Choosing your first ocarina

'What music do you want to play' is really the main thing to ask when choosing your first ocarina.

As has been discussed by the previous articles in this series, ocarinas are limited range instruments. Most aspects of their playing characteristics and timbre are fixed when they are made. Different ocarinas suit different music.

For several reasons, transverse ocarinas the easiest to apply to serious performance due to variety of choice and other factors. But if you have disabilities like RSI or arthritis you may find other types such as inlines more comfortable.

Many players choose a single chamber alto C as their first instrument, either plastic or ceramic, and there's no harm in this. Alto C ocarinas have enough range to play a lot of popular song melodies, and you can learn all of the skills of exceptional ocarina playing on one.

Single chambered ocarinas in general are a good choice for new musicians as they are simpler than multichambers. There are less notes to think about.

Things get more complicated if you want to play with other musicians. Often the range of notes required will not fit on a single alto C, and you'll need to either use an ocarina in a different key, or a multichamber ocarina.

Ocarinas in different keys and pitch ranges give you the freedom to play higher or lower notes for expressive reasons, to fit with the range of other musicians, or just for personal preference. Bass ocarinas for example are much more mellow and generally quieter. If you like to play slower music, or play by yourself for personal enjoyment, starting with a bass C could be more appropriate.

Understanding the concepts of octaves, and how scales are formed from them is very freeing. It allows you to really appreciate how the many different keys of ocarina relate to each other, and how they can be broadly applied in music.

Pure Ocarinas 10 hole alto G ocarina with a blue glaze

Multichambered ocarinas offer a few distinct advantages:

  • You can play a lot more music using only one instrument, without needing to modify the music to fit.
  • They sometimes sound better, as each chamber produces a small part of the total range.
  • Most multichambered ocarinas do not have a right thumb hole. This lets the right thumb exclusively support the instrument, and may ease advanced playing.

The main downsides being that multichambers are larger, heavier, and that range is split across several separate chambers.

The pitch of an ocarina also has important ergonomic considerations, and bass ocarinas are considerably larger than soprano ocarinas. A bass could be 30 to 40 centimetres long, while a soprano will be around 12.

If you have large hands, you may find soprano ocarinas, or even some alto ocarinas impossible to play. You'll also find some ocarinas more playable than others, as ones made by different makers have differing hole placement.

Playing characteristics

The playing characteristics of ocarinas can vary a lot: they can be made to play with a lot of pressure or little, have a textured reedy sound, or be exceptionally pure. Variations in timbre are easily determined, as they can be heard by just listening to a sound sample.

In general, ocarinas with 10 holes, as well as multichambers, will have a more balanced timbre and sounding volume over their whole range. 12 hole ocarinas often have a considerable difference in volume between their lowest and highest notes.

Ocarinas can be found requiring high or low blowing pressure, as well as a steep or shallow breath curve. Breath curves are a matter of preference and both have pros and cons.

  • Steeper breath curves create a larger difference in volume between the high and low notes, which can suit vocal songs as they are often written to emphisise the high notes.
  • Flatter breath curves make playing high tempo music easier, as well as simplifying the task of playing music which leaps around the range.

One reason for playing high pressure ocarinas with a steep breath curve is to attain more volume. However, in this day and age amplification is also common.

Don't fret too much

There is more value in getting some kind of ocarina, and getting started learning to play, vs spending a lot of time thinking about which one to get. Whatever you do, you'll gain valuable experience.

Ocarinas are inherently inflexible as so many things are set when they are made As you learn to play you will start to develop preferences for what you do and don't like. It is inevitable that you are going to want to try other ocarinas. You can always sell the ones you don't like.

But one thing I would say is: Always get the best ocarina you can afford.

A good musical instrument is not a single use or short lived item. If looked after, an ocarina can easily last for hundreds of years. In fact, there are still playable ocarinas made by Giuseppe Donati in the 1800s.

Relitive to other instruments, ocarinas are not expensive. Getting a great quality, well tuned ocarina will make your learning process so much more fun and productive.

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