Introducing musicality

Very broadly, Musicality refers to the aspects of playing that make music sound musical.

If you take a listen to some of your favourite singers, you'll notice that they aren't just monotonously singing one note after another. You'll hear sentences in the lyrics, separated by gaps and breaths. Perhaps you'll also hear that the pitch may waver.

Phrases are the analogy of sentences in music. Phrases and sentences are often interchangeable in songs, but they also exist in instrumental music. If you listen to an experienced ocarina or flute player, you'll hear groups of notes, separated by gaps.

Ornamentation is what we call the embellishments we add to our playing, like the pitch wobble (vibrato), and other things like trills and turns, fast sequences of notes.

Adding phrasing

Phrasing in instrumental music comes from how you separate notes, and there are quite a few ways of doing so. One option is to vary how long you stop the air with your tongue:

  • You can tongue a note for a long time, creating a long gap between notes.
  • Alternately you can tongue very briefly, creating a very short break.
  • Or in fact, anywhere in-between.

We can use this to create phrasing by separating the notes within a phrase by tonguing them for only a very brief time, while ending the phrase with a longer gap.

Give this a try:

  • Try playing a sequence of notes, stopping the air for a long time with your tongue.
  • Then do the same, but move your tongue very fast to only briefly stop the airflow.

And then create phrases by playing a series of notes with brief articulation, followed by one with a long gap.

Note that these gaps do not change the rhythm as the time from the articulation is 'stolen' from the duration of the previous note. The gap between two phrases is also a great place to take a breath as a break in the middle of a phrase can be jarring.

Once you're comfortable, try introducing it into your music. Listen to a performance, hearing how the performer is phrasing it, and then, replicate it using varied tonguing. Identifying phrases is discussed in more detail in Figures, phrases and motifs.

There are other ways to create phrasing as it's just a matter of contrast, seating off one kind of articulation against another. Here are a few ideas:

  • Invert what we have explored, setting off notes with long articulations against short ones.
  • Slur several notes together in a single breath, and contrast them with tongued notes.

We explore this topic in more detail in Articulating notes on the ocarina.

Using ornamentation

Another aspect of musicality is embellishment and ornamentation. Ornaments are details and 'flourishes', like a seasoning you can add to your music. One kind of ornamentation that's really easy to apply is vibrato, where you vary the pitch of a long note.

We explored how to vary your blowing pressure in How to play the ocarina. Creating vibrato is just a matter of rhythmically varying your pressure a little:

  • Put on a metronome at a slow tempo.
  • Slightly raise and lower your blowing pressure, one vibrato cycle per metronome click.
  • Then gradually speed up the metronome.

Aim to make your pressure change smooth, like this.

When playing vibrato, the pitch of a note rhythmically raises and lowers

Then choose one of your songs that uses long notes, and introduce some vibrato.

There are numerous ways of applying vibrato in your music, it can be slow or fast, deep or subtle. It may be in time with the pulse of the music, or desynchronised. Something that can be effective in faster music is a subtle vibrato in sync with the beat.

Vibrato is just one option however, there are many other kinds of ornamentation one can do on the ocarina, including:

  • Grace notes, optional notes added to embellish a melody. They can be single fast notes, or sequences of longer notes.
  • Rolls and cranns, sequences of fingered articulations.
  • Humming into the instrument, which changes the character of the sound.

These are explained on the pages Ornamentation on the ocarina, and Rolls, cranns and strike cranns.

Volume dynamics, and a common mistake

Volume dynamics are when you play a note loud or soft to vary its emphasis. On many other instruments they play an essential role in musicality.

Unfortunately, attempting to do this on the ocarina leads to a really easy trap as the intuitive way to do this—varying blowing pressure— also changes the pitch.

There are a few ways of changing volume without changing the pitch:

  • Using a microphone. If you are performing with a microphone, the volume your audience hears can be varied by moving closer or farther from the mic.
  • Varying pressure and fingering at once. You blow harder, then compensate for the pitch change by partially or fully closing another hole.

Using the second approach is more limited as it isn't possible to play the lowest note louder, as there is no hole to shade. It is also impossible to play the highest note quieter as there are no more holes to vent.

In practice, many ocarina players substitute volume dynamics with ornamentation, as it is technically easier to achieve. A quick flourish of notes, pitch bends and similar easily serve to draw emphasis.

Sliding from a lower note up to pitch, or playing short staccato notes are another way of creating an impression of lower volume.

Rhythmic variation

Rhythms aren't always played strictly to a metronome. They can speed up or slow down. Some notes may be held for longer for expressive reasons, and rhythms may be swung, where alternating notes are elongated and cut in a repeating way.

Details like this are most easily learned by playing over and copying aspects of performances you enjoy. When you are listening, notice if your note was played late or early, and adjust as you need to. You can use a digital audio workstation to loop small sections of a recording, and then clap or play over it.

Deliberately playing notes slightly early or late is another thing you can experiment with once you start to get a handle on your rhythmic accuracy. Playing a note early can create a sense of urgency, and in general, slight rhythmic variance adds tension, a feeling of something being 'not quite right'.

I recommend practising your rhythms both in the 'mathematical' way, as well as the 'human' way. With some time and experience it will start to enable you to hear exactly how a performer is varying their rhythm, giving you a deeper appreciation for the music you are playing.

Exploring musicality

Musicality is a complex subject to discuss as there are many different, equally valid options depending on what you are trying to do:

  • Classical tradition prefers every note to be separated. Playing style is generally 'clean', with every note tongued. Phrases are typically separated with longer gaps. Where slurring is used, it is indicated in notation, as is other ornamentation.
  • Irish traditional music slurs everything by default, the complete opposite of classical. It gives this music its characteristic flowing character. Fingered articulations are preferred, and tonguing is used sparingly to separate phrases, or to emphasize notes.

Other styles of music do other things still. Fortunately, a great deal has been written about this topic, and regardless of what style of music you want to play, you should be able to find books and other resources for similar instruments which can be adapted.

And another great way of developing your musicality is just to listen. Get some recordings that you enjoy, either vocal or instrumental, and listen to them several times. Notice how the singer or player is phrasing the music and using ornamentation. Try to imitate it.

Finally, you could experiment with the different ornaments that ocarinas can play. Try applying them in your music in different places, and see what you like the sound of.

But regardless of what approach you opt for, one thing is certain. Working on your musicality will add a lot to the sound of your music.

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