How to play the ocarina

Learning how to play the ocarina is pretty straightforward. Ocarinas are wind instruments, so:

  • You blow into the ocarina to play notes.
  • Covering different combinations of holes determines which note sounds.
  • If you finger the right notes in the right order... now you're playing your favourite song!

But before we get to playing the ocarina, I can not stress highly enough the importance of finding somewhere you can play without fear of embarrassing yourself. Its essential to mess around and see how the instrument behaves. Playing timidly WILL lead to bad habits.

If you can't play freely in your residence, perhaps if you live in an apartment or dorm, that should not be a problem. There are other options like:

  • A park or field which is close to you, and out of the way of other people.
  • If you are a student, colleges and universities tend to have music practice rooms.
  • Finally you may be able to play where you live if you can find a time when everyone else is away.

There are always options if you look hard enough.

Side Note

Its also worth noting that the room you are playing in impacts the sound of an ocarina. Ocarinas are loud instruments, and can be overpowering in small spaces. Have a go playing outside in a park or other large open space.

How to hold an ocarina

Holding an ocarina is a pretty important part of learning how to play, obviously you can't play much if it's sitting on a table, or in your pocket! Ocarinas are held with your hands approaching the instrument from opposite sides, like this:

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

You cover the finger holes with the pads of your fingers—the flat parts of your fingers immediately opposite your finger nails. There is 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 is not 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 thumb hole, and the right hand covering the right hand finger holes and thumb hole.

Notice that you can feel the edge of each hole underneath the pad of your finger. It is really important to keep the holes under the centre of the finger pad. If you partially cover a hole the ocarina will not sound right.

Try to keep a gentle curve along your fingers, and hold the instrument as loosely as you can. You may find it useful to vary how tightly you are holding the ocarina, and observe how that feels:

  • Hold it very loosely, and notice how it wobbles and feels unstable.
  • Hold it very tightly, also called a 'death grip', and notice how your fingers are very hard to move.
  • Now aim to find a happy medium, where the instrument is steady, without needless hand tension.

It is also worth noting that 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 easily playing the high notes.

Never bend your 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

Blowing an ocarina

Now its time to learn how to play some notes on the ocarina. You play an ocarina by blowing into the mouthpiece, the protruding part of the instrument.

Don't put a lot of the mouthpiece in your mouth! Rather, form an aperture between your lips, as if you were saying the word 'boo', and gently rest the mouthpiece against it. The mouthpiece should never come in contact with your teeth.

When playing an ocarina, your lips should be puckered, with the mouthpiece gently touching them. Never put the mouthpiece a long way into your mouth

Now, if you blow steadily, the ocarina will sound. If it sounds clean that's great. But you may find that it sounds weak, or perhaps produces a high pitched screech, not exactly what you want.

What's going on here, assuming you have a playable ocarina, is that you are either blowing far too hard, or far too softly.

Put your ocarina down for a moment and 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 and in your body.
  • Second, try blowing as hard as you can, like blowing out a candle, and also notice how this feels.
  • Finally, try starting at a low pressure, and gradually ramp up to a high pressure.

Have a play with your ocarina, varying your blowing pressure while leaving your fingers in the same position. Notice how the sound of the instrument varies from weak at the lowest pressures, through a region that sounds clear, and screeches when blown very hard.

When playing we'll be using a pressures around the middle of this range, as will be explored next.

Discovering the breath curve

Finger the note G as shown below, white circles mean that the hole is open (finger raised), while black ones mean that the hole is closed. We are using one of the notes from the middle of the range, as having fewer holes to cover reduces the chance of mis-covering a hole.

A diagram showing the fingerings of the notes G, A, and B for an alto C ocarina.

Using a chromatic tuner like the one provided below, try blowing this note. As you do so vary your blowing pressure from low to high as previously discussed. What happens?

Somewhere in the middle of the pressure range you'll find the tuner shows the intended note of 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 fingerings for the other notes shown above, you'll find that they all require a different pressure to produce the intended note. Higher notes must be blow harder, and we call this "the breath curve".

Most ocarinas have a breath curve that increases gradually towards the highest notes following a curve like shown below. As you move towards higher notes, you have to blow harder and harder to sound the note at the correct pitch.

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

You may also find it interesting to notice that you can play the same note using different fingerings by changing your blowing pressure. For example, The sounded note 'A' can be played by:

  • Fingering 'A' and blowing at a normal pressure.
  • Fingering 'G' and blowing much harder than normal.

In other words, the note that you are fingering is not necessarily the note you are playing. Using the correct breath pressure is essential.

Playing your first music on the ocarina

Its finally time to try playing some music on the ocarina. Playing a song on the ocarina is just a matter of using the correct fingerings and breath pressures, to play the notes in the right order.

So, the question is then:

  • Which fingerings do I need to use?
  • How long should each note be played for?

The easiest way to get started with this is to play something you've heard before. That way you'll know roughly how the music should sound.

Playing your favourite songs is covered later in this section, How to play your favourite songs. But to demonstrate the basics, lets use a well known children's tune: 'Hot cross buns'. I've included the notes and fingerings below.

A melody notated using ocarina tab. A melody notated using ocarina tab. A melody notated using ocarina tab.

To play it:

  • First, if you've never heard the song before, find a recording and listen to it.
  • You might want to break it down. For example, start with the first 3 notes. Practice starting on B, and then fingering A, and finally G.
  • Aim to move your fingers quickly when you move between notes, to create a clean transition.

As you start each note, you'll use your tongue to start and stop the airflow:

  • Starting a note is like saying 'Thhhhhhhh', and finishing a note is similar to 'hhhhhhT'.
  • Sequences of notes are like 'thhh, thhh'.
  • Do not 'puff' to separate notes, it won't sound good.

You may also find that it helps to practice fingering the notes, and tonguing notes separately at first. For example, leave your fingers static and and practice playing a sequence of notes. Then start playing a sequance of different notes.

Ideally, your finger movement should happen entirely while you're stopping the air with your tongue, to avoid creating off sounds.

After practising this for a while, it'll start to feel easier, and happen with less thinking. Once you've got the hang of fingering those notes, try moving on to the next few notes. Before long you'll be playing the whole melody.

It's perfectly normal that all of this will feel awkward at first. Keep going, it does get easier after a few days.

Phrasing, and where to breathe

A melody isn't just a string of notes. the notes in music fall into phrases, much like the words in English are grouped into sentences. A phrase is a complete musical idea.

Phrases are most easily heard in songs as they tend to follow the structure of the sung language. A phrase break is typically the same as where you'd put a comma or full stop.

For example, lets take a look at the phrasing in a part of 'The ash grove' a common Welsh folk song:

  • Phrase 1: The ash grove, how grace-ful, how plain-ly 'tis speak-ing,
  • Phrase 2: The harp through it play-ing has lang-uage for me.

Being aware of phrase breaks is important for a number of reasons:

  • Firstly, a phrase break is the ideal place to take a breath, by cutting the last note of that phrase short. Breathing in the middle of a phrase by comparison usually sounds disjointed.
  • Phrasing is also important in the pursuit of making your music sound musical.

On the ocarina, you can indicate the end of a phrase by tonguing the note such that you stop the air for slightly longer. Have a go at putting it into practice within hot cross buns. I've indicated phrase boundaries using thicker vertical lines (barlines).

Phrasing will be discussed more in future sections, but for now just be aware of it. When you listen to your favourite songs see if you can hear their phrasing. Listen for where the singer breathes, and for the gaps in the the music.

Something doesn't sound right?

As you have been playing, you may find that what you're playing doesn't sound right. First, make sure that all of your fingers are properly positioned, and that all of the finger holes are properly covered.

Another common cause of off sounds is breath control. 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.

These are shown in the diagrams below:

Shallow breathing (bad)

Animation showing clavicular breathing

Belly breathing (good)

Animation showing diaphragmatic breathing

It's important to breathe from your diaphragm as it gives you much more control over your breath. To practice this find a mirror. Put your hand on your belly, and 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.

The long tone exercise

Second, it's very important to learn to hold your breath at the same pressure over the whole duration of a note. Your playing won't sound right otherwise.

The long tone exercise is one way of developing breath control. You play a single note for the duration of an entire breath, aiming to start it cleanly, and hold it without wobbling, and then cut it off with your tongue before you start straining from running out of air.

For example:

  • Finger a G as shown previously.
  • Start the note using your tongue.
  • Now hold the note for as long as you can.
  • When you feel that you are running out of air, stop the note cleanly with your tongue.

Monitor the pitch you are playing using your tuner, or your ear and try to eliminate fluctuations. You may also find it helps to engage your abdominal muscles, a cue being 'draw the belly button towards the spine'.

What's next?

You now know the basics of playing the ocarina, congratulations. Continue reading the following parts to further develop your skill: