Identifying playable ocarinas
Identifying playable ocarinas is not as straightforward as for instruments like recorder or flute. In common language, 'ocarina' is used as a catch-all term for anything that makes sound with a hollow chamber. It can refer to serious musical instruments just as much as untuned novelty whistles.
While classifiers exist for these different types, many mainstream outlets don't know what they are selling, and you will see all of these listed blindly under the term 'ocarina'. This article outlines what you are going to encounter, how to evaluate the quality of potential ocarinas, and identify ones that suit your needs.
if you're reading this because you are struggling to play an ocarina you have, don't blame yourself. If what you have was very cheap, there is a good chance the instrument, not you, is to blame.
Which type of ocarina?
As was noted, the term 'ocarina' is ambiguous. The different types of ocarina are discussed in the article The types of ocarina, and will help you to understand what you'll encounter in the real world.
For the goal of serious musical performance, I consider the transverse ocarina the best option, as explored in Which ocarina type should I learn. Transverse ocarinas offer the most scope for expression in melodic music due to:
- Being fully chromatic with great tuning accuracy.
- The fact that many makers exist, offering instruments with a variety of timbres and other playing characteristics.
- The existence of multi-chambered instruments that offer a large sounding range.
Transverse ocarinas look like this:
Before getting into specifics, there is a plastic transverse on the market which should be avoided outright. These are sold under a number of names, and easily identified as they have a huge ridge around the centre of the chamber. This ocarina is very badly out of tune, and the voicing is really poor, resulting in a unpleasant harsh and airy timbre.
Ergonomics is one of the most important things to consider when identifying playable ocarinas. To be ergonomic means that an ocarina has been designed to support the needs of the player, and to be comfortable to hold.
Unfortunately, many ocarinas on the market were designed prioritising visuals over playability. Ergonomics is also not a 'one size fits all' thing, as everyone is different. What is ergonomic for you will not be for everyone.
If you have the opportunity to try out different ocarinas, look for one that feels comfortable in your hands. Ocarinas are not rigidly standardised, and ones from different makers have varying hole placement. Some will work better for you than others.
When you hold the ocarina, your hands should rest with gently curved fingers, and your wrists to sit straight. An ocarina that forces your wrists to fold back may cause hand and/or wrist pain.
There are many other factors affecting the ergonomics of ocarinas, which are discussed in The ergonomics of transverse ocarinas. Three of these are summarised below.
Body shape and support points
Against popular belief, the shape of an ocarina does matter as it affects how the instrument feels to hold and balances in your hands. A good quality transverse ocarina will be shaped such that it feels secure when held. It should never feel like you may drop the instrument.
As you play higher notes supporting the ocarina is more challenging. Ocarinas made for playability include areas besides the leftmost and rightmost finger holes for this reason. Fingers can rest there without risk of unintentionally covering a hole, or having a finger slide off the end.
Ocarinas where the finger holes are butted right up against the ends of the body, and ones which are very rounded in shape will be a lot more difficult to play.
Weight and balance
At a minimum, any transverse ocarina should be able to balance between your right thumb and pinky finger when parallel to the ground. A slight tendency to roll towards the mouthpiece is OK, but rolling away from you indicates a bad instrument.
If an ocarina has any large visual features, imagine holding the instrument and consider how that feature will impact the balance of the ocarina in your hands. You really don't want dead weight opposite the mouthpiece as this will cause the ocarina to roll away from you.
As was noted in How to identify ergonomic ocarinas, the impact of surface finish on playability is substantial, but not obvious. It matters because general playing technique requires sliding fingers over the surface of the instrument.
Excessively smooth and shiny finishes are troublesome as any moisture on your fingers will cause your skin to cling. It makes sliding movements difficult to do smoothly. This is not a problem with plain finish ocarinas as the earthenware absorbs finger moisture. It is also far less of a problem with rougher finishes like matte glazes and shellac.
Texture which has been added to an ocarina for visual or sculptural effect can also be a problem. Unlike texture on a microscopic scale, this will frequently physically block the fingers from sliding over the surface. Ensure that the areas around finger holes are smooth.
The sizes of the finger holes
Ocarinas are tuned by varying finger hole size, thus any ocarina with identically sized finger holes has not been tuned, and is a bad instrument.
The intervals of the scale can be seen in the sizes of the finger holes, and a well made ocarina should look roughly like this:
Where the interval in the scale is a whole step, the size of the finger hole will be larger than the preceding hole, while intervals of a half step (semitone), the next hole will be smaller. It is easy to recognise this pattern with a bit of experience.
The sizes of the finger holes relative to the body of the ocarina also indicate the required blowing pressure:
- Ocarinas with large holes are high pressure instruments, they will be very loud and need a lot of air to play.
- Ocarinas with small holes are low pressure instruments, being less loud and using less air.
Evaluating how an ocarina plays
How an ocarina plays is another strong indicator of the quality of the instrument, such as general sound quality and response time, how long it takes the instrument to start and stop sounding.
To check these:
- Play through the entire range of the ocarina, making sure to use the right pressure to play in tune. The instrument should sound clean, with balanced timbre between the lowest and highest notes. Poor quality ocarinas will have unstable and airy high notes.
- Vary your blowing pressure. For each note in the scale, vary your blowing pressure from zero, to the point that the ocarina screeches. Better quality instruments will overblow above the named pitch of any fingered note at least a semitone without screeching.
- Rapidly tongue notes. The ocarina should speak almost immediately after the air starts flowing. Response time should be pretty even over the whole range, and should not screech, especially on the high notes.
- Play different scales. For example, the scale of the instrument's key (such as C), as well as a musically distant key (like C sharp). Notice how the notes are tuned in relation to each other. There should not be large pressure errors between adjacent notes.
- Play large leaps between low and high notes. Observe how higher notes respond relative to lower notes, and how the sounding volume balances over the range. Are the high notes much louder, or only a little?
Note that the 'timbre' or tone colour of ocarinas can vary quite a lot between makers. It ranges from very pure to complex and 'reedy'. But as a general rule, a good quality ocarina should sound fairly consistent over the whole range.
An ocarina which sounds especially harsh or airy indicates either that it is being blown too hard or its voicing and windway are badly designed. Sound examples have been provided below.
The relative size of the ocarina's sound hole can somewhat indicate indicate the sound quality of an ocarina without needing to play it. If the sound hole is too large in relation to the chamber volume, the ocarina is going to have airy high notes.
It is worth noting though that the sizes of ocarina sound holes do vary:
- 10 hole ocarinas usually have a larger sound hole than a 12 hole ocarina, where both ocarinas have the same key and pitch range.
- Ocarinas that are designed to be louder also have larger sound holes and need more air to play.
- The visual size of the sound hole changes with the thickness of the chamber wall. An ocarina that is very thick makes the sound hole look proportionally smaller.
The expected size of the sound hole of a 12 hole alto C ocarina is between about 7 and 9mm diameter. A 10 hole alto C could have a sound hole in the range of 8 to 10mm.
If an ocarina is sold as 'needing an acute bend', it is a bad ocarina. The acute bend is a technique where a player looks down and shades an ocarina's sound hole against their chest. It appears to improve the sound quality of the high notes, but as far as I can tell, it is an illusion resulting from sound bouncing off the player's chest into their ears.
This technique is often used as an excuse for poor quality 12 hole ocarinas, and any well made ocarina will sound cleanly through its whole range without it.
The breath curve and tuning accuracy
The notes of an ocarina are tuned in relation to each other. Ocarinas are tuned so that as you play higher notes, you must blow harder, which is called the breath curve. In a high quality ocarina, the required blowing pressure should increase gradually and smoothly towards the high notes.
Tuning accuracy can't be accurately gauged without playing the ocarina for yourself.
Essentially, If you play a note, then lift the finger for the next note in the scale, keeping blowing pressure the same, the pitch will fall flat. These pitch differences can be easily measured over the whole range using a chromatic tuner, and is discussed in How to measure an ocarina's breath curve.
Breath curves vary a great deal between ocarinas: they can be relatively flat, or ramp up exponentially towards the high end. However any variance should be regular. Large irregular changes between close notes indicate a poorly made ocarina.
Evaluating the quality of multichambered ocarinas
The same points raised apply equally for evaluating the quality of multichambered ocarinas, for example:
- Feel how the instrument balances in your hands, and ensure that it provides support points. See The ergonomics of transverse ocarinas for more.
- Ensure that tone production is clean over the range of all chambers, and that the timbre is balanced between them.
- Measure the breath curve of each chamber individually, ensure that each chamber has a sensible breath curve with no large arbitrary pressure changes required.
Also, check for pressure differences between the high end of each chamber, and the low end of the next one. This is called the chamber break. In a well made multichamber ocarina, the two chambers should play in tune at approximately the same pressure.
On multichambers that were tuned to allow harmonies to be played between chambers you may find that the pressure curve of the second chamber starts at a slightly lower pressure than the high end of the first. As long as it's not excessive it isn't a problem.
On the whole, you will experience less objective quality issues with multichambered ocarinas than single chambers, as most of them are made as serious musical instruments.