Challenges in marketing the ocarina

While the ocarina is a capable instrument in skilled hands, some aspects of the instrument itself, as well as other things like naming conventions, make the ocarina difficult to market as a serious instrument:

The name 'ocarina' is ambiguous

The term 'ocarina' is often used as a catch all for any instrument based on a hollow chamber. It can refer to things made purely as novelty items, to serious musical instruments, or to other things that straddle the line.

Large groups of people use the term to refer to different things. Consequently, when the word is used alone, it isn't clear what someone is talking about, or what someone will envisage when they read it. And while classifiers do exist, they are rarely used. Different people consider different types the 'true' ocarina, and this causes a lot of pointless arguments.

I can see this being very confusing for the general public. A newcomer who is inspired to learn the ocarina after seeing a skilled performance may not realise that only some types are playable. There is a very high probability of such a person buying a bad instrument.

This ambiguity is also a serious problem from a searchability and search engine optimisation perspective. Makers of serious instruments end up competing with those who make art pieces or novelty items in search results, when there is no reason they should be competing at all. They serve different functions, and have different audiences.

People also tend to develop fixed connections between names and what they represent. Given that 'ocarina' is a catch all, there is a tendency that all people in a given culture will bucket all ocarinas based on whatever is the most well known. If most people are exposed to the 'ocarina' as a novelty item, they won't look any deeper.

I have nothing against the different types of ocarinas in principle, as novelty items and serious instruments both have a place. People are naturally interested in different things and form different communities around those interests. But, in other contexts, the distinction between these things is usually clear from naming.

I am unsure why 'ocarina' became a catch all, as similar instruments in other families often have unique names. Guitars, ukuleles, and mandolins are technically based on the same idea, for instance. The situation that exists with naming of the ocarina would be like using 'guitar' to refer to all of these, and it should be obvious why this would be confusing.

For these reasons, I consider the ocarina to be a collection of different instruments which happen to have the same name. At this point the only real answer is educating the general public about the types of ocarinas that exist.

I would also recommend anyone innovating on this instrument to be more creative with naming choices, and am grateful that the xun and hucca (pronounced 'shoon' and 'wakka') have unique names.

Ocarinas look simpler than they are

Because the ocarina is visually simple, people not fully familiar with music might think that it doesn't require deliberate practice or technique like more visually complicated instruments.

In reality, playing the ocarina is more complex than it looks:

  • Quite a number of separate skills are required to play well, including playing common rhythms, knowledge of music theory, fingerings, ear training, and an assortment articulations and ornaments.
  • Holding and balancing an ocarina on the high notes is quite complicated.
  • The instrument's pitch is unstable and playing in tune demands fine breath control.
  • Players need to learn what makes music sound musical, and musicality is quite a complex topic in itself, independent of the complexity of any instrument.
  • Knowing how to practice effectively also helps a lot with making reliable progress.

Wind instruments in general are also more complex than initially apparent, as many techniques happen out of sight inside the body. Breath control, tonguing and vibrato for instance.

If someone learns to play the ocarina without prior awareness that they need to learn these things, it is very easy for bad habits to develop. Many of these factors may be difficult to notice without tuition, and it is very easy for someone to end up practising in a way that will never lead to them sounding good.

Without widespread knowledge of what the ocarina can do in the hands of a skilled performer, it is going to negatively affect the instrument's reputation. This can already be seen in the recorder and the tin whistle. Both are tubular wind instruments and by that nature capable of similar playing styles, yet:

  • The tin whistle is widely played in Irish traditional music. It is treated as a serious part of the tradition, and is played to a very high standard.
  • The recorder, by comparison, is often considered a child's instrument. They can be played to an equally high standard, but very few people are actually aware of this.

As was noted in the previous section, people develop fixed ideas about things. They take things at face value, and rarely question things for themselves. Thus, if an instrument has a reputation of being incapable, most people will disregard it offhand. Once such stigmas become ingrained in a wide population, they are VERY difficult to shift.

There isn't anything wrong with playing an instrument in a non-serious way for personal enjoyment, but I do feel that other instruments can cater to this need better than the ocarina. The keyboard, for instance, has stable pitch, and so a player can ignore it and still get a good sound. Mbira also has similar proprieties.

It would be entirely possible to create an ocarina-like electronic instrument with stable pitch and consistent fingerings, which is discussed in another appendix.

Melody instruments are 'weird'

I think melody instruments are culturally weird in the current world. Mainstream pop music is often based on digital synthesisers, and is vocal focused. Within this framework, melody instruments have little space to occupy besides interludes, and mainly feature in film nnd video game music. It may be the case that people lack a personal connection to these instruments or have little intuitive sense of what they are good for.

Ocarinas are even more weird, as many of the things that they can do are remote, even relative to common instrumental music. Single chambered ocarinas have a small range, whereas instrumental music often uses a wide range. On many instruments, volume is used to create emphasis, but this is not the case with the ocarina. Instead, emphasis and phrasing come from articulation and ornamentation.

An instrument's technical limitations often give it its characteristic sound and it is possible to create interesting music within a limited range, and without volume dynamics. Bagpipe music is a good example, along with much Irish traditional music.

I don't know how to address this, other than working to make instrumental music more prominent in mainstream culture.

The problem with Ocarina of Time

Ocarinas have been featured in a number of games in the Legend of Zelda franchise, and probably the most well known of these is Ocarina of Time. This is a double edged sword. It has brought awareness of the ocarina to a wider audience, but the 'ocarina' in the game is a poor depiction of the real instrument.

In order to appeal to a mass audience, the game presents a trivialised point of view. A small number of controller buttons sound notes, and pressing one of these produces a stable tone. Short melodies are mapped to actions in the game, having an effect analogous to a keyboard shortcut. However, the fingerings bear no resemblance to the real instrument, and the total number of notes is small. Issues of breath control, articulation, and misplaced fingers are completely ignored.

Additionally, the visual representation of the 'ocarina' in the game was obviously designed by someone who does not understand the instrument. It is unergonomic and the placement of the mouthpiece is acoustically poor. The holes were placed to mimic the Nintendo 64 controller and are impractical to cover under the real instrument's physics. The rounded shape is also difficult to hold as it offers nowhere for fingers to grip.

Being their first exposure to the instrument, many people assume that this is how an ocarina should look. They seek out examples that follow this design, without being aware of its problems. Consequently, they get an example of an ocarina which is harder to play than one designed only as a serious instrument and are probably not aware of this.

Someone approaching the real instrument from this point of view may not be aware of the hidden details of the real instrument, and it naturally leads into the 'no technique' approach mentioned before. Such people frequently seem to only be interested in playing music from this one game. They often end up playing from tabs, which themselves have a number of problems.

The game has done a good job presenting the ocarina to a wider audience, but I feel that it has served its purpose. The ocarina community needs to grow beyond it. This music isn't representative of what the ocarina can do if pushed. I don't think that it is healthy for a newcomer to music to be functioning within such a constrained point of view, as it will limit what they can learn.

I also think that the concept of the game, to present music to a mass audience, could be done far better today. I fundamentally like the idea behind 'ocarina of time', yet the game is now more than 20 years old, technology and the art of video game design have evolved hugely.

A new game could build on the foundation, teaching all aspects of music: rhythm, harmony and melody.

Other challenges

There are a number of other challenges in marketing ocarinas as serious instruments, principally the lack of standardisation between makers:

  • The fingering is basically standardised, but ergonomics, weight distribution and similar are not.
  • Ocarinas are often designed for visuals first, and there is a lack of awareness of how design impacts playability.
  • The lack of a standardised ergonomic design makes it extremely hard to teach playing technique as there is no way to know what ocarina a player will have.

Ocarinas also have diverse playing characteristics, but the terms for describing them are poor or non-existent. For instance, the terms 'low breath' and 'high breath' describe the shape of the breath curve, yet carry little meaning as they are subjective. What one maker considers high breath often doesn't align with another maker, and may not align with the players expectation.

It also appears that a lot of terminology was developed with little awareness of other instruments—for example, the naming of pitch ranges. The term 'bass' is used to refer to ocarinas pitched around middle C, which in other instruments is not considered 'bass'.

In order to get started playing ocarinas, or even choosing a good instrument, a lot of knowledge is required. Creating good standards used by all makers would greatly simply things for players. It would also make it much easier for composers to understand and write music for the ocarina.

Standardisation would also help a lot with educational concerns. In most instrument communities, there is a clear distinction between makers and teachers: makers make the instruments, and the teaching materials are made by skilled players.

This separation doesn't really exist with the ocarina at this time. Most of the teaching materials are provided by makers due to the lack of standardisation, and most of this ends at a very primitive skill level.

Standardisation could improve the diversity of learning resources.

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