Guiding principles: How to become a great ocarina player
This page is a list of tips and 'gotchas' to be aware of when learning to play a musical instrument. Some of these points are taken from personal experience, others are observations of the experiences of fellow musicians. I hope that by giving you some ideas what to expect during your journey these experiences won't startle you.
You do not have to read this entire page in one sitting. A list of the page's headings is available in the sidebar. On mobile, select 'show table of contents' at the edge of your screen.
Allow yourself to suck, I promise you will get better
We are not born great musicians and we do not spontaneously become them. Music is a skill we can become competent in through continued practice.
Our first experiences with a new skill and instrument will not be our best. Everything will feel strange, require a lot of effort and many mistakes will be made. This is normal. It is very important that we stick with these challenges. Trust me it does start to get easier.
Regardless of whether you are completely new or experienced, practice will cause you to make sounds that may bother others. We may have to repeat the same phrase over and over until we get it. Because of this it is important to find a space where you can practice unhindered. Having someone tell you to stop as you are annoying them can be really off-putting.
Leading up to my first attempts to play the ocarina I began to feel self conscious. I knew that my first sounds would not be endearing to the people around me. I was afraid of receiving negative comments. To ease these fears I found a field close to where I was living with no observers for miles.
How easily you will be able to find a private place to practice will depend on where you live, however it's always possible. Perhaps you could find a remote field as I did, within walking or driving distance. Perhaps you are in college or university - which often have practice spaces available. Lastly, you could play at a time where people/neighbours are out and you're alone. Be creative - there are always options if you look hard enough.
Accept the journey
While the individual components that make up a musical performance are relatively simple to understand in isolation, the number of topics means that you will not become a master overnight.
Learning music is similar to walking a long distance trail. The process is simple: know which direction to head and keep putting one foot in front of the other. As long as you keep going, the nature of the situation means that you have to reach your destination.
In music, as long as you regularly devote some time to understanding each of the underlying components, you will slowly move towards your destination. You will see that sheet music is much simpler than you thought. Gaining a basic grasp of music theory will reveal why scales contain the notes they do. With training your ear will begin to reveal your intonation errors.
Learn to be happy with small successes and gradual improvement instead of focusing totally on an end goal. These small changes add up greatly over time. You will get there sooner than you think.
Play music that you like as soon as possible
If you're completely new to music you may have doubts about your ability. Nothing can break these feelings faster than the moment you realize: 'Hey, I'm actually playing my favourite song!'.
Exactly how you do this doesn't really matter. Use ocarina tabs if you can find them, try to pick it out by ear or use some ingenuity. The first few things I played where from an impromptu ABC notation transcribed from Synthesia videos on YouTube, a computer program which displays the 'piano notes' of a MIDI file.
It took several weeks, cross referencing the notes with a fingering chart and playing short phrases over and over again. But still several weeks later I could play one of my favourite songs. It was at this point that I realized that music, something that previously made no sense to me, could be learned.
Shortly after I started to transcribe this 'ABC notation' from sheet music, looking up each note one at a time in a sheet music tutorial. Once I had the ABC notation, I cross-referenced it with the instruments fingering chart. As I already knew the song I picked up the rhythm from memory.
Maintain a good mental outlook
Your mental outlook has a considerable impact on how you progress. In the beginning it can be a instinct to think 'I can't do that'. Unfortunately if you think you can't do it, there is a good chance that you won't even try. If you don't try, you're condemning yourself to fail.
Always maintain a thought of I' can do this'. At first you may not understand something, or find a fingering exercise difficult. Give it some time and it will gradually get easier.
You can do it! Try it, I'm sure you'll surprise yourself.
Revisit things you've studied before
As we learn it is a good idea to regularly re-visit things that we have covered before. When we are first exposed to a topic we grasp aspects of it, but we do not understand it in full detail. The second time around you are viewing it under the light of your current experience. You will see details of the topic that you did not before.
Expose yourself to what you want to learn
In my experience, exposure to a subject is the single most important factor to learning it. Early on the information we encounter won't make much sense to us, but our subconscious minds are still making connections. Over time and continued exposure things begin to make sense. Have you ever tried to learn something only to give up, then try again in the future and immediately get it? I certainly have.
Stick with it and don't worry if you don't understand straight away. Think about a baby; children learn their first words purely from the sounds they hear in their environment. Some forms of talent may even arise from environmental exposure to an activity.
Even as we age this ability seems to remain. With continued exposure things will start to make sense.
Immersing yourself in information about music has never been easier. Books and written web pages are plentiful, There are thousands of tutorial videos on YouTube and elsewhere that you can watch, or listen to in the background while you're doing other things. It's even possible to find others interested in a subject through web forums or social media.
Don't limit yourself strictly to tutorials on the ocarina. Music is a subject with common underpinnings and it is quite easy to transfer information from one instrument to a different one.
Try skipping the TV and watching a tutorial video on music instead?
Listen to great music
I used to believe that I wasn't very creative. Regardless of how hard I tried I always came up blank when trying to create something of my own. I now know this was because I paid little notice to other people's music.
I did not listen to others because I wanted to avoid direct copying, however I was also cutting myself off from learning. When we study the performances of other musicians we are not doing so to plagiarize them. We are listening to the details of the tune and the impact this creates. For example: how is the musician phrasing the music? How do the different intervals and rhythms make you feel? Are there any sections of the tune that really catch your attention, and if so what detail creates that effect?
As you do this over a period of time you will begin to develop a subconscious library of phrases and ideas which you can begin to use to express yourself through your playing. With this experience you will begin to see ways of combining parts of your knowledge to do things unique to you and develop a style of your own. We generally don't pull things out of the air, rather we change or combine fragments of things we have learned from other sauces.
My fear of plagiarism was largely unfounded. How we perceive the world is twisted and tainted by our unique genetics and past experiences. Because of this two people listening to the same piece of music will not interpret it in the same way. When we do this many times over, drawing from the music of numerous musicians, all of this information is mixed together in a melting pot. Some things are forgotten, others are connected in novel ways. It does not take long until something new surfaces.
Work on exercises as they present their value to you
Traditionally, music is often taught by the repetitive practice of technical exercises like scales. While these certainly do have value, I don't think they should be a starting point. Learning music should be something we do because we enjoy it. When you enjoy a task you are more likely to put time into it and consequently your skill will improve.
As we begin to deepen our understanding of music things like scales will begin to present their value to us. It is at this point that you should start working on them. When you can see the value that something provides you will be more willing to work on it.
Be wary of shortcuts
When faced with a challenging problem it can be tempting to look for shortcuts - ocarina tabs for example. Making use of these tools is fine if it allows you to get started, but you should be aware of the limitations.
The apparent simplicity of these 'shortcuts' arise because they leave out information. Ocarina tabs generally make no attempt to notate rhythm. While someone could play the rhythm of a tune they know from memory, or a recording. This typically results in a loose reproduction with serious timing and intonation errors.
In a similar vein it is quite easy to learn a handful of chord shapes on a guitar and be able to strum along with songs. But being in this position of knowing the shapes but not understanding the theory of their formation will be a serious creativity blocker.
Instead of choosing a path that will limit your progress, learn to understand why you are doing what you are doing. When you understand something you are able to bend it to your will and use it to express yourself. Rather than just hitting the notes like a computer playing a MIDI.
Learn to read standard music notation, spend the time training your ear and work on your breath control. It will pay off in the long term. You will have better command of your instrument, a deeper understanding of music theory and you'll be able to play music with other musicians. Overall you'll sound much better.
These things will take time, but as long as you keep making progress you will get there. On the other hand if we forever stick with the things we find easy we will never get better. Why bother at all in that case?
Study yourself to learn more efficiently
Once you understand how something functions you can begin to make intelligent improvements. Otherwise you are taking pot-shots in the dark. Consequently there is a lot to be gained from studying how you learn. By understanding how you learn best you can use that knowledge to learn more efficiently. Even small changes can provide notable improvements.
Take notice of how you react to stimulus. Are there things that make your mind become tense, or your eyes glaze over? If so the next point will be particularly relevant.
Stay with tension in the mind or body
The bodymind is stubborn and does not like to change. When you ask it to do something new it will scream at you. You may feel discomfort and tension in your muscles. Your mind may shut down when faced with a new situation or problem, the 'eyes glazing over' phenomena. In music this could be being faced with a difficult tune, learning to read music or developing your ear.
The mind has a certain 'inertia,' a resistance to change. Like pushing a car, it takes a lot of energy to start it moving but once it is maintaining that motion is easier. The mind behaves similarly. It can take a lot of work up front to overcome the inertia and begin to make progress.
Wen we push ourselves beyond what we are accustomed to the mind and body will become tense. Instinctively we want to back off, but if we stick with that moment of unease, putting it to the back of our mind, the tension will gradually dissolve. To begin with our eyes glaze over, but if we stick with this moment we begin to understand.
As playing an instrument is both a mental and physical skill you will experience this in both domains. If you are new to the ocarina you may feel tension as you hold the instrument. You are asking you hands to do something they are not used to. As long as you are holding your ocarina correctly this is fine. Stick with it and it will go away after a few days.
When you are practising tunes you may find a transition between two different fingering particularly difficult, or to feel uncomfortable. Once again stay with the tension, keep repeating the transition and the tension will begin to go away.
This can also crop up when learning to read sheet music or play by ear. You may feel frustrated that you don't seem to be progressing. Just stick with it, and as described later on this page, slow it down or work on simpler exercises.
Not everything is equally easy to learn, some things you may pick up in a few hours, while others could take months or years. Break down tasks into simpler components you can learn faster.
Sticking with it is important. If you do there will be a day in the future you'll notice that you can do something you could not previously. Learn to be comfortable with your tension, unease or frustration.
Your logical mind learns faster than your fingers
The following is an observation I learned from Grey Larson in his great book on Irish flute and whistle playing. Namely, we can understand something logically long before it enters our muscle memory or subconscious. We can understand the mechanics of an exercise, yet we still have to run through the motions of practice before we can actually do it.
Your mind will lie to you
Learning is a chicken and egg problem. We only hear the mistakes that we are aware of; we won't hear them until we learn what to listen for. The degree to which we can perceive the details of a task depends on our experience with it. A new musician can play something which sounds fine to them, while an experienced musician will hear loads of mistakes.
It is important that we are aware of these as we progress so that we don't invest energy into practising bad habits. They can become a blockade to our progress, and the longer we do them, the harder it will be to stop. What can we do to make ourselves aware?
The easiest solution is to get a third-person perspective from an experienced teacher or player. Having an external perspective and more experience allows them to point out areas that can be improved. As ocarina teachers, especially skilled ones, are hard to come by, enlisting the support of a player of another wind instrument is a good option. You can also seek advice from players through the Internet by recording yourself.
However we cannot remain dependent on others forever. We strive to become independent musicians. What are some techniques one can use to become aware of our mistakes by ourself? We can use tools to give ourselves an insight into that 3rd person perspective.
For example an eye-level mirror is a great tool for evaluating your hold, in conjunction with my 'how to hold an ocarina' page. Look for fingers which appear 'awkward' and see if you can adjust to correct it.
The feelings in our bodies can also reveal things we could do better, but we are also good at ignoring them. They are still there if we stop and take notice. Pay close attention to how your hands, arms and torso feel. The body is mechanically linked; a change in the torso can change the placement of the arms, which in turn changes the hands.
While we are playing, we are exercising much of our mental processing power on the music, reading the music, articulation and timing. There is little power left over for hearing our subtle mistakes. If we record our playing and listen back we can give it our full attention and things we had no awareness of come screaming out. Recording can also reveal how your instrument sounds to an audience. Wind instruments do not project their sound equally in all directions.
Until we develop a sense of pitch we may be oblivious to our intonation errors. An electronic tuner can be extremely helpful to reveal these issues to us. Play a tune slowly while looking for notes that land out of tune, then take some time to practice those intervals in isolation.
Our feelings can also be misleading, either enhancing or degrading our perception of something. For example if you feel happy that you've finally learned to play something, you will probably 'perceive' it as sounding better than it actually is. Similarly if you are getting frustrated that you don't seem to be making progress, you may view your playing as being worse than it is.
Create a dependency on your music
The human mind is prone to wandering, from it's constant ticker-tape of thoughts to the larger-scale flitting from interest to interest. When we first begin a practice we have lots of enthusiasm and drive. However over time things change; a life event may steal our attention, we may find something else of interest and have our focus shift or we may hit a low spot in our practice. This is OK and natural, but what guides can we lay down now in the peak of our interest to guide us back on track when we inevitably wander?
The most effective method I know of solving this problem is to grow an external dependency on a task. When I first started to play I made a commitment to perform at a local open mic. As I was present at almost every event, people began to expect me, and the positive comments and questions people asked encouraged me to practice.
After a few years I started to practice regularly with another attendee of the club. As I wanted to work on some of my tunes with accompaniment, this was also a strong incentive to practice.
Once you create an expectation in someone else, you enter a social contract to perform that task. You will go through periods where you won't enjoy it, then things will improve. The dependency helps a lot to drag you through the slow times.
I don't know the exact nature of your situation, so you need to look around you for opportunities. Find ways of using your music which lock you into playing on a regular basis.
Practice with intent and regularity
Practising regularly is important. The mind is always clearing out information and motor skills that are not being used. If you leave too long between sessions your improvements will be lost, resulting in slow or no progress. By practising regularly we build upon the neural connections from prior practice sessions, before they decay, so we make progress.
For the same reason it is important to practice a good method. We learn what we do repeatedly so if we are not careful bad habits can creep in. The longer we practice a poor technique the harder it will be to stop. Do everything in your power to make sure that what you are practising is effective.
How do you find a good method? Study the best players and see what techniques they are using. Understanding the mechanics of the task you are performing can also be a great help. For example it's common for new players to move their fingers much further from the holes than is required. Beyond a few centimetres from the hole lifting the finger more does not notably change the pitch. Consequently this extra movement is wasted energy. When one tries to play faster, if the fingers have to move further, they also have to move faster. This makes your task harder for no benefit. The additional movement also increases the risk that you will mis-cover the hole when you do close it.
Also pay attention to your progress over time. If you have been working on something diligently for several months but are not seeing any progress, this *may* indicate that you're doing something wrong. However this isn't always true as some things take longer to learn than others. And sometimes we can make improvements in a burst after taking a break.
Slow it down!
While it can be tempting to practice at the highest speed our ability allows, I urge you not to.
Our minds have two parts, the conscious and the subconscious. When we first begin to develop a skill the conscious mind takes control. This part of our mind is highly flexible. Yet it is limited in how much new information it can process. If we push too quickly, it can't keep up and mistakes are made.
As you repeat a task multiple times we have to think about it less and less. This is because the subconscious begins to automate the task. However the subconscious is not picky. If you practice with mistakes it will start to learn these as well. You begin to develop bad habits.
Practicing without errors could mean taking your metronome down to 40BPM or even lower. There is nothing wrong with that. When you get it right it will begin to creep into your subconscious, and after a few days to a week you will be able to take the speed up.
To begin with practicing this slowly might bring up a feeling of tension and a desire to speed up. Don't succumb to it, if you do you're just re-enforcing that tendency. If you instead stay with the tension, the tendency will dissolve.
How should we build up our speed? Practice an exercise slowly until you can perform it comfortably. Once you can do so take the speed up a little on your metronome, say 10 bpm, and practice again. You'll probably be able to do this easily. Next step up the speed again, practicing at each speed interval until you begin to make mistakes. Once you find this point slow down enough that you can play error free again, then stop for the day.
The following day play it again at the highest speed you obtained and gradually work up the speed. You'll probably find that you are able to go faster than the prior day.
Lastly if you're struggling with something don't be afraid to take a brake, sleep is essential in the learning process. You will find it easier the next time you try.
Break things down into simpler tasks
When you look at a problem as a whole it can be daunting. The trick is to break it down into a number of simple, attainable tasks.
Imagine that you're a beginner learning to play a tune from sheet music which you've never heard. Instead of considering the entire tune at once, you could begin by learning the first bar. Begin by working out the rhythm and clapping it. Secondly you would look up any fingerings you don't know in your instruments fingering chart. Finally you may combine the two and play the bar.
To begin you might spend the entire practice session on one bar. There is nothing wrong with this. As you gain experience you will find that you don't have to break things down as much. You begin to associate the sight of notes with the fingerings and build a mental library of common rhythms.
As you progress you will not have to break things down as much. The option is always available when you are faced with something beyond our current skill level.
Do background practice
There are many moments of time in our lives where we are not actively doing anything. These can be used for practice.
For instance if you're in a situation where your hands are not being used, such as watching a film, the time before you fall asleep, or travelling as a passenger. You could use this time to practice fingering exercises. And you don't necessarily need your instrument to do so, just put your fingers on a table or your leg and practice moving them in a sequence you're having trouble with.
The same thing may be done with rhythm counting exercises, count them in your mind and tap a finger to the rhythm.
We may also use these times to expose ourselves to information, like listening to a music related tutorial while working on something else with your hands.
Focus on how you play
A great deal of the musicality of a performance does not come from which notes you play, but how you play them. You may play every note perfectly in time and unchanging in pitch, but then you sound mechanical, like a bad MIDI. Pay attention to how you shape notes, which notes are slurred and which are articulated, where you add vibrato, slightly delay the start or finish of a note. These things can turn a 'meh' performance into a great one.
How do you learn which notes you should be shaping? There is a lot to be gained from closely scrutinizing performances in a similar style to what you are aiming to achieve. Listen for what the musician is doing with the notes. Are they using vibrato, are they playing legato or staccato? Are they playing straight or with a lilt?
Another good option is to simply experiment with your instrument, play slowly and listen to the tune. Do any notes stand out as wanting emphasis? You could try tonguing them harder or sliding into them. Long notes can benefit from vibrato, but you may also choose to add a melodic variation. Finger ornaments like trills or rolls can also be effective.
Keep working on your intonation
One of the most frequently ignored aspects of playing the ocarina is intonation. This is short-sighted, as being in control of your intonation is critical to making your music sound musical.
To play in tune we have to develop a sense of relative pitch. As a complete beginner we do not know what to listen for, so we cannot tell if we are in tune. However as we develop our ear we begin to notice when we are off. We begin to hear what it should sound like in our mind and our intonation errors become apparent to us.
To squelch any negative thoughts you may have, relative pitch is a skill that you can learn. You do not have to be born with the ability. When I first started to play music I could not hear my intonation errors, I had no idea what 'good intonation' sounded like. Yet over time I began to hear my mistakes.
It is easiest to hear your intonation errors when you have other notes to reference. When multiple tones sound simultaneously the interactions of the tones creates an audible beating when the pitches do not match. However as the ocarina alone can only play a single note at a time you cannot take advantage of this without other musicians or a tool.
A good place to begin is playing against a drone. You should set this drone to the key-note of the tune. 'Shruti box' is a useful keyword. It is an instrument used as a backing drone in Indian music. Nowadays there are software simulations for Android and IOS which generate a drone of any note in the western scale.
Practising using an electronic tuner can also be really helpful. When you are doing this you should not merely play to the tuner and try to play catch up with it. What you should do is to play a tune through slowly while watching the tuner. Look for intervals which are consistently landing out of tune and then practice these in isolation.
Once you have noticed such an interval begin by playing the first note as a long tone. Play the note for the full duration of a breath. Aim to begin and end the not cleanly and hold the tuner needle on pitch for the full duration of the note. Next play the second note on it's own using the same method.
Once you can play the two alone try joining them together. Separate the two by tonguing the second note. Aim to make the transition between the two as clean as you can. The second note should begin on pitch, you want to avoid micro-tonal slides at the beginning of your notes.
It is also worth learning to recognize and name the different intervals by ear. This is commonly done by associating each interval with a song that uses it in a prominent location. When you hear an interval you think of the following notes of the song. After a while upon hearing the interval you'll hear those notes playing back in your head, and you know you just heard a perfect fifth or major second.
This topic has been covered many times by other websites. It is best to pick songs which are familiar to you already, as this will make the process faster. As I don't know what you know, a search of 'Relative pitch song associations' will give you lots of options. You can also study some of your favorite songs to see what intervals they are using.
In any case you should aim to be consistent with your intonation from one playing session to the next. If we are consistent in our efforts we re-enforce the neural connections from our past practice sessions and you will reach your goal faster.
If you put in the effort to working on your intonation you will automatically put yourself ahead of many beginners.
Play with other musicians
As the ocarina is only able to sound a single note at a time, you cannot create harmonies. Because of this I strongly recommend finding somebody else to practice with on a regular basis. Playing with an accompanist allows you to hear the underlying chordal structure of your tunes. It also gives your intonation some grounding. When you have accompaniment, you can learn what 'sharp' and 'flat' sounds like relative to them. Additionally they can give you an indication of what you are doing wrong.
Playing with other musicians can be fun in and of itself and music does not have to be a performance. You can play with other musicians for enjoyment, to exchange tunes and share ideas. If any of your friends are musically inclined try having a jam session.
In the beginning you need to play in a relaxed setting. You should not allow any fears of making a mistake and spoiling the music to get in the way. Just play things and see how it sounds in relation to the other musicians. If they notice anything wrong I'm sure they'll kindly point it out to you.
If you don't have anyone to play with, playing at open mics, music clubs and similar can be a great way of meeting like-minded people.
Get over your fear and play in public
Playing in public for the first time can be a scary experience. The mind explodes with questions like 'will they like what I'm playing?, 'will they hate me?,' and 'what if I make a mistake and stop?'
The first time I played in public I literally got the shakes badly and locked up for what felt like several minutes. Yet I was still able to play a few tunes. After this I went back and played again next month, with slightly less shakes, and carried on at the same music club for several years. Over time the fear went away and I don't even think about it any more.
The only way to get over your fear is by playing in public regularly and making mistakes. The first time I did stop, but over time I have developed the capacity to keep a tune going even if I do make a mistake.
Find a venue that is open and won't bash on you for making mistakes. Most people won't do this anyway; people will generally see that you are making an effort and will be lenient for you. However, a quiet, listening music club or similar would be a good place to start. Some open mics can be a bit raucous.
Learn music theory
Learning to play a few songs is a great place to begin, yet it leaves you with a gap in your knowledge: you don't understand why the music is structured as it is. Music theory fills this gap. It allows you to craft tunes to your intentions and makes music intuitive.
Music theory is simpler than it looks. Take scales for instance, on the surface they look like a collection of arbitrary notes which must be learned by rote. However they are actually much simpler. Each of the scales are based on a simple pattern. All of the major scales use one pattern, and the manor scales use a slightly different one.
The thing is once you know the pattern you can deduce the notes in any scale easily, you don't have to learn them by rote. Once you know the patterns of the scales, the chords simply layer another pattern on top.
I suspect the reason music theory may be viewed as boring is that it's a big topic. Many of the details have little applicable use to a wind instrument player. Consequently you don't have to learn all of it. For instance most wind instruments do not play in the bass clef, so there is little gained from learning to read it fluently.
Learning some basics like the formation of the scales, chords and chord progressions will greatly help your progress. Should you find that a lack of some aspect is limiting your progress just look it up. Information is trivial to come by in this day and age.
Once you have a basic understanding of music theory, other things will begin to make sense. You will start to realize why the tunes you play are structured as they are. Having an understanding of the underlying patterns of scales will help with learning to read music.
Learn to decode, then reed standard music notation
While sheet music can look complicated at first sight, it's easier than you think. Like scales music notation is pattern-based. Learning to read it is simply a matter of learning to see the patterns. You can learn enough to begin reading note values in just a few minutes.
Sheet music represents notes using the staff, a set of 5 lines and 4 spaces. The lines are numbered from bottom to top, line 1 at the bottom and 5 at the top.
Notes are defined relative to a root note, and this root note is itself defined the clef, a symbol placed at the beginning of every line of music. As a player of a melody instrument you will be using the treble clef (left). You will have seen this symbol before as it is frequently used as an ideogram for music.
The treble clef states that the note G may be found on the second line of the staff. For clarity I have highlighted it in red:
What's the circle around the line? This is a 'note.' Circling the line G tells you to play a G on your instrument. On an ocarina in C you would use the following fingering:
When I first tried learning to read music the above symbol was confusing. I had a mental image of a 'note,' a circle with a stick attached. If you're in this position stick with me as this will be covered in more detail below.
OK, so circling the second line tells you to play a G, but there must be more to it. After all music would be pretty boring if there was only one note. The other notes are defined relative to this point. If a note circles the space below the G line you take one step down the scale. The music now tells you to play an F.
If a note circles the bottom line, you take one more step down the scale to E. The note D hangs of the bottom of the staff, touching the bottom line.
To place C you must imagine that the staff has extra invisible lines with the same spacing. C lives on the first of these. To hint the lines existence a short strike is placed behind it, which is called a ledger line.
From G the same pattern may be continued upwards to F, the highest note playable on an alto C ocarina:
As was mentioned above this simple circle might not align with your mental image of a 'note'. In fact in the earliest forms of sheet music this circle was the only symbol used. Over time people wanted the ability to include the rhythm in their notation. In order to do so additional symbols are added to the circle.
Every note includes a circular 'note head' as shown above. Some notes include a 'stem' which is a vertical 'stick' attached to the circle. The stem may include one or more 'flags', like the two notes to the right.
The different designs of stems and flags represent how long the note will be played for.
As you can see all notes have a head, but they don't all have a stem. Regardless of the shape of the stem, or lack thereof, the line or space which the head 'circles' determines the note that we should play. All of the following notes are all G. I have grayed out the stems to highlight the similarity of the heads.
There is more to it, such as rhythms (note stems), key signatures and style notations (slurs, staccato marks). Like determining the value of a note as described above they are also straightforward, following simple logical patterns.
In the beginning you don't need to be able to sight read fluently to make use of sheet music. Due to the massive volume of music available in the format there is a good chance you can find what you want to play. Consequently there is a lot of value in simply being able to 'decode' the letters of the notes. Even doing this you're still practicing the notes on the staff. After you do so for a while you begin to know a notes letter at sight.
The same thing applies to matching fingerings to the notes on the staff. To begin with you'll have to look up every one, but over time this too will become automatic. Look at the note on the page and think of it's letter. Next look at the fingering for this note letter in your fingering chart. Place your fingers as shown while looking at the staff.
Once you get some practice reading sheet music is actually easier than reading tabs. Instead of having to process the positions of every finger, you can discern where the melody is going by reading the shapes formed by the notes on the page.
For example, the following shows two instances of a common pattern; play a note, play the note above, then play the starting note again. First from G, then again from high D. As you progress you will be able to play such patterns without caring about the named value of a higher note. You just ascend to the next note in the scale, then drop back down again.
Learn to play by ear
While we have standardised music notation, there will always be details present in a human performance which are not, or which cannot be transcribed into a written form. Even when these style indications are written down they don't indicate exactly how a human player would perform them. Different musical idioms can use the same symbols to notate things which are played completely differently. Consequently there is no substitute to learning to pick up music by ear.
Playing by ear is a learned skill. That is to say it is something you can learn to do. You don't have to be born with the ability. Often what people will do is they will try to learn a piece of music that is either too complicated or too fast, then jump to the conclusion that they cannot play by ear. Like learning any skill, you must start with simpler exercises and work up.
The single chambered ocarina is not the easiest instrument to use when picking out an arbitrary piece of music. Their limited range means you will frequently run into notes that are out of range, and their unstable pitch makes it easy to subconsciously push notes flat or sharp, where using a different fingering would be preferable.
This is far less of an issue when we can make some assumptions about what we are hearing. I attended the Bagpipe Society's 'Blowout' event, that year attended by many players of D bagpipes, capable of playing an octave D to D. With this prior knowledge I had little trouble picking up their tunes on an alto D ocarina.
The first thing you want to do when learning a piece of music by ear is determine what key it is in and the note range required. Key is usually fairly easy as music usually ends on the key note - try to match the pitch of it on your instrument.
Secondly the tune is probably too fast. How can you make it easier to learn something that is too difficult for your current skill-level? As we learn a skill we become able to do it faster. However, when we are just starting it's best to really take the speed down.
This is one of the reasons why learning from a teacher is the best way to learn to play by ear. They can play music which they know fits within your instrument. If you want to slow down, you can just ask.
However if you are learning from a recording there are software tools which can change the speed without changing the pitch. Audacity works reasonably well and is free, but does not produce the best sound when you change the speed by a large amount. Reaper can change the speed by setting the 'tempo' after importing a media file. Amazing Slowdowner is a tool designed exclusively for this and also produces a clean sounding result.
There are smartphone apps that do this. Amazing slow downer is available for Android. Also for Android 'audipo' allows you to easily create repeat points in addition to slowing a track down. So you can listen to a phrase over and over.
You don't have to learn a whole tune at once. It is fine to listen through it and pick u[ a few notes at first. Then over subsequent listening you gradually fill in the gaps.
As I mentioned above, the ocarina is not the easiest instrument to play by ear. I also play the transverse flute, which has a similar fingering. However it also has a much wider sounding range which makes it easier to use for learning arbitrary music. I usually learn something on the flute first then figure out how to make it work on the ocarina later.
Yes, learn to do both
Musicians are often divided into 'ear players' and 'note readers'. This may well be because getting started in a skill is more difficult than developing an existing one. Therefore someone skilled in one has less incentive to practice the other method, and consequently make little to no progress in it.
However as I've indicated above both skills have their benefits. Sheet music allows us to easily communicate with players of other instruments. While it cannot represent every little stylistic nuance of a human performance.
Playing by ear allows us to learn directly from a performance, so we may pick up all the details. However doing so may take longer, depending on a given individuals skill level. Also an ear player may have difficulty communicating their intentions with others. Especially if they have also forgone learning the underlying theory,
You can learn to do both, just keep putting time in and don't worry if you're finding one method harder. Put more work in and it will get easier.
Learn to play ocarinas in other keys
Single chambered ocarinas have a limited sounding range. While there is a lot of music that will fit within this range, it is frequently only possible to play it in only one, or a small number of keys, despite the instrument being fully chromatic. One way of solving this problem is to change the base-tuning of the instrument itself.
Changing to an ocarina in a different key gives us access to a different range of sounded notes. An ocarina tuned in G allows you to play from G to C. There are also advantages to close keyed ocarinas. While a C ocarina can play in D major, a D ocarina has two extra notes on the high end, F# and G.
Being able to play ocarinas in different keys allows you to fit in with the music that other people are playing, rather than forcing them to fit around you. It can additionally allow you to play something in a desired key with much simpler fingerings.
Play other instruments
Instruments I've played:
Ocarina, Boehm Flute, Tin Whistle, Violin, Piano, Tenor Ukulele, Guitar, Chimineau, Swayne Bagpipe.
Many of these instruments I'm not good at, my ability drops quickly after the first two, and some I no longer play. I gave up the guitar pretty quickly as my hands are rather small, and I could not afford to keep the bagpipes. Yet I've still learned a lot from playing all of them.
Music is a subject with common underpinning ideas, all of the above instruments are based on the same chromatic scale. Playing different instruments gives you a slightly different view onto the underlying ideas. Letting you realise things that you would not if you you where only playing a single instrument.
I learned a lot about hearing pitch from playing and tuning a bagpipe. These days I play the violin for much the same reason, It's quite easy to hear intonation errors due to sympathetic resonances between the strings.
I've recently been playing the ukulele in order to develop a stronger intuitive feel for harmony in music.
Be conscious of room acoustics
The acoustics of the environment we are playing in has a large impact on how we perceive our music. As the ocarina has a very pure sound it is effected greatly by 'comb filtering', in short the interaction of waves reflecting around our room can make certain notes sound either louder or quieter than they are. With the ocarina this comes across as some notes in the scale sounding considerably louder or quieter than the notes around it in the scale.
Because this effect depends greatly on the observer's location, it can be observed by simply moving within a room while playing a single note. In some places the note will sound louder than it does in others.
Th get an idea of how your instrument actually sounds, play in a large open space such as a public park, where there is nothing to reflect the sound back at you. The instrument will probably sound a lot more volume balanced across its range.
While playing indoors for practice or enjoyment the only thing you can do about it is to acoustically treat the room to reduce sound reflections. 'DIY Perks' has a video demonstrating how to make effective sound absorbing panels from towels.
In recordings, the preferable way of dealing with this is once again acoustic treatment. However it is also possible to correct for hot notes using an FFT based arbitrary-frequency graphical equalizer. Cocos's 'rea-fir' works well. Frequency banded equalizers are not fine grained enough.
Get someone else to play your ocarina
Wind instruments are imperfect, they do not project their tone equally in all directions. Because of this, the sound that you hear as a player, forever stuck behind your instrument, is not the same thing that an observer will hear. Be it a audience, friend or microphone. By getting somebody else to play your instrument you may observe first hand how it actually sounds.
Ocarinas project most of their sound forwards away from the voicing. They can sound considerably louder to an observer in front of the instrument than to the player behind it. Additionally, the 'airyness' component of the timbre is high frequency. As the volume of high frequency content drops off quickly with distance, you will notice it far more as a player than as an observer.
This same wind noise component is also most apparent close to the voicing. As the voicing is below the instrument and shaded by its body, this component of the tone will be far less pronounced above or beside the instrument, and much louder below it.
Knowing how you actually sound can give you confidence in performance. It also gives you greater control over the sound you capture in a recording.
Music is a learned skill you can always improve
Regardless of your current ability improvement is always possible. I'm still learning things now after playing for 5 years.