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.

Understanding the types of ocarinas

Ocarinas are complex, many varients exist and you need to have quite a lot of knowlage to tell them apart, especially as meny are designed for visuals more than playability. There are no standardisations in ergonomics, and breath responce as exist in other instruments such as flute. As general understanding of the instrument is so poor, sellers also generally don't know what they are selling, and commonly use 'ocarina' for things ranging from novelty items to serious instruments.

The ocarina has a long history and there are many variations which are not viable as serious instruments. Of those which are you have:

Transverse ocarinas Instruments using a linier fingering system and are held across the body. They are fully chromatic.

Pendant ocarinas. Usually small and rounded in shape with 4 to 6 finger holes. Can be warn as jewellery.

I recommend getting a good quality transverse ocarina as they are fully chromatic and make fewer compromises than the pendant system. Pendants are also not a focus of this website.

Look for an 'instrument first' ocarina.

There are many transverse ocarinas on the market which are designed primarily for visual appeal, or to tie in with games and other media. Usually, these are designed to prioritise visual appearance over playability, or simply in ignorance of what makes a playable ocarina.

If your goal is to learn to play well, I strongly advise that you avoid these, and look for an ocarina that was designed from the start as a serious musical instrument, with minimal visual flair, as the playability of sculptural instruments varies a great deal, and requires experience to recognise.

It is possible to design an ocarina which is both a good art piece, and a good musical instrument. If you want to learn to identify these, it helps to understand the ergonomic design features that make an ocarina feel good in the player's hands.

10, 11 or 12 hole?

Explain differences in behaviour.

Material

Ocarinas can be found made from ceramic or plastic.

Ceramic is porous and absorbs moisture.

Plastic is not porous, and can have issues with moisture accumulating internally and blocking the windway, which affects playability.

Evaluating the sound of an ocarina

Ocarinas can vary quite a bit in timbre, from a very pure sound, to quite 'buzzy'. However, any good quality ocarina should have a consistent timbre over its entire range. Airiness will increase towards the high notes of a chamber, as they must be blown harder, but this should never drown out the ocarina's primary tone.

The following things indicate that an ocarina is poorly made:

  • Strong low notes, with weak and airy high notes.
  • A harsh, noisy and airy timbre.

An ocarina which sounds especially harsh or airy indicates either that it is being blown too hard or its voicing and windway are terrible. Listen to the sound samples below. To me, that second sound sample is unpleasant to listen to; the tone contains a large portion of wind noise and has a harsh edge.

Good sound
Bad sound

Note that problems with high end clarity can also arise from poor player technique. If you ever see an ocarina sold as 'needing an acute bend', it is probably a bad instrument. 10 and 11 hole ocarinas typically don't have this problem, and multichambers are vastly superior to 12 hole ocarinas if you want more range.

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.

If you are someone who is looking to try the instrument to see what it is about, but you are unsure you want to keep playing, a single may be the best starting point. Multichambers are just an extension of the single chamber design, thus you can learn all of the basics, like fingering and breath control, on a single chambered ocarina.

Despite looking more complex, a good multichamber can actually be easier to handle for a number of reasons. In order to maximise the range available to the player, single chambered ocarinas have two thumb holes. This is technically challenging to deal with, as the right thumb hole is also the primary support point, and it must be opened without dropping the instrument. Because they produce range in a different way, multichambered ocarinas generally do not have a right thumb hole. This lets the right thumb exclusively support the instrument, and eliminates a notable barrier to advanced playing.

Secondly, single chambered ocarinas have a very limited sounding range, and a lot of real world music will not fit without modification. While you can still run into range issues on a multichamber, it is far less of a problem. You will more frequently be able to play the music you want to play without needing to use multiple ocarinas to fit the ranges of different pieces of music.

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.

How big are your hands?

The second most important thing is having an ocarina that fits the size and shape of your hands. 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. Also note that higher pitched ocarinas are physically smaller than lower pitched ones and the spacing of the finger holes also changes. If you have big hands, you may find it difficult or impossible to play a soprano range ocarina.

Unfortunately, there is little that you can do to know what works for you without trying a number of different ocarinas. An ocarina that is well suited to your hands should not force your wrists to fold backwards; they should remain straight. However, this is further complicated by the fact that there is a lot of flexibility in the hands, and how you hold the ocarina affects things like wrist angle. 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 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

Pitch range

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.

As the page 'Ocarina keys and pitch ranges' mentions, 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.

Do note that 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. Lower pitched ocarinas tend to be quieter and have a more soothing sound.

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. 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.

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.