Choosing your first ocarina

As a newcomer to the instrument, ocarinas can be confusing. Unlike many instruments, ocarinas are found in many shapes and sizes, and even those that look similar may play very differently. The following page gives an overview of these things to help you choose your first ocarina.

What type ocarina should I learn?

As was discussed in Which type of ocarina should I learn? I recommend learning to play a transverse ocarina unless you have a very good reason to prefer a different type.

Transverse ocarinas have received far more development effort than any other variation. They offer by far the most choice of ocarinas designed as serious instruments. A lot of makers exist, making ones to serve a wide range of playing characteristics.

Disabilities like RSI or arthritis are reasons that you may want to consider other types, and those factors are addressed in the article linked above.

Material

Ocarinas can be found made from a number of different materials including ceramic, plastic and wood.

Plastic ocarinas are generally beginner-grade instruments. They can sound good and play well, but plastic ocarinas can have issues with moisture accumulating internally and blocking the windway, which affects playability.

Ceramic ocarinas don't have that issue as ceramic is porous, and absorbs moisture. Ceramic ocarinas are also made by a lot more makers and so offer a great deal more choice in timbre and other playing characteristics which are discussed below.

Wooden ocarinas are rare, and don't offer that much range of choice as a result. Depending on the wood and construction they may or may not be subject to condensation issues.

You can read more about ocarina materials in Materials, finish differences and ocarina care.

Pitch range

As the page 'Ocarina keys and pitch ranges' mentions, Ocarinas are made in various pitch ranges including:

  • Bass, deep soothing sound, usually not that loud.
  • Alto, quite piercing and most are pretty loud.
  • Soprano, extremely loud and piercing.

Ocarinas, and especially single chambers, have a limited sounding range. If you are playing with other people and need to play a given range of notes, you will probably have to choose an ocarina with this in mind.

An ocarina's pitch range and 'key' essentially define the lowest and highest note that it is able to play. Alto ocarinas play from about C5, basses play an octave lower than this, and sopranos an octave higher.

Single chambers have the smallest range, providing about an octave and a 4th of range. Multichambers extend these ranges upwards to two octaves or more.

As noted, higher pitched ocarinas are louder and more piercing than lower pitched ones. If you're looking to play in a performance, that could be just what you want, but perhaps not so much if you are just practising by yourself.

If you are sensitive to high pitched sounds or if you live in a built-up area with nowhere to practise alone, a soprano ocarina may not be the best choice.

Multichamber or single chamber?

Perhaps the most common question among newcomers to the ocarina is whether to get a single chamber ocarina or multichamber. There are actually pros and cons to both sides.

Pure Ocarinas 10 hole alto G ocarina with a blue glaze

Single chambered ocarinas are simpler to think about:

  • There is less to think about with having only one chamber and one set of holes.
  • Expressive playing can be easier as there is no chamber break.
  • Single chamber ocarinas are lighter than multichambers, often by a large margin.

However single chamber ocarinas have two thumb holes, and as the right thumb hole is also the primary support point. You must learn a special technique to play the high notes easily.

You also need to be much more considerate about the music you want to play. You will need multiples single chamber ocarinas in different keys to cover music using different ranges of notes. See Ocarina keys and pitch ranges.

Pure Ocarinas double alto G ocarina with shellac finish

Multichambers by comparison offer a larger sounding range:

  • You can play a lot more music using only one instrument, without needing to modify the music to fit.
  • Most multichambered ocarinas do not have a right thumb hole. This lets the right thumb exclusively support the instrument, and may ease advanced playing.

A possible downside of multichambers is that the range is divided between chambers and you have to perform chamber switching—blowing into a given chamber to play its part of the range.

This can seem daunting, but isn't a huge issue with good technique. The Pacchioni tuning system also helps a lot with this issue, as its chambers are tuned with an overlap so there is less need to switch between them.

So which should you learn?

If you are someone who is looking to try the instrument to see what it is about, a single chamber ocarina may be the best starting point. You can learn all of the fundamentals of ocarina playing—fingering, intonation, and ornamentation, using a single chamber ocarina.

But given that multichambers are just an extension of the single chamber design, you can learn most of the same things by just ignoring the higher chambers.

Which you should choose depends on what you are planning to play, and I hope that I've given enough information to let you make that choice.

How big are your hands?

Another very important factor is finding an ocarina that fits your hands and is comfortable for you to play.

Everyone's hands are different and you will find some ocarinas more playable than others, as ones made by different makers have differing hole placement. Higher pitched ocarinas are physically smaller than lower pitched ones. If you have big hands, you may find it difficult or impossible to play a soprano range ocarina.

An ocarina that is well suited to your hands should not force your wrists to fold backwards, but note that how you hold the ocarina affects this. Take a look at the page 'How to hold an ocarina'.

Hole spacing is also an issue. If the spacing of the holes is notably less than the spacing of your fingers when they are touching, you will find it difficult to cover the holes. Pressing your fingers against each other is not ideal and makes it more difficult to move them.

The following list gives the spacing between the centres of the finger holes of the ocarinas I make. Others will be different, but it will give a vague idea.

  • Soprano G: 15mm
  • Alto C: 17mm
  • Alto D: 17mm
  • Alto G: 20mm
  • Bass D: 23mm

Unfortunately, there is little that you can do to know what works for you without trying a number of different ocarinas. And given that there is little opportunity to try ocarinas in person, you're going to have to buy a few from different makers and see what best suits you.

Playing characteristics and timbre

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.

Pressure differences, on the other hand, are rarely documented. As noted before, the pitch of an ocarina changes with blowing pressure, and each note requires a different pressure to play in tune. These pressures are called the breath curve, and vary between ocarinas. Breath curves may be relatively flat to very steep.

How an ocarina's pitch responds to pressure changes over its range. The low notes are much more sensitive to pressure changes, so to create the same change in pitch on the high notes requires a much larger change in blowing pressure

Breath curves are a matter of preference but, in my opinion, flatter is better. Every time you change from one note to another, you have to change your breath pressure, and making smaller changes is easier than large ones. One reason for playing an ocarina with a steeper breath curve is to attain more volume. However, in this day and age, it's of questionable value as amplification is common. Also, even lower pressure ocarinas are louder than you may realise. An ocarina's tone is piercing, and its volume is mostly projected away from its voicing.

Ocarinas with fewer holes can be tuned to have a more balanced volume over their range.

Breath curves and playing characteristics

Together, the design of the voicing and chamber volume creates a 'possibility space' wherein an ocarina can sound. This space is quite large as ocarinas change pitch with blowing pressure, so makers choose the sizes of the finger holes to attain the desired playing characteristics.

As was discussed on the page covering breath curves, ocarinas vary in pressure sensitivity over their range and the low notes are more sensitive. This effect can be used in combination with the finger holes to expand the total range. The ocarina is tuned with a large low end to high end pressure difference, frequently with a low end pressure drop.

A graph showing the typical breath curve of an Asian 12 hole ocarina, the pressure increases gradually, more steeply towards the high end, with a sharp pressure drop on the lowest notes

This tuning does extend the range, but it also has an effect of altering the ocarina's volume dynamics, leaving the low notes considerably quieter than the high notes. A different approach that results in a more balanced volume dynamic is to increase the blowing pressure on the low end. But as blowing harder also raises the pitch, the total attainable range is also reduced. Ocarinas tuned in this way can typically only achieve 10 holes.

A graph showing the breath curve of an ocarina with a low end pressure raise, and a gentle curve towards the high notes. Increasing the pressure the low notes are tuned at in relation to the high notes makes the volume of the whole instrument more balanced, but tends to reduce sounding range

An ocarina with fewer holes and a louder low end can be more useful as general performance instrument, while pushing for maximum range tends to result in quiet low notes that don't project, and are of little use outside a recording studio.

You can get a reasonable idea of an ocarina's breath curve by looking at hole size. Larger holes generally indicate an ocarina tuned a higher pressure. As hole size also depends on chamber shape and wall thickness, this should only be taken as rough guidance, however.

Don't fret too much

I don't think you should worry too much about getting the perfect ocarina right away. Ocarinas are inherently inflexible as so many things are set when they are made, and cannot be changed. 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 will also find that you need different ocarinas depending on the effect you want in the music, such as a reedy, breathy, or pure timbre, or different volume dynamics between the high and low notes. So just get some different ocarinas, and see which ones you like most. You can always sell the ones you don't like.

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. Getting a great quality musical instrument will last you for years and will not hold you back as you develop as a player. It'll also retain its value if you don't get along with it and wish to sell.