Getting started playing the ocarina

The first most critical aspect of getting started playing the ocarina is to find yourself somewhere you can play without fear of embarrassing yourself. Its essential to be able to mess around so you can see how the instrument behaves in different situations.

If you can't do this in your home, then try to find a park or field close by with a quiet corner you can use. Also note that if you are a student, some colleges and universities have music practice rooms available that you may be able to use.

It's also worth finding a space that sounds good. The space that you are in will affect how your ocarina sounds, and small rooms really don't sound very good. Ocarinas sound best in large rooms or open outdoor spaces.

Holding an ocarina

Second to get started playing the ocarina is how to hold the instrument. The basics are covered here, and the page How to hold an ocarina gives more in-depth advice.

Ocarinas have one hole for every finger and both thumbs, which are labelled in the diagram below. Note that there is a 3rd hole on the bottom called the voicing; this is where the sound is produced and should not be covered while playing.

A diagram showing the physical layout of an ocarina. An ocarina is a cone shaped object with a mouthpiece on the side about a 3rd from the left hand end. Viewed from the top, there are for finger holes for the left hand on the left side of the code and four holes for the right had on the right hand side of the cone. On the bottom of the instrument are holes for the left and right thumb, and the voicing is located between them. The voicing is where sound is produced, and is never covered while playing

You hold an ocarina with your two hands approaching the instrument from opposite sides. The left hand covering the left hand finger holes, and the right hand covering the right hand finger holes. Try to keep a gentle curve along your fingers, and hold the instrument as loosely as you can, while keeping it steady. The tight 'death grip' is not useful.

When viewed from the front while holding an ocarina, your arms should be kept relatively close to your torso. Stand as straight as you can

A good general posture when holding an ocarina. Keep your head up and look straight but slightly left. Also, keep the ocarina up. Fingers should be relaxed and gently curved, and wrists should be repetitively straight

If you are able to bend your thumbs backwards, called 'hitch hikers thumb', DO NOT do so in resting position. Keeping your thumb straight is really important both for supporting the instrument, and as the folded back thumb makes playing the high notes almost impossible.

Never bend the right thumb backwards in resting position

If you can bend your right thumb backwards, 'hitchhikers thumb', never, NEVER! do so while holding an ocarina. Doing that means that the thumb cannot properly support the instrument, which makes it feel less stable, and makes it impossible to roll the thumb off the hole. Doing this also tends to make all of the other fingers tense and lie at strange angles, as it puts the hand out of alignment

The thumb should be straight

The position of the right thumb while holding an ocarina, The thumb is straight, with the hole covered towards its tip

Cover the holes with the pads of your fingers, NOT the fingertips. And notice that you can feel the edges of each hole underneath the pad of your finger. It is really important to keep your fingers over the centre of the holes, and if you mis-cover a hole the ocarina will not sound very good.

Breathing

For an ocarina to make sound you have to blow into it, but there is some nuance in doing so.

The human body has two patterns of breathing:

  • Shallow (clavacular) breathing, where the shoulders raise and lower.
  • Belly (diaphramatic) breathing, where the belly moves in and out, and the shoulders do not move.

To get a clean sound learning to use belly breathing is really important.

Shallow breathing (bad)

Belly breathing (good)

Practice belly breathing. Find a mirror, and put your hand on your belly. Focus on breathing so that you can feel your hand moving in and out, and use the mirror to make sure that your shoulders do not move.

Controlling your blowing pressure

The second critical breathing technique for playing the ocarina is learning how to vary your blowing pressure. Try this simple exercise:

  • Place the palm of your hand in front of your mouth a few centimetres away.
  • Try blowing slowly, as if you were talking with a whisper, and notice how this feels on your hand.
  • Second, try blowing as hard as you can, like blowing out a candle, and also notice how this feels on your hand.

While playing the ocarina, you have to vary your blowing pressure depending on the note that you are playing, as discussed in the next section. Practice blowing at different pressures, and notice how this feels on your hand and in your belly. Then you can try to reproduce the same feeling while playing the ocarina.

Don't put a lot of the mouthpiece in your mouth. Instead form an aperture between your lips, and gently touch the instrument to this.

Discovering the breath curve

Finger the note G shown below. We are using one of the higher notes as it reduces the chance of mis-covering a hole.

Using a chromatic tuner, or the one provided below, try blowing this note. As you blow, try blowing softly, as if you were speaking with a gentle whisper, and hard like blowing out a candle. What happens?

You'll notice that as you blow harder, the pitch changes, and:

  • Blowing softly, you will get a really weak 'whistling' sound.
  • As you blow harder, the sound will become louder and clearer.
  • At high pressure, the ocarina will screech, or stop sounding.
Side Note

Note that the goal here isn't to sound good, but develop an understanding of the instrument, and how it responds in different situations.

Somewhere in the middle of the pressure range you'll find the tuner shows the note G. But as you blow harder or softer, you'll notice that the tuner says F, or perhaps even A or B if you blow really hard.

If you try this on the other fingerings shown above, you'll find that they all require a different pressure to produce the intended note. And all these unique pressures come together to form what we call "the breath curve".

A graph visualising the breath curve of a well tuned single chamber ocarina. Pressure increases smoothly from the low note to the high note

Most ocarinas have a breath curve that increases gradually towards the highest notes following a curve like shown above. As you move towards higher notes, you will have to blow harder and harder.

You may also find it interesting to notice that you can play the same note using different fingerings by changing your blowing pressure. In other words, the note that you are fingering is not the same as the note you are playing.

How to hear a unison

Using a tuner to see the pitch that you are playing is useful, but it is also critical to learn to hear your intonation, and contrary to popular belief, you do not have to be born with this skill.

Learning how to hear pitch is extremely valuable as it allows you to refine your intonation organically over time, by hearing 'this note sounds wrong', and fixing it.

The easiest way to get started learning to hear your tuning, is to learn to hear when you are in tune with a drone pitch. When two notes are exactly in tune this is called a 'unison'.

Hearing a unison with a drone is actually really easy. The following tool demonstrates this, it plays two notes, one of which you can control with the slider. Notice how when you drag the slider to the right or left, you can hear a 'warbling' sound.

Playing your first clean notes

Finger a G as shown in the fingering chart below. These notes are MUCH more pitch stable than the lowest notes, and consiquently easier to hold stable.

To play a note cleanly, you need to start it using your tongue. When you start a note, say the letter 'taaaaaaaaa'. Now hold the note for as long as you can, and when you feel that you are running out of air, stop the note again by raising your tongue. This is called a long tone.

Monitor the pitch you are playing using your tuner, or try to keep the note in tune using a practice drone. Note that to improve your control of your breath, It can help to engage your abdominal muscles, a cue being 'draw the belly button towards the spine'.

Using a dynamic drone

Dynamic drone follows the note that you are playing, and plays you the closest in-tune note for you as a reference.

Another really useful tool is a dynamic practice drone, a tool which listens to the note you are playing, and plays the closest in tune note for you as a reference on headphones. When you are sharp or flat, you will hear an unpleasant sound, but when your pitch matches it will sound clean, without variation. Fantastic !

For your convenience, I have provided a dynamic drone for you below.

Next steps