Playing cuts and strikes on the ocarina
Cuts and strikes allow you to articulate notes without interrupting the airflow into the instrument. They involve sounding a higher or lower pitch for such a short time that it isn't perceived as a 'note'. Rather sounding like a percussive blip or click.
Together cuts and strikes fall into the category of fingered articulations. For this article both of them will be described assuming C ocarina fingerings, but they work just as well on ocarinas in any key.
To get an idea how fingered articulations work in practice, let's have a go at playing some strikes on G:
- Finger a G and blow it at normal pressure as if playing a long tone.
- Lift the right index finger somewhat higher than standard playing position.
- Energetically drive the finger down towards its hole.
- If you completely relax control of the finger just before it contacts the instrument it will bounce off producing a very short blip.
You'll notice that you've produced a series of audibly distinct notes, yet you haven't changed the airflow into the instrument.
Strikes can be used to separate notes much as you would using the tongue. Have a go at articulating a series of G notes to a quarter note rhythm, aiming to place your strikes exactly on the beat.
The notation of these articulations is a somewhat complex topic as there is no standard way of notating them. For this book I will be using Grey Larsen's notation system, and a strike is notated with an arrow above a note as above.
This notation means 'play a strike with any available finger', the exact pitch produced does not matter when performed well. Strikes occur on the beat, they are not 'grace notes' in the classical sense, which are normally played before it.
Playing strikes on other notes
Strikes can be played using any open hole as the entire volume of an ocarina's chamber is always oscillating. They can be performed on the majority of the notes:
- D can only be struck using the right pinky.
- E can be struck with the right ring finger.
- F can be struck with either the right ring or middle finger.
- G can be struck with the right index finger.
- I almost always strike everything higher with the right index finger.
- Most accidentals can also be struck.
The size of the hole one is striking can impact the perceived strength of the articulation which will be addressed a bit later.
You may find it interesting that the fingerings for strikes are a great deal more flexible on ocarinas than tubular wind instruments such as flutes. On tubular instruments only the hole below the lowest open hole can be struck, whereas on an ocarina any open hole can be struck.
Playing a descending strike
Strikes are also effective when descending from a higher note to a lower one, and playing a descending strike entails doing two things at the same time:
- Firstly, you have to lower one or more fingers to play the desired note.
- At the exact same time as you do this, you have to play a strike.
At first, this is easiest to do on notes above G as the work can be split across both hands. For example, to strike G descending from A, you:
- Finger A,
- descend to G,
- strike with the right index finger at exactly the same time.
Any descending interval above G can be performed in this way.
If you want to strike a note lower than G, you have to do so using two fingers on the right hand. Both should be driven down energetically and when they contact, you hold one finger down on the hole while allowing the other to rebound.
For example: to descend from G to F, striking F:
- Both the right index and middle finger are driven down at high speed.
- When the fingers contact, the index finger is held down, while the middle finger is allowed to rebound.
Once you've got the hang of playing descending strikes have a go at putting them to use in some music.
When strikes are played on one hand, the striking finger tends to dwell longer and can cause the strike to be long enough to be herd as a distinct note. Still the goal is to minimise this effect as much as possible.
A cut is essentially the opposite of a strike, separating two notes by briefly uncovering any closed hole to sound a higher pitch.
Let's try playing some cuts on F:
- Finger F.
- Briefly uncover the left index or middle finger hole.
The cutting finger should jump off the hole momentarily, then be instantly replaced.
Once you've got the hang of the basic movement have a go at playing some F cuts on a regular beat. In notation a cut can be shown like this:
Ideally, a cut should be as brief as a strike but you may find that at first your cuts are long enough to have perceptible pitch. If you aim to centre your cuts around the beat, your skill will naturally improve and in time they will be short enough to sound on the beat.
Perhaps counter intuitively, we can improve the sound of cuts by practising the movement very slowly at first. Let's have a go with the left middle finger:
- Hold the ocarina in front of you so you can clearly see what your fingers are doing.
- Very slowly lift the finger a few millimetres above the hole and replace it.
- If needed, your right hand can be used to stop the cutting finger from lifting too high.
Aim to practise this as often as you are able and you don't need your instrument to do so, just place your fingers on your leg or a table.
This slow practice allows you to quickly build an accurate muscle memory of the action, and after a few days you'll be able to easily perform a crisp cut.
Note that making cuts short is the target, and they will get better with practice. My cuts in the videos here passable but slow.
While playing cuts, it is absolutely essential to stay relaxed. Any tension will cause your movements to be jerky and your finger to move too far from the hole.
Its very important to stress that the pitch produced by a cut does not matter when they are performed well. Cuts are normally played with 'false' fingerings who's goal is simply to produce an extremely brief blip.
A cut can be played by lifting any finger which is covering a hole and the same finger can be used to cut multiple notes.
What I'd suggest is this:
- Cut notes below A using either the left index or middle finger.
- Cut A, B and high C using the left thumb.
- Cut the high D, D♯, and E using the left pinky.
However the effect of cutting high notes using left pinky isn't very strong, and strikes, covered in the previous section, tend to sound better.
It can be easier at first to practice playing cuts just using one fingering, but using multiple cut fingers can be useful to vary the strength of the articulation. This is covered later.
On the whistle and flute, it is better to cut with a finger close to the lowest open hole due to response time. Ocarinas are less restrictive. Cuts can be played using any finger as hole position does not affect response time.
Playing ascending cuts
Cuts are more versatile than strikes in the sense that they work on both ascending, and descending note transitions.
To play a cut on an ascending motion, the cutting finger is flicked at the exact same time as the finger is lifted to play the higher note. This results in briefly sounding a higher pitch.
Give this a try on your instrument.
Playing descending cuts
Cuts can also be performed on descending note transitions.
An important cravat is the fingering used to play the cut must result in a higher pitch than the final fingered note, and in some cases this may require cutting multiple fingers at once.
Fingered articulations in practice
In order for fingered articulations to work properly the following points must be obeyed:
- The duration of cuts/strikes should not change with tempo;
- they should be as brief as your ability allows, and;
- they should be exactly on the beat.
Due to these points fingered articulations do not function like notes in the regular sense, nor do they function exactly the same as tongued articulations.
For one, we can not change the duration of fingered articulations as playing them slowly causes them to sound like out of tune notes. It is however possible to vary their perceived strength.
That can be achieved by varying the fingering one is using, as cutting or striking using a larger hole can create a stronger articulation than a smaller one.
Fingered articulations can be used to create a very 'flowing' playing sound as they allow notes to be articulated without stopping the air into the instrument. They can be intermixed with tonguing for variation and to add interest.
They are also of value when playing at very high tempos as they respond faster than tonguing.
Finally, it is possible to combine these articulations to produce other effects. You can simultaneously tongue and cut a note, starting the airflow exactly at the same time as the cutting finger is lifted. This adds a 'chirp' to the note's attack, creating a stronger articulation.
Cuts and strikes would cancel each other out if you did them at exactly the same time, but they can be combined sequentially. In such cases it is common to alternate cuts and strikes as it is less tiring to spread the effort between different fingers and, preferably, different hands.
This kind of pattern is called a 'roll', 'crann' or 'birl', depending on the idiom and where in the range it happens. They are covered on the page 'Ornamentation: rolls, cranns, and strike cranns'.
The issue of notation
Notating fingered articulations is a somewhat complex topic as noted previously. They are mainly used in the instrumental folk music of the British isles and, as of writing, there is no widely accepted unambiguous way of notating them.
My preferred way of notating cuts and strikes is using Grey Larsen's system demonstrated in this article. I feel that placing a symbol above the note clearly indicates that the articulation occurs at the start of the note, not before or after it.
However it is also common to notate them using grace notes, which is potentially ambiguous as grace notes have a standardised meaning within classical tradition. Two different kinds of these exist:
- Appoggiatura (A-pog-a-tur-a).
- Acciaccatura (aggi-at-tura).
Appoggiaturas are in the simple case generally interpreted as taking half of the duration of the tone to which they are attached.
And the acciaccatura, described to be played 'as fast as possible'.
One may then assume that an acciaccatura is the same as a fingered articulation, but it isn't quite so simple. Do we mean a note 'played as fast as possible' using correct or false fingerings?.
Thus, we are using two symbols to differentiate between 3 different cases:
- A note taking half of the parent note's duration.
- A note played as quickly as possible using correct fingering.
- A sound used an articulation performed with false fingering.
Regardless, one needs to consider the context within which these symbols are used to understand their intent.
The notation of folk music doesn't tend to differentiate between acciaccaturas and appoggiaturas. It tends to use appoggiaturas in all cases, and the intended meaning is almost certainly 'play this with a cut or strike', depending if the grace note is written above or below the parent note.
The highland bagpipe tradition has its own system of notating cuts / strikes using groups grace notes, the intended performance of which can't be understood from literal reading. Different grace notes within such a group are played with different durations and fingerings, and isn't indicated in the notation. It's a good demonstration of emic notation.
If you wish to use this notation in your own music and the symbols are an issue, you can convey the same intent using text annotations. 'ST' means strike, 'CT' means cut.