to grow, the ocarina community MUST grow to a size that allows some people to make the ocarina their full time job, and preferably not live in poverty while doing so. The work that needs doing to promote the instrument is going to be very time consuming, and I feel only possible if people can fully commit. For example, writing (and rewriting) this article has taken about 3 full days.

Acting on most of the things mentioned in this article has to involve other people and i cannot do most of these things myself. For one thing, my personality is not that of an enthusiastic performer, so I could never make a performance engaging to the general public.

Finally, it would be awesome if the ocarina was known widely enough that the job of convincing people that it is worth playing was not on the makers.

Interview with Giorgio Pacchioni

Giorgio Pacchioni is an Italian ocarina maker and skilled player who I've been in dialogue with recently. He has raised some interesting points, and I wanted to bring them to a wider audience with an interview. Note that Giorgio's responses were translated from Italian. The original answers are also available.

Q: You're quite a well known maker today, but I don't think that many are aware of your history. When did you start playing music? Did the ocarina play a part in this? And, who or what inspired you to start making ocarinas?

A: I started playing the ocarina at the age of 10-12 years, playing by ear and without instruction together with my older brother who accompanied me to the drums. This informal experience has nevertheless decided my professional life as a musician dedicated to classical music through the Clarinet (trained at the G.B. Martin Conservatory in Bologna) and the self-study of the Recorder, the rules of Figurative Singing Polyphony and Renaissance Counterpoint.

I was a teacher of these subjects at the same Conservatory from the 80s to 2016, performing many concerts. I also wrote about twenty musicological and compositional publications and many instrumental and vocal compositions of Renaissance and Baroque techniques. In 1984 I started to seriously consider the concert use of the Ocarina. Subsequently I considered also the idea of its construction, according to the technical and musical criteria of the tradition of Budrio, And to promote a band who played music from the Emilia area giving concerts and making various recordings in Italy and abroad. In the 1990s I founded the Ensemble Novecento (a septet that played my ocarinas) with which I performed many concerts and recordings.

Giorgio's CV.

Q: You make ocarinas by forming the clay around an internal form, then capping the end and forming the mouthpiece separately. What do you see as the advantages of this approach, vs the more common method of press molding in two halves?

A: I approached learning to make ocarinas starting from careful study and measurements of the manual construction tools of the first Budrio builders, before they started using the presses for fast construction of the ocarinas. Since I wanted to reproduce historical ocarinas, I built my production equipment in this way, to create a few pieces with pre-industrial approaches.

As far as I know, the Italian tradition has never used plaster casting molds, but only wooden or metal cones and (later, presses). After all, I never felt the need to build ocarinas on an industrial level, to be included in the low-cost commercial market (as Budrio souvenirs). The greatest advantage of working without casting molds is that of unlimited constructive versatility, I myself have in production, with extreme ease, an enormous quantity of different items and in different keys (almost any), on traditional musical scales, contemporary, ethnic, ancient, single-chamber, multi-chamber, harmony, and simulations of other instruments (natural horns, Italian zampogna) etc. Etc.

Q: What are the main things that you focus on in the design of your ocarinas? They have an interesting timbre, and I like their ergonomic design, especially that your multichambers will balance on the right thumb. Simplifying fingering also appears to be an interest of yours, with your 'Pacchioni' fingering system, where the chambers are tuned with an overlap.

A: I started from the principle that the ocarina's sound production method is similar to the more ancient and noble instruments in music, in particular to the pipe organ and to the Recorder. I think that the ocarina should be derived from the organological criteria that guide the construction of these important instruments, which have been examined by many generations of ingenious builders, only in the field of the recorder, its closest relative, we can remember (Hotteterre, Fornari, Terton, Bressan, Steenbergen) who built extraordinary flutes, used by the major Baroque composers to write their compositions. Of course, the globular shape and the material used for the ocarina, lead to variations of the solutions designed to make them work at their best, but the qualitative reference point is fixed in history.

Starting from these historical premises and comparisons, I developed my qualitative logics which state that there is no low breath or high breath, but an ideal breath, and when is it ideal? When the sound that comes out of it is stable, dynamic, expressive, without timbral defects, such as nasal resonances or sound mixed with breath… In short, everything that is required even for Baroque or Renaissance recorders (not including plastic ones). The Italian Ocarina is an instrument for open spaces, and for this reason it was (in the past) equipped with a voicing that is perhaps too large with a bright and powerful sound, but not very suitable to be used for chamber music. I try to create instruments that are versatile and I give great importance to the diameter of the window, in order to obtain a sound sufficiently powerful, but not invasive. It must also be considered that the Italian wide window actually gets a sound rich in harmonics and with a colour or timbre full of personality.

Probably the creation I'm most proud of is the Pacchioni system multichamber, that I hope will become a quality standard as, thanks to its characteristics of ease and versatility, makes the Ocarina an instrument that can keep up with the other classic wind instruments, such as the Flute, the Oboe, the Bassoon, having in any case an extra feature that makes it a special instrument: its polyphonic prerogative that allows to play a wide range of perfectly tuned notes that makes it appear similar to certain peculiar aspects of the most noble of instruments: the Violin.

Q:  The ergonomic considerations of the ocarina are complex. Everyone’s hands are different, and there is also little standardisation in how people hold the instrument. I believe that makers usually design their ocarinas around how they personally hold the ocarina, and there is a lot of variation in ergonomics between makers. I think that this variation may be a challenge for new players. What are your opinions on this topic?

A: The design must be ergonomic, but it cannot be a slave to the commercial concept that poisons quality and wants to sell to anyone any type and size of ocarina. Doing so by adding limitations, to what is already a limited instrument. People with small hands cannot play large instruments that require large and strong fingers, just as people with giant hands cannot play very small ocarinas... But if to obtain universality of use, the physical and peculiar characteristics of every ocarina are tampered and disfigured, it only leads to a stupid act that puts the marketability of a product before its optimal peculiarities.

I am of a generation (1947) that has known the Ocarina through the European tradition and not through video games and anime/cartoons, it is for this reason that my musical and constructive preferences go in other directions in respect to the new generations of makers... It is a fact, a different imprinting... But that is why the world is beautiful, for its infinite range of variations and flows, which then inevitably end up merging and enriching each other.

I, as a builder, have drawn almost everything from European culture, but also, in part, from the logic of East Asian builders, and I know for sure that some of them have drawn much from what are also my sources and even some my personal achievements... That's how the world goes.

Q: What do you think about how the ocarina is viewed around the world? They are widely known in Asia, but elsewhere not many people are aware of them. Where it is known, learning the instrument is often approached haphazardly. You also lived in Brazil for a number of years. Is there much awareness of the ocarina in that country?

A: The ocarina had an exceptional development over the last few years, many talented builders produce excellent instruments. What remains undeveloped is the musical culture of the ocarinists, who almost never have a cultural and technical orientation that allows them to develop their qualities at best, remaining at the mercy of the market that wants to spread the products to the maximum without bothering to create quality targets to aspire to. I believe that many play the ocarina without even knowing the music, or using numerical expedients to indicate what fingers to lift from the holes to get something that sounds like a known song.

The culture linked to the European ocarina of the past was much more advanced than what we see today. The fact that the widespread use of the ocarina does not lead to a parallel diffusion of musical culture ​​is a universal problem. In Brazil, an immense country of almost 200 million inhabitants, I learned of only one person who was really interested in the ocarina, my efforts to introduce it into musical environments were turned down by a disarming indifference.

Q: You have mentioned to me that you feel that Italian ocarina makers are getting little attention from the English speaking community. What do you think about this, and do you have any ideas how to counter it?

A: Language barriers still exist, in spite of the "saint" Google translate, the cultural mistrust is still alive among different populations... But these are problems that can be reduced to a single and not collective phenomena. Your interest in my experience and my obvious willingness to dialogue or even to convey my experience, speak for themselves on the subject. Thanks for the interview and for the smart questions you asked.

Giorgio Pacchioni. (

Eliminating the dual function of the ocarina's right thumb hole

Italian ocarinas and directives of the instrument have two thumb holes, and the second of these serves a dual function:

  • It acts as the instrument's primary support point, and
  • It plays one of the high notes, 'E' on Asian fingering, and 'F' on Italian.

This dual function greatly complects the task of playing the instrument, something that became very apparent to me while writing the page Playing the high notes of single chambered ocarinas. This arises naturally from the ocarinas physics, but I now consider it a design flaw. Almost all wind instruments use the right thumb only for support, with very good reason.

I can see considerable benefits in eliminating this issue. It would greatly reduce the difficulty of learning the ocarina as a new player. Eliminating a technical challenge also raises the skill ceiling for advanced players. Issues like playing the high notes at very high tempo, or leaping between the highest and lowest notes become trivial.

This dual function is not an unavoidable characteristic of the ocarina, and there are two main ways that it could be solved:

  1. Eliminate the right thumb hole.
  2. Find a different way of supporting the instrument.

Eliminating the ocarina's right thumb hole

The Italian ocarina follows a linier fingering, whereby opening sequential holes produces sequential notes of a Major scale. As the instrument cannot overblow, to maximise the range it is natural to assign a note to every finger, and thus two thumb holes. However, there are ways around this. As the whole chamber is in oscillation, notes can be formed by covering the holes out of order.

Making use of this, it is possible to reduce the number of finger holes without changing the range. The English '4 hole' system being an extreme example, which has a lot of technical limitations. It is not necessary to go to such an extreme though. Taking Italian fingering as a base, the only note played by the right thumb is a semitone. We only need to add a semitone to another hole to eliminate the right thumb hole.

My idea for eliminating this hole is to combine the left index and middle finger holes, leaving a single hole on the left middle finger sounding an interval of 3 semitones:

  • The left thumb hole then moves to the left index finger.
  • The right thumb hole to the left thumb,
  • and the pinky hole remains the same as in 'Asian' fingering.

As can be seen below, the sizes of the holes can be kept manageable through selective undercutting. The index and middle finger holes have an undercut, similar to that used by Noble.

In the example that I made, 'B' can be played using the 'B flat' fingering, and B flat by also closing the right index finger hole. All other accidentals remain available and most of them can be played with the usual fingering. A downside is that the positions of a few notes shift, and the tuning of cross-fingered does depend on chamber acoustics, so will vary between ocarinas, especially ones in different octaves.

The idea was inspired by the following instrument made by Dag Hultcrantz, a maker of sound sculptures. This one has an unusual fingering similar to the idea given above. It produces an octave in 6 holes.

Idea from Elisabeth Stennes-Falter

Another idea given by Elisabeth Stennes-Falter is a slight modification to Italian fingering. The left pinky hole is enlarged to produce an interval of 3 semitones, 'E' being played as a cross fingering. Giorgio Pacchioni has tested this idea, and found it impractical due to to hole size.

Supporting the ocarina differently

The existence of the right thumb hole isn't itself a problem, but rather the fact that it is conflated with the primary support point. Thus, it is possible to fix this problem by supporting the instrument in a different way. I've thought of quite a number of ways of doing so. The two that I've tried here just happened to be the easiest to implement.

Note that in the examples here, the added support pieces are made in ceramic and attached to the instrument. This was done as it was an easy way of testing the concept, and I do not think it is the best option. Elaborated later.

Resting on the bridge between the finger and thumb

Additional pieces are added whereby the ocarina rests on the bridges between the finger and thumb. It supports the instrument, but the ocarina is relatively unstable, and effectiveness of this is very sensitive to weight distribution. It could possibly be improved by making the supports more 'U' shaped, so they hook over the bridge, instead of only resting on it.

Locking between the bases of the fingers

An alternate idea where the ocarina is supported by some pieces which lock between the bases of the fingers. This design is a lot more secure than the one above, and holding the instrument is totally effortless. On a downside, it does impose some restriction on the movement of the fingers.


I have a number of other ideas, which I elaborate on at the end of the page Playing the high notes of single chambered ocarinas. Other possibilities for supporting the ocarina include mounting it to the right wrist, or to a chest plate like a reverse backpack. I've seen something akin to the latter used with contrabass ocarinas.

Other options include replacing the function of the right thumb hole with a key, or blowing the instrument through a tube, with it resting on a table. Both of these have problems. Keys don't work well with ocarinas as they are so sensitive to hole shading. The additional mass of the key would also harm response time.

I think playing the instrument using a tube is the worst option as this would also be bad for response time. Once the air in the tube is moving, it wants to keep moving and it is best to control the air as close to the instrument as possible, which is why wind players use their tongue to create articulation.

Multichamber ocarinas also work around this problem because they play higher notes by using more chambers, only one of which is played at a time. Each chamber has its own finger holes and the player moves all fingers of the right hand to the holes of the chamber they are blowing. Due to this, they can eliminate the need for a right thumb hole.

Thoughts on

Both of the ideas that I tested are effective, and make the high notes much easier to play. It actually feels very strange not having to support the instrument while playing them.

In terms of implementation, I don't think that having this built into the instrument as I have done is a good idea. In order to work effectively it must be closely matched to the player's hands, and their idiosyncrasies of how they hold the instrument. Rather, It should be a separate piece which clips on around the ocarina, with adjustable pieces to lock onto the hands.

In principle the idea is similar to a guitar strap or violin shoulder rest. Though, as physical shape of ocarina is not standardised, it would have to be provided by every maker. I think this is feasible, considering that 3D printing and scanning are now affordable.

Some amount of adjustability could be designed into this, but making something that actually works for many players would require a deep understanding of ergonomics, and how different people actually hold the instrument. Doing such a study could be very difficult, as ocarina players are geographically disperse.

Soprano ocarinas and overblowing

It is also worth noting that soprano ocarinas also offer a unique way of eliminating the right thumb hole. Most soprano ocarinas can play a small number of overblow notes. These can be used to replace the function of the right thumb hole, and Oliver Gosselink has designed a soprano C which does just this.

Budrio Ocarina Festival 2019

Side Note

Most of the pictures used in this post where sourced from the following people on facebook: Felix Lampe, David Eric Ramos, and Tatiana Starkova. Most where posted in the 'The Ocarina Network' group. I have adjusted the white balance and levels on many of these pictures.

I think the best way of describing the 2019 ocarina festival is 'interesting', as it was quite different from usual. The market was dominated by European makers for the first time I've seen, there were many interesting ocarinas on show, and the main theatre which usually hosts the concerts was closed.

But despite these factors the festival was a blast. My friend Gabrielle put it well: "So, even this year the Budrio Ocarina Festival has shown me what a powerful connection between people can be created by this simple instrument. It's amazing how this small town becomes a world on its own for a few days, where nations, age or languages don't matter (maybe the language a bit, but we're working on it), as music and friendship are what really matters".

Note that this post is long and covers many different topics. Feel free to scroll over it to see the headings.

The market and ocarina innovations

Budrio ocarina festival always includes displays from numerous ocarina makers. As noted in the introduction, it was striking that there where almost no Asian makers, who usually have a substantial presence. I think that there was only one, and even then they weren't there for most of the festival. Consequently, the festival was dominated by European makers, with one American maker.

Myself (Pure Ocarinas)

The main thing that I had to show at the festival was my new book Serious Ocarina Player, a compilation of the tutorials section of this website. I had produced a limited number to gauge interest, and sold them all within a few hours on the first day. I expect this is going to be quite popular once it sees general release.

I didn't have that much new to show with regards to ocarinas, as writing and prepairing the book was taking all of my time for the past two years. So, I had my usual product line avalible: bass D, single/double alto G, single/double alto D, and Soprano G.

Also on display was a prototype double alto C. It isn't far off being production ready, but the chamber balance isn't quite where I want it to be. The high end of the first chamber is a little more airy than I'd like. Even if it had been ready, I didn't have enough time to make any for the festival.

Here are a few people playing my ocarinas, though do keep in mind that they were unrehearsed performances.

Zhang Zongpei Fabio Galliani triple

Zhang Zongpei collaborated with Fabio Galliani of the Gruppo Ocarinistico Budriese (GOB), producing a small number of triple ocarinas with numerous innovations. These were allocated to well known players and one went to David Ramos, who let me try it out.

The ocarina is unusual in several regards, it doesn't use either of the Asian (Vincinelli) or Pacchioni system, but borrows ideas from both of them:

  • The first chamber uses Italian fingering, and so the highest note is E, instead of the usual D#/E flat. It also includes a split hole on the left ring finger which allows the accidentals G sharp and a sharp to be played exclusively with the left hand. This is not a new idea and exists in Vincinelli instruments made by Pacchioni, but isn't that common.
  • The second chamber begins on E and opening the holes linearly produces the notes E F G A C, and d is available as a thumb hole. The B is provided by cross fingering using oxoo from pinky to index finger.
  • I didn't get much opportunity to check the 3rd chamber as I was doing so at night and it's very loud. I think it begins on C or D, having one or two notes of overlap with the second chamber. I think it plays up to about G using linear fingering.
    • It has a good tone through the whole range and the chambers are quite balanced in timbre. The ocarina has relatively high breath requirement, higher than my ocarinas, but lower than Ross' old 12 hole design. This ocarina is very loud, and is best suited for playing in a large performance space. However, it has a lot of good ideas which could easily be adapted to ocarinas with a lower breath requirement. I intend to experiment with this tuning system as and when i have time to.

      Innovations by Kurt Posch

      Kurt Posch makes 10 and 11 hole ocarinas in a range of different keys and is often experimenting with new ideas. I think the most obvious change this year is his construction method. Kurt used to use a traditional method whereby clay is wrapped around an internal form, the end being covered with a cap. Kurt is transitioning towards the most common method used today, where the chamber made in two halves and joined.

      He had put this to good use with an innovative multichamber ocarina designed to extend the range downwards, instead of upwards as usual. Kurt had previously demonstrated this idea at the ocarina festival in 2013. The design takes a standard 10 hole ocarina and adds a larger chamber that provides the lower notes. It's an intriguing concept as the lower notes can be attained without the compromises involved with subholes, or completely changing the fingering, as happens when playing a multichamber in a different key.

      With this design, only the fingerings of the added low chamber are different. It would take some time to get used to this design, however i don't think this would be especially difficult to do. Unfortunately, I neglected to get a picture of the ocarina, but a video of a scale being played is available below. A diagram showing the hole layout is also provided. Chamber 2 fingers identically to a standard double. When all holes of chamber 1 are open, the same note sounds as the lowest of the second, and closing holes from left to right goes down the scale.

      Another idea that he introduced is rather subtle, and i only noticed as he pointed it out. was to add a small circular cut out next to the right thumb hole. This can be uncovered or covered by rotating the finger, providing a controllable way of partially venting the hole. Covering or uncovering this hole changes the pitch, and it is quite easy to vary ones blowing pressure to compensate, allowing the player to vary their volume. This can be achieved without this feature, although it is much more difficult to do reliably. The initial slight venting of a hole creates a very large change in pitch.

      Kurt also has a fingering system for single chambered ocarinas whereby the left pinky hole is omitted, and replaced with a subhole that is normally open. The design arose from melodic patterns that occur commonly in the music he plays. It has advantages over a standard subhole, as it is easy to play the note very quickly and even trill it. He has also been experimenting with different voicings, including one which is a cross between a rectangular and teardrop shape. It creates a slightly more textured sound, and reduces the volume of the high notes a bit.

      Ross and Aerica (Oberon Ocarinas)

      Ross has made a lot of changes to his work since the festival in 2017. He has revised his 12 hole greatly, and has both reduced the size of the voicing and chamber volume. It has a similar timbre to the previous model with a substantially lower pressure requirement. I think the ocarina is also quieter on average, although it is hard to judge in the noisy environment of the festival, and without doing a side by side comparison with the prior revision.

      Voicing experiments seem to have been a common theme this time as Ross was also doing them. He had a range of 10 and 11 hole ocarinas with a very large range of voicing designs, including a 'recorder-like' design similar to myself and Georgio Pacchioni, rectangular voicings, and more common round, teardrop and oval shapes. They were in c, g and f and had a very diverse tones and playing characteristics from very low, almost constant pressure, to raising over the range. Very pure to notably breathy.

      Ross offers a large range of finishes. The one he has been doing for longest is a simple saggar firing, a technique where the ocarina is decorated using various oxides and salts, then fired in a reducing environment (without oxygen). It results in a finish with essentially random colour variations. The glazed finishes are done by his girlfriend Aerica, who also sculpts some of the ocarinas. I assume that she also plays the instrument, as the visual designs have negligible impact to playability.

      Ross also offers a large range of pendants which are finished by Aerica, and may also be made by her. They are colourful, available in many designs, and well tuned given the limitations of this fingering system. They have a textured timbre and are pretty quiet.

      Jade Everett

      Jade was back at the festival and had some interesting things to show. Since I last saw her work, she has developed a double alto C with the crisp sound characteristic of her ocarinas, balanced well between the chambers. Jade also had a number of alto and soprano C ocarinas on display. She has developed a new range of finishes she calls 'bubble', in addition to the line-scribed dragons and single-colour finishes. The pressure requirement is pretty close to Ross' revised 12 hole with a breath curve somewhere between this and mine.

      I must say that i like Jades soprano C greatly. It's timbre is balanced over the range and, while relatively loud, it's volume is far more even over it's range than typical of soprano c ocarinas, which often have a very quiet low end, with the high notes vastly louder. I listened to David Ramos play many pieces on this instrument over a backing track, and, due to the balanced volume, the low notes were always clearly addable. With less balanced soprano ocarinas they easily get lost in the mix.

      Some people believe that ocarinas which are louder on the high end are more expressive, but i don't think such a statement can be made generally. Volume affects emphasis and weather it is desirable to emphasise the high end depends on the music. If you need a loud low note, you just do. Emphasis can easily be created on a balanced instrument by changing the duration of the notes, shorter notes with larger gaps giving a feeling of lower volume.

      I would also have liked very much to have been able to hear the ocarinas of the other sellers, played by a skilled player in a relatively quiet environment. A downside of the market is that there is so much background noise it is impossible to evaluate the finer points of an instrument's timbre. Ocarinas can also sound quite different to a listener than they do to a player.

      Oliver had his usual range of ocarinas including transverse singles in a wide range of keys, and Pacchioni tuned doubles and triples. He also had his double chamber harmony ocarinas, and birds, all of the prior in the usual colourful finishes.

      Oliver also seems to be experimenting with voicing designs. Unfortunately, I only became aware of this at the end of the last day, thus wasn't able to talk to him about it. He usually uses a rectangular voicing and his ocarinas have a richly textured sound. He seems to be experimenting with round voicing as well, pointed out by someone who bought one with this design. As I could not do a side by side comparison I'm unable to comment on what difference this makes.

      Together, I think that Oliver, Aerica, Jade, (previous headings), and Patrizia (next section) do a great job of offering visually attractive designs, which are also great instruments.

      Other makers and other things

      The market featured the usual complement of Italian makers including Menaglio, Fecchio, Maurizio Moretti, Giorgio Pacchioni, Claudio Colombo and many makers of pendants and sculptural whistles, birds and water whistle bird calls.

      Colombo ocarinas decorated by Patrizia Piodella.

      As usual, other instruments where also featured such as ceramic flutes, ceramic and metal tongue drums and someone selling instruments made from recycled materials. One of the sellers was even playing a rubber glove bagpipe at one point.

      New at the festival was someone selling ceramic and metal tongue drums. While I have seen these in metal and wood, I'd never considered making such an instrument from ceramic. They work remarkably well and have a good sound, although I do wander how durable they would be.


      Due to the need to watch my table in the market I was unable to see most of the concerts, but I did see a some of the evening ones. They felt kind of strange as the main theatre which usually hosts the concerts was closed for renovations. It also felt to me like there were fewer performers at the festival, the only ones I can think of who travelled in where the ocarina seven form japan, and an group of (I think) Taiwanese children, who did an ocarina performance crossed with a stageplay in the square during the market.

      I only saw a small part of this as I had to watch my table, but what I did see was impressive both technically, musically, and in terms of acting (although I didn't film that). Playing a large number of ocarinas in unison like this, with flawless intonation that they achieve is technically very difficult to do. That they where doing so while dancing was even more impressive. I moved my table on following days to be able to see the performances going on in the square.

      As I've been to the festival 4 times before, the performances which most caught my attention where those doing something a bit different. I especially enjoyed Nancy Rumble's performance on several instruments including a wooden harmony double and oboe. Accompanied with guitar. This double makes use of two 4 hole systems, and the quality of the performance was very surprising to me, as the 4 hole system does have tuning limitations. I'm not sure if she is compensating for these by avoiding certain intervals. I did talk to her afterwards, and she did mention sometimes partially venting holes. This performance did rather change my opinion of the 4 hole system, showing that it can be played quite competently by a good player.

      Another performance that I liked a lot was a group playing some traditional dance music from the local area (bologna), with i think two ocarina players, a mandolin and guitar. Many of these tunes I'd heard played before by ocarina ensembles at the festival, but this group added their own twists. Having the range of different instruments to add depth to the sound, generally upbeat style, and the animated, sometimes comic, performance of the lead player made them very amusing to watch.

      The GOB orchestra a wide range of things with an orchidtra. Culminating with an arrangement and variations of twinkle twinkle little star with audience participation. I think that getting people involved in performances in this way is great as it shows people that they don't have to be a fantastic player to perform. I'd only say that they should have made it more obvious that sheet music was available.

      If audience participation performances become a regular thing at the festival I can see it being a highlight of the event.

      Future of the ocarina forum

      An ongoing problem is to raise awareness of the ocarina as a serious instrument within the general public, and the festival included an open forum to discover what people think holds it back. A mixture of players and makers where in attendance.

      Fabio Galiani and Gabriele Monachesi lead the discussion, beginning with mentioning places where the instrument is well known. For example he said that in Japan, the ocarina is mostly played by older people. In china and Korea it is widely used in schools, and suggested doing the same thing. At this point, I contributed the point that I made in my post "Avoiding a recorder disaster in the ocarina community". Basically stating that if most peoples exposure to an instrument is children playing badly, people will not take it seriously. Fabio responded by saying that exposure to skilled performances is very important, a point I have also made.

      I was also going to add that, while ocarinas look simple, there are a lot of hidden complexities. Varying blowing pressure changes pitch instead of volume, thus the most intuitive way of creating emphasis is bad technique. The fingerings of accidentals depend on chamber acoustics, and thus vary between ocarinas, especially ones in different octaves. Playing an instrument musically also requires a great deal more than knowing a fingering system.

      If the ocarina is going to be used for teaching music to children, I think that it is absolutely critical that good methods are developed for teaching these issues. Immediately before the forum, I watched a performance in the square with different groups of children. The performance was full of technical mistakes: almost none of them where tonguing notes, and many where letting cheeks puff out. It's frustrating for me to watch, as these things are easy to correct and would have hugely improved the quality of the performance.

      Another point raised relates to an experience that my friend Gabriele had with a group of young players in Budrio. They would play the music that they where told to, and were very skilled. However, when asked if they played anything for themselves, they all said no. They didn't know that they could could play other music, and one was shocked when Gabriele started playing a movie theme. You can play that! Was their reaction. It's important to encourage learners to learn music that they personally like.

      I can't remember the exact sequence of events, but something discussed around this time was the pros/cons of tabs. Ocarina tabs have a lot of problems which I have discussed here, and I think Fabio said that he thinks they are always a bad idea. Another point raised was including tabs in sheet music which I said could be a trap, as it's too easy to fall back. Someone said that she does make use of tabs in sheet music, but makes them too small to read easily, which may be a solution.

      Other points included naming issues, and the importance of the availability of good instruments. The term 'ocarina' can be confusing as it is used to refer to a wide range of things, including serious instruments and novelty items. This can make it difficult for people to find ocarinas that are actually good quality musical instruments. Many are designed with visuals first, and David added that he runs into many children attempting to play badly made Chinese Zelda 'ocarinas'. They wander what they are doing wrong, when the instrument is the problem.

      More generally, it was mentioned that the ocarina is a young instrument, and as musicians and composers become more accustomed to it's abilities, they may start writing for it. The ocarina offers an unusual timbre which isn't often heard, and it does stand out in a crowd. However, I think before this can happen, there needs to be a critical mass of skilled players.

      I enjoyed the discussion and some good points where raised. My only complaint is that a lot more time should have been allocated to it. It could easily have gone on for hours.

      Closing, and ideas for future festivals

      I enjoyed the festival and seeing what new things makers have developed since the last one. I also really enjoyed the social environment of the festival, It's lovely having so many people coming together over a love of this instrument.

      I really enjoyed the forum discussion, and would love if the festival included more things of this nature. For one, at the festival in 2013 there was a makers presentation, where makers could present things they had been working on. I think this is a good idea as they are often subtle and may not be noticed in the market, Kurt Posch's thumb hole modification for example. If such an event was included now I'd have some worthwhile things to add to it, unlike in 2013.

      I'll close with this picture of me playing David's uke, much to the supprise of those around me.

The importance of open (patent free) design in the ocarina community

A side effect of the ocarina's widespread use as a musical toy is that their development has been relatively stagnant for some time. As far as I'm aware nobody has throughly examined them under the light of modern research techniques and computer simulation. As people become aware of the ocarina as a serious instrument this will start to happen and it's pot luck what will result. The problem is that any new discoveries would be patentable. Should such a discovery be a 'game changer', something that everyone wants, this could seriously disrupt the ocarina community. I don't think this would be a positive thing.

Despite what the name implies, 'the ocarina' is not a single instrument; the term refers to a haphazard collection of loosely related things ranging from whistles that only produce a single note, to art pieces, serious performance instruments and everything in-between. Even among serious instruments there are *many* variations in timbre, breath response and ergonomics:

Timbre: The ocarina's physics are capable of creating a wide range of timbres, from the characteristic 'pure' sound, a pure but airy sound to a reedy timbre like exhibited by Gosselink and Pacchioni ocarinas. What is optimal depends on player taste and the genre of music.

Ergonomics: Ocarinas vary hugely in their physical shape and hole placement. Everyone's hands are different and no single design can cater to all. People with a physical disability should not be discounted either.

Tuning: As an ocarina's pitch depends mostly on hole size instead of position, it is trivial to tune them to non-major scales. Tunings making use of microtones are also possible. Another consideration is that ocarinas are temperature sensitive and must be tuned for the temperature range they will be played in.

Pressure response: An ocarina's breath curve is determined largely by the maker and can be much more free-form than other wind instruments. They can have very low pressure, very high pressure, a regular change between there high and low notes or increase exponentially for a louder high end.

Volume: Ocarinas can be made to produce a wide range of volumes, from relatively quiet to ear splitting. What is preferable is completely situational.

Visuals: While these goals are often at odds with each other, ocarinas can be both good instruments and sculptures to some extent. Such designs are almost always one-off commissions.

I believe that the open, communal development we have today is critical to fulfilling the needs of players. Music is inherently a subjective art and so are the tools used to create it. One maker cannot cater to all of these variations as the number of permutations is enormous. Makers produce either designs that they personally like or what sells the most. Plus, the creator of a design is rarely aware of all applications. My Pacchioni system double in D for example: this design works well for Irish traditional music but Pacchioni was not aware of the use case. He isn't interested in the genre.

This is especially problematic with ocarinas as there playing characteristics are set by the maker and cannot be changed. It is fine when development is fully open but if things start to become patent-encumbered, it may become impossible for a player to obtain what they want. This would create considerable fragmentation in the community and bury certain designs just because they are not as popular.

Simultaneous discovery also needs to be considered. Everyone works in the same universe constrained by physics. When someone has a problem they experiment with these rules and may find a solution. However the number of solutions are finite, two or more people looking at the same problem can easily arrive at the same solution. I highly recommend reading "what technology wants", which covers this in detail.

When I began making ocarinas, I was terrified of other makers as I feared that their mere existence would ruin any chance of making sales. However, this no longer bothers me as I can see that the ocarina is much more diverse than I realized. Makers can still compete on quality and by providing playing characteristics that appeal to a different audience.

Following the 80/20 rule, 80 percent of people will be happy with a single design. Small makers fill in the 20 percent: high end, niche or one-off items. I don't believe that they compete directly with larger makers and blocking them would reduce diversity. So what would I suggest? Simply don't tell people what you are doing. From a naive point of view it is very difficult to figure out why a particular design works. Ocarinas are insanely finicky and changes on the order of 0.1 mm can make a huge difference.

While I am aware that cloning, 'knock offs', and counterfeits are a thing and dilutes a brand, I think trademarks and copyright are a better solution. It blocks lazy copying while allowing people to take inspiration. If you must patent something at least make it licensable for a sane cost. Small makers usually have small margins; it doesn't take much to make the business uneconomical.

Making an idea popular requires either an enormous marketing budget or an open design. If something is free to implement, its public visibility increases naturally as there are multiple sources, thus multiple marketing efforts. Increased visibility increases the number of buyers, which increases the possibility of making sales. If the design is named after the maker, this also raises awareness of their existence, such as my mention of Pacchioni above.

So in summary, I strongly believe that a diverse community and market is better for everyone.

Avoiding a recorder disaster in the ocarina community

The recorder, a simple tubular wind instrument. In the hands of a skilled player they are capable of some pretty impressive music, just look up players like Michala Petri, Lucie Horsch and Hidehiro Nakamura. Yet when many people think of the recorder they don't think of these great musicians. What comes to mind is classrooms of children producing high pitched sequels and playing out of tune. They are oblivious to the true capability of this simple instrument. A reputation disaster.

I believe this has come to be because of poor teaching and a lack of mainstream roll models. Recorders rarely feature in mainstream music. They are taught by people who are not expert musicians. In the UK recorder is taught in primary school. At this kind of school most subjects are taught by the same teacher. No single person can be equally skilled in all subjects. This is especially true considering that arts take a back seat to maths and literacy.

The recorder suffers from a flawed illusion of simplicity. It looks simple to someone who is inexperienced, lacking the visually complex key systems of other wind instruments. In fact many 'complex' instruments actually make it easier to produce a reasonable sound. Piano and keyboard for instance both have stable pitch, the same key reliably plays the same note.

This cannot be said of the recorder. Pitch depends on blowing pressure and blowing too hard will cause the note to squeak. The player has to control both there breath pressure and fingering simultaneously to avoid this. If a teacher is unable to correct these mistakes it will be frustrating as the student is left with a problem and no solution.

I fear that if the ocarina sees widespread adoption in education it will end up in the same position as the recorder. Considered a child's instrument with few aware of it's real ability. Nobody bothering to try and play it well.

On the ocarina breath control errors create serious intonation issues. You can easily play an E while fingering a low D just by blowing too hard. I suspect that in a classroom this would be solved by ignorance. Detecting these errors requires ear training, they are invisible without it.

This is bad. If someone is not shown how to play in tune they will never learn how to. Rather than ignoring intonation it would be better to teach an instrument with stable pitch. If one specifically set out to do so it would be straightforward to design an instrument for teaching children. In my mind this would be an electronic instrument as they offer greater design freedom.

Playing a wind instrument is a task with numerous technical pitfalls. One has to hold the instrument correctly. control there breath pressure, start / finish notes crisply using the tongue and constantly pay attention to pitch. In each of these cases there are many ways that things can go wrong. Just holding the instrument offers mistakes like covering holes using the fingertips or forcing the thumb to bend backwards. These mistakes may make the instrument painful to hold, may cause player frustration and will limit there ability.

I think at least in the beginning stages instrument lessons should be one to one, one teacher and one student. It enables the teacher to notice and correct mistakes quickly. By comparison a haphazard classroom environment leaves a lot of opportunity for mistakes to go unnoticed. It is likely to produce a mess. Seeing as teachers have trouble with squeaking recorders I have no confidence they could teach how to play the ocarina in tune.

Poor teaching can be worse than no teaching. In my time playing in public I have talked with numerous adults who believe they are incapable of playing music. The most frequently cited reason? Bad experience with the recorder in school.

Finally I think if an instrument is to keep a positive reputation where there are many bad players it must be used skilfully in mainstream music. Unfortunately the general public runs on first impressions. If there only experience is children playing poorly they will assume the instrument sucks. This can be countered by exposure to skilled performance.

My troubled experience with music as a child

As an instrument maker you may assume that music has played a deep roll in my life. Unfortunately that wasn't the case and I only grasped it as an adult.

It's a strange outcome looking back at it because I grew up surrounded by instruments including piano, guitar and multiple recorders. However neither of my parents actively played them. My dad used to play the clarinet but he stopped before I was born.

Around the age of 5 or 6 I had music lessons on the keyboard and violin but it didn't connect with me at the time. Exposure to my grans folk and theater music lead me to develop an interest in music around the age of 10. I remember particularly liking the songs from the musical Oliver.

I wanted to learn to play these but did not know how to relate what I was hearing to an instrument. The piano was intimidating with so many keys and I did not know the fingerings for the recorder. Consequently it was extremely difficult to make anything musical. When I did by chance there was no clear progression and I quickly lost interest.

Several years later when I started high school I remember one music class that introduced the basics of sheet music. For the first time ever something actually made sense. I took home the music from the class and learned to play Fur Elise on the piano.

This small success raised several questions: what are the black keys for? Why are multiple keys called 'A' when they clearly sound different? The music teacher in school shrugged off the questions. I had other interests that were proving to be more fruitful so music was once again abandoned.

It only 'clicked' for me in my early 20's. I happened to play Final Fantasy 9 which I'd missed as a child. The games music strongly connected with me and inspired me to attempt to learn it. Unlike my prior experiences access to information wasn't a problem anymore. I discovered a tutorial that explained the major scale formula and within a few minutes had an idea why the black keys exist.

Simultaneously I discovered the origin of octaves. When the frequency of a note is doubled or halved the human mind perceives both pitches equivalently. For example the note A4 has a frequency of 440Hz. If this is doubled to 880Hz you get A5. Similarly the note A3 is half at 220Hz. This realization allowed me to grasp the repeating note names.

With these two revelations everything else fell into place. I started playing the ocarina and within a few weeks could play a number of the themes from FF9. From there I branched out to other instruments. I learned to play a few chord progressions on the guitar and began playing a wide range of traditional folk music. This has been my main interest since.

Researching the ocarina's breath curve and how temperature affects it

The pitch of the ocarina is affected by temperature, though how is not well understood. Being a mouth blown instrument, the air will be warmed by the body. However, this warmed air is constantly mixed with ambient-temperature air from the environment.

Over the past years, I have had the opportunity to play ocarinas in a very wide range of situations. This has meant dealing with freezing temperatures in the middle of winter, to barely tolerable highs in the summer. As their pitch is so sensitive to changes in blowing pressure, ocarinas are tuned by the player raising or lowering their breath. This is done while listening to the pitch and the accompaniment.

Whenever I have played with other musicians, I've always experienced difficulty playing in tune from the first note. As the ocarina is tuned by ear, this is somewhat a given. However, the needed change does not feel like I'm applying an equal breath change to every note. I always need to listen to my pitch relative to the other musicians, making deliberate compensations for every note until my muscle memory takes over. It's like there is a need to re-learn the instrument's breath curve with every playing session.

Due to this, I have come to suspect that ocarinas have a non-linear response across their playing range. To research the underlying behaviour, I came up with two questions that are testable by experiment:

  1. How does the ocarina's pitch respond to changes in pressure across its sounding range, where ambient temperature is constant?
  2. How does the ocarina respond to changes in ambient air temperature?

This article describes my results of testing these two questions. The intention was to obtain a 'high level' or 'ballpark' overview and, as such, my methodology and test equipment is not as rigorous as it could be. Throughout the article, I make note of methods which could be improved, as well as results which appear abnormal. To eliminate variation in instrument tuning, all measurements were taken using the same ocarina.

How does the ocarinas pitch respond to changes in pressure?

To test how an ocarina's pitch responds to pressure across its range, I have measured the pressure required to sound every note. These measurements were taken at A440, and offset above/below this in 20 cent intervals using an electronic tuner. The tested tunings were:

  • A440 minus 40 cents
  • A440 minus 20 cents
  • A440 (zero cents)
  • A440 plus 20 cents

The pressure needed to sound every note at these offsets was measured using an electronic pressure transducer from a tube alongside the instrument's windway. Because I do not have anything to use as a reference, I have made no effort to calibrate to a standard. Thus, my results are given in arbitrary 'units'. While these cannot be compared with 3rd party measurements, they can be compared with other values from the same measurement device. See 'How I made these measurements' for further details.

In order to avoid introducing errors from varying ambient temperature, the ocarina was pre-warmed by playing it for several minutes. After this, all measurements were taken quickly over about 15 minutes, leaving little time for the ocarina to cool.

My tuner was first set to A440 minus 40 cents and the pressure measured for each note one after the other. This was repeated for -20, 0, and +20 cents. Every time the tuner was adjusted, the instrument was re-warmed by blowing 5 full breath long tones immediately before making measurements for that tuner setting. The ambient air temperature was 15 degrees centigrade.

Following are the results of this experiment:

Cents C D E F G A B C D E F
-40 30 31 33 32 33 33 35 37 41 50 56
-20 34 35 39 42 43 43 46 49 55 63 68
0 36 39 44 46 48 51 54 61 69 75 83
20 39 43 48 51 57 61 69 78 85 103 121

And graphed:

The first thing I noticed from the graph is that the curves diverge. As the pitch increases at the low end, a greater amount of pressure is required to maintain the same pitch raise at the high end. Raising the pitch from -40 cents to -20 at the low end required a raise of 4 units (30 to 34), while the same change on the high end required a raise of 12 units (56 to 68).

This divergence between the low and high end also appears to increase the further the pitch is raised. Raising from zero cents to plus 20 required a change of 3 units on the low end (36 to 39), but 38 units on the high end (83 to 121). That is 26 units (38 - 12) more than raising the high F from -40 cents to -20.

These values increase as the pitch is pushed further. For instance, consider high F: minus 40 to minus 20 takes a 12 unit increase, minus 20 to zero takes a 15 unit increase, and zero to plus 20 takes a 38 unit increase. The difference steadily gets larger.

The results at the low end appear to contradict, -40 to 20 changing by 4, -20 to 0 changing by 2 and 0 to 20 changing 3. Based on the shape of the other 3 curves, the -20 cent curve between low C and G appears to be reading high. I would expect it to lie closer to the middle between the minus 40 and zero curves.

I believe this is a quantisation error caused by the limited resolution of my measurement set-up. It is also probable that I contributed to the error. The ocarina is very sensitive to changes in pressure on these low notes, and holding it stable is not easy. The first could be addressed with a more sensitive measurement device, and the second by taking multiple measurements and making an average. However this does increase the chance of error from environmental temperature change, as it would take longer to take more measurements.

Eliminating temperature changes as a factor could be attained by measuring the internal temperature simultaneously with pressure and looking for any correlation between the measurements.

Another abnormality I observed is the sharp angles present in the plus 20 cent curve which do not correlate with any of the other curves. I do not know what caused this, and repeating the measurements would be required to determine if they are a one-off error or not.

How does ambient air temperature affect an ocarinas tuning?

To test how ambient air temperature affects the tuning of an ocarina, I have measured the pitch of an ocarina's high F at different temperatures. The high F was used as a reference as this note is the least affected by changes in breath pressure

The ambient temperature of my workshop swings greatly depending on the temperature outside. I took a measurement playing the high F, adjusting my breath pressure until the note sounded best to my ear, then took note of how many cents it differed from F at A440. This was recorded along with the ambient air temperature.

Breath warming was minimised by leaving the ocarina for several hours before taking each measurement, and then taking the measurement during the first breath. A number of measurements were taken over several days.

Results; all temperatures are in degrees Celsius:

Temperature Cents from A440
2.5 -39
10 -25
12 -22
14 -19
17.4 -14
16.7 -15
20 -7
22 -3

When graphed, this appears to be a linear plot. I have added a line of best fit:

Without the effect of breath warming, the pitch of the ocarina appears to shift linearly at a rate approximately 9 cents per 10 degrees. There is some variation in the plotted points, which I assume is due to variation in what I was perceiving as 'best sound' at a given time.

As the ocarina is a blown instrument and the human body warms the air it is breathing, this air will warm the ocarina over the duration of a playing session. However, the air inside the ocarina is continually being mixed with air syphoned in through the voicing from the surrounding environment. Because of this, the internal air temperature will find an equilibrium between the breath and ambient air temperature. Consequently, I would expect the ocarina's pitch to sharpen if played from cold. Exactly how much, and over what time duration would require another experiment to determine.


Ocarinas are affected by ambient air temperature. While this can be compensated for by changing breath pressure, the ocarina responds non-linearly to these changes across its sounding range. Ocarinas will play best at the temperature they where tuned at. When played in a environment colder than it was tuned in, the notes may be blown up to pitch. However, doing so requires a larger change in breath pressure on the instrument's high notes than its low notes.

This non-linearity is likely responsible for the pitch errors I have been experiencing. It makes it difficult to learn an ocarina's breath curve as the curve required to play in concert pitch changes with ambient temperature. Dealing with a non-linear breath curve shift as a player is problematic. This is analogous to having a string instrument whose frets move with temperature. As the 'set points' of the breath change, muscle memory is not reinforced. This non-linearity is likely responsible for the pitch errors I have been experiencing. It makes it difficult to learn an ocarinas breath curve as the curve required to play in concert pitch changes with ambient temperature.

In light of this, I'd recommend blowing the ocarina to stabilise its temperature before a performance. From there, play the ocarina with your usual breath curve and re-tune any accompaniment to you. Doing so will allow your breath curve to remain more consistent, allowing muscle memory to be reinforced. If you absolutely have to play in concert pitch in a cold situation, I would recommend obtaining an ocarina tuned to play in A440 at a lower ambient temperature. Ocarinas tend to have a relatively limited pressure range in which they have their best tone. Blowing harder will raise their pitch, but it also makes the tone increasingly airy. In extreme cases, this causes the high notes to squeak.

Because the needed pressure change appears to grow the higher the note, I suspect ocarinas with fewer holes would experience less divergence between their high and low end. The measurements where taken on an 11 hole ocarina, though I did not measure the low B. On a 10 hole ocarina, I would expect the required pressure change between the low and high end to be smaller.

I think that makers should specify the temperature an ocarina was tuned to play best at. If someone plays an ocarina in concert pitch in a cold environment and the high notes squeak as a result, they may assume they have a badly made instrument.

How were these measurements made?

The pressures involved with blown wind instruments are low. Water in a U-tube may be used to measure these low pressures; the difference between the water level in the two tubes is proportional to the pressure applied. This is commonly given as inches of water or centimetres of water.

While the U-tube works for measuring low pressures, I found it cumbersome to use as the water takes several seconds to stop moving after pressure is applied. All commonly available 'dial' and digital pressure gauges are designed for measuring pressures considerably higher than the range I'm interested in—for example, car tyre pressures and compressed air systems which use tens to hundreds of PSI. I have measured ocarina breath pressures in the past using a U-tube filled with water, and the highest pressure observed was 19 centimetres of water, about 0.27 PSI.

I discovered that pressure transducers do exist for such low pressure ranges. These are electronic components which linearly convert pressure into a voltage. I created a gauge using one of these and an Arduino microcontroller to sample its analogue output, the values from which were streamed to a Linux computer via USB serial.

The values obtained from this are simply the direct output of the Arduino's ADC, minus a zeroing offset as the transducer outputs a voltage higher than zero volts when no pressure is applied. I have made absolutely no attempt to calibrate these units to a universal standard as I do not have a reference standard with with to do so. However, measurements taken may be compared with others made from the same device.

Since buying this transducer, I have become aware of others which are designed to work with lower pressures. Using one of these would increase the resolution in the low pressures being measured. As is always the case, when you do something for the first time, you inevitably find better ways of doing it.

Why an ocarinas chamber shape matters

It is commonly thought that the shape of an ocarina does not matter acoustically as the entire volume is always in oscillation. I have come to question this assumption due to the ease of attaining clear high notes in soprano ocarinas, while lower tunings struggle to do so.

I believe this is at least partially caused by chamber shape. I've long known that the size of a finger hole can never exceed the internal diameter of the chamber. If a hole is larger than the chamber, the chamber itself becomes the limiting factor and the pitch cannot rise.

This phenomenon is inherent in designing transverse soprano ocarinas. In order to attain the high pitch a small chamber volume is required. However in order to keep the instrument playable by people with larger hands the finger holes must be positioned far apart. The combination of these two factors forces the use of a high aspect ratio chamber, a chamber with a small internal diameter with respect to it's length.

I believe that this is, at least in part, responsible for the ease of attaining clear high notes in soprano ocarinas. To attain there pitch the size of many finger holes, particularly the thumb holes, must be close to the internal diameter of the chamber itself. When this happens, the air oscillating in the chamber seems to enter/exit via the hole, effectively bypassing the air in the section of chamber downstream of the hole. This seems to dynamically reduce the effective volume of air oscillating in the chamber as higher notes are played.

As is the case when the chamber volume is reduced by making a smaller ocarina, reducing the mass of air in oscillation allows it to oscillate faster and freely.

This effect may be easily employed in higher keyed ocarinas, however as the chamber volume increases the chamber must become increasingly bulbous. Bass ocarinas must be designed to keep there finger holes close so they may be played by people with smaller hands. Attaining the needed volume for a bass ocarina with a high aspect ratio chamber would require the finger holes to be spaced very wide apart and the length of the chamber would be unwieldy.

Continuing with the idea of chamber volume bypassing, one way of attaining the same effect with a manageable chamber design would be to have multiple 'sub volumes' attached to a main chamber. Each would have a hole at there base which bypasses the following chamber volume. Such a design is likely to have non-fundamental modes of resonance, which could bring out unpleasant tones, or cause some scale notes to have mismatched timbre.

Such a geometry could be folded within the volume of a typically shaped transverse ocarina chamber, meaning that the external appearance could be much the same as existing bass ocarinas. For example the two thumb holes of a bass ocarina could be used to bypass volume by enclosing them within a 'trunk' only open at one end, as shown in the following diagram.

It is probable that this could also be used to reduce active volume for ocarinas using a keyed hole to extend the range upwards. By inducing a slimier 'trunk' around that hole, as shown for the two thumb holes. This may be more effective in this situation as a larger hole could allow a greater volume to be bypassed.

Playable 3d printed ocarina experiment

Having seen a few uninspiring 3D printed ocarinas, I was curious weather it was possible to create a playable musical instrument using current technology. Playable meaning In tune, with good ergonomics, a good appearance and a musical tone.

I produced a 3D model of my current Pure Alto C. I followed it's dimensions closely but reduced it to a 10 hole, increasing the chance of getting a playable high end. When proofing a technology it makes sense to use the best implementation you can get access to. To this end I had it 3D printed by shapeways, who reportedly use 'million pound grade' machines.

3d printed ocarina

3d printed ocarina layers

My first impressions where generally good. Out of the box the ocarina had a smooth but powdery finish somewhat like unglazed earthenware. The detail-resolution attained by Shapeways' process is impressive. It's orders of magnitude better than anything I have seen out of consumer-grade filament machines. Ergonomically it handles much like the ceramic version, but is considerably lighter.

Shapeways uses a laser sintering process, fusing successive layers of powder. Unfortunately the cleaning process had not removed this powder from the windway, leaving the ocarina unplayable. After clearing the windway the ocarina was able to produce a sound through it's entire range. However the roughness created from the layers had not left a smooth enough finish inside the windway. This caused turbulence and left the ocarina with a noisy, edgy and harsh tone. The tone improved considerably after polishing the wind-way with some fine sandpaper.

As I had deliberately undersized the holes, it was not in tune, as there size is greatly effected by small changes in the chamber. It was subsequently tuned by opening out the holes using the same process used in my ceramic ocarinas. These could be measured and the model updated appropriately, which would make future ocarinas in tune.

It plays and sounds ok, but pails in comparison to the ceramic ocarina it was based on. Due to the layered nature of 3D printing, a considerable amount of detail resolution would be required to create a smooth enough wind-way 'out of the box'.

As of the current point in time, obtaining prints of this quality is very costly. The ocarina in this post cost just shy of £50, due to the need for hand finishing, the market price would have to be £80 to £100 plus shipping. Consequently selling them is uneconomic.

Material safety is also an unknown, plastics are well known for leaching toxic chemicals.

Once the price comes down 3d printing could be a means of producing bass ocarinas, and contrabass ocarinas. The reduced weight alone would be very welcome, as ceramic bases are very heavy and this weight hinders agile playing. Contrabass ocarinas are also difficult to make out of ceramic as they are prone to caving in.