Learning the ocarina's fingerings

When an experienced musician plays an instrument the process for them is much like walking is for you. They think about the music they want to play, and the fingerings required to do so 'just happen' with no conscious effort.

The goal in learning the ocarina's fingerings is the same, to make them automatic, and that's easier than you may think. Your subconscious mind will automate anything that you do frequently, and learning the fingerings is just a matter of repeating them over several days until they become automatic.

We will be learning the fingerings of the ocarina's native major scale, which for an Alto C ocarina is C Major. Learning this scale also allows us to explore how the instrument is held over different parts of it's range.

A scale is just a collection of notes that sound good together, and you can read more about them in Octaves and scale formation.

The same principles apply if your ocarina is in a different key but the sounded pitch will be different. If you used these fingerings on an alto G ocarina, it would sound the notes of a G major scale.

The notes of any scale can be found easily online by searching for 'notes in [scale name]', or by looking at your ocarina's fingering chart.

Practice method

Looking at your ocarina's fingering chart may feel overwhelming, especially if its a multichamber. We can only handle so much new information at once.

The key is to break it down into smaller chunks, and the process goes like this:

  • Break the fingerings down into small groups, such as groups of 3 notes.
  • Practice each group in isolation, until it starts to become automatic.
  • Finally, combine the scale parts into a complete scale.

Depending on how many things you can hold in your short term memory, smaller or larger groups may be easier for you. Should three at a time be too easy, feel free to learn the notes in larger groups.

If you ever have the opposite problem, feeling overwhelmed with too much information, either break it down more, or stop and come back to it the following day.

C, D, and E

The fingerings for the notes C, D, and E are shown below. In these diagrams black means that the hole is closed, and white means that it is open.

A diagram showing the fingerings for the notes C, D and E on a C ocarina:

C: Lt Li Lm Lr Lp 
   Rt Ri Rm Rr Rp

D: Lt Li Lm Lr Lp 
   Rt Ri Rm Rr

E: Lt Li Lm Lr Lp 
   Rt Ri Rm

Hold the ocarina in front of you with your elbows bent so you can clearly see what your fingers are doing. We will be fingering each note, and saying its name aloud so that we learn the fingering, and it's name at the same time.

When learning and practising fingerings, it can help to move the ocarina away from your body by bending your elbows. Holding the ocarina further away allows you to clearly see what your fingers are doing

Finger each note in sequence, starting from C, ascending to E, and then descend back down to C. As you finger each one, say its name aloud.

For example:

  • Finger and say C
  • Finger and say D
  • Finger and say E
  • Finger and say D

Repeat this until you become comfortable with it. You may find that using a metronome at a slow tempo will help you to pace yourself.

If you have never played a wind instrument before moving your fingers like this may be challenging. This is normal. Be patient and practise slowly for a few minutes and it will start to get easier.

It will also be much easier after you've slept on it. When you sleep, the things you have been practising will be automated by your subconscious. It will start to feel natural after a day or two.

Playing the notes

Once you've got the hang of fingering the notes and saying their names, have a go at playing them. Remember to tongue each note.

Also remember that the pitch changes with blowing pressure. As you play up the scale, you'll need to blow harder to keep the notes in tune, and reduce your pressure as you go back down. I recommend using a chromatic tuner or drone to check your intonation.

You may find that when you lower a finger you miss the hole and end up with the finger to the side of the hole partially venting it. If that happens, notice that you can feel the edge of the hole underneath your finger. Practice raising and lowering that finger by itself, aiming to land it over the centre of the hole.

F, G, and A

Once you are happy with the first three notes, work on F, G, and A. Use the same method described previously, moving up and down through the fingerings and saying their names.

A diagram showing the fingerings for the notes F, G and A on a C ocarina:

F: Lt Li Lm Lr Lp 
   Rt Ri

G: Lt Li Lm Lr Lp 
   Rt

A: Lt Li Lm Lp 
   Rt Ri Rm

Do not lift your left pinky!

Notice that A is played by lifting the left ring finger and not the left pinky. The pinky finger stays down to support the instrument, and the ocarina will play sharp if you play A with the pinky.

Lifting the ring finger by itself may feel awkward at first. It may help you if you move this finger with a finger of your other hand to learn how it feels. This is shown in the video.

Stabilising the ocarina on higher notes

As you play higher notes you might notice that the ocarina feels less stable. Logically this makes sense, as there are fewer fingers supporting the instrument. We solve this problem by placing one of our fingers on the ocarina besides a finger hole.

When you play notes higher than A, stabilise the ocarina by putting your right pinky finger to the right of the finger hole on the ocarina's tail, as shown below. This is also shown in the previous video.

Notice that while a finger is supporting the ocarina, it is more difficult to close that finger's hole. With the pinky that can be addressed by sliding the finger from side to side.

This challenge is why it matters which fingers you use to support the ocarina, and in general one should minimise the number of fingers supporting the instrument on higher notes.

A, B, and high C

Work on A, B, and high C using the same method. These are straightforward.

A diagram showing the fingerings for the notes A, B and C on a C ocarina:

A: Lt Li Lm Lp 
   Rt

B: Lt Lp 
   Rt

C: Lt Lp 
   Rt

High D, E, and F

A diagram showing the fingerings for the notes D, E and F on a C ocarina:

D: Lp 
   Rt
E: Lp 

F: (all open)

The highest 3 notes require a bit more technique. Up to this point the right thumb has been proving the instrument's main support. How can you open the right thumb hole without dropping the instrument?

The technique used to play these notes is called the 3 point grip, and the ocarina will be balanced between your left index finger, right pinky and the edge of the thumb.

Here's how you do the 3 point grip:

  • When you move from C to D, put your left index finger on the cappello, to the left of the finger hole. The left thumb just lifts off the hole and hangs in the air.
  • To move from D to E, rotate your right wrist and roll the right thumb off its hole.
  • And finally, the pinky just lifts off to play the high F.

You can read more about this technique, as well as some common mistakes in the article 'How to hold an ocarina on the high notes'.

How to use the cappello of an ocarina. The right index finger is placed vertically against the body of the ocarina to support it while playing the high notes

The right thumb hole opened by straightening the right thumb, and rolling the finger off the hole

Play C, D, E, F, E, D repeatedly and slowly until you get used to it. They are demonstrated in the video above.

As you practice this you may intuitively support the instrument with other fingers, such as by placing the left thumb next to it's hole. Doing so is generally a bad idea as it locks those fingers away from their hole, making it needlessly difficult to close the hole again.

Finally, note that what's shown is Asian fingering; the technique is the same for ocarinas using Italian fingering but E and F are reversed. You would lift the left pinky, then roll the thumb off last.

Subholes notes, and accidentals

Now you know all of the fingerings for one scale, and there's actually loads of music that you can play using just these notes alone. However, there are still a few more things to learn, if you wish.

Many ocarinas have one or more 'subholes'. These are played by sliding a finger forwards to cover two holes at once, and allow you to sound notes below the lowest note we have learned so far.

A diagram showing the fingering for subhole notes on a Taiwanese system ocarina

C: (no subholes)
B: right subhole closed
A: both subholes closed

And secondly are the accidentals, notes that come between other notes. For example, between the notes C and D there is a note called alternately 'C sharp' or 'D flat', depending on the context.

Some common fingerings for these notes are shown below, although do note that the fingerings for accidental notes depend on chamber acoustics and vary between ocarinas. It is best to get the fingerings from a fingering chart for your specific ocarina; visit this link for fingering charts for Pure Ocarinas.

A diagram showing the fingerings for the accidental notes on a C ocarina:

C#: Lt Li Lm Lr Lp
    Rt Ri Rm Rr Rp1

D#: Lt Li Lm Lr Lp 
    Rt Ri Rm  Rp1 Rp2

F#: Lt Li Lm Lr Lp 
    Rt Rm Rp1

G#: Lt Li Lm Lp 
    Rt Rr

A#: Lt Li Lp 
    Rt Rr

C#: Lp 
    Rt Rr

D#: Lm Lp

For now, it is perfectly fine to just be aware that these notes exist, and learn them as and when you need them. They will be discussed later in the book.

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