How to identify ergonomic ocarinas
For an ocarina to be playable simply sounding good is not enough. The instrument also needs to feel comfortable to play, which is called ergonomics. Ocarinas are made in a lot of different shapes, and not all of them are ideal ergonomically.
At the same time, ergonomics is not a 'one size fits all' problem. Everyone's hands are different, and an ocarina that is ergonomic for one person, may not be ergonomic for you. Knowing the factors which affect an ocarina's ergonomic behaviour will allow you to better evaluate instruments, and identify ocarinas that are ergonomic for you.
The first part addresses the design of single chamber ocarinas, and the second part extends this with additional details for multichamber ocarinas.
Single chamber ocarinas
The first thing impacting the ergonomics of a transverse ocarina is its external shape. They should be shaped to be comfortable to hold, and feel stable in your hands.
Generally speaking, bodies which are longer, with straight sides have better ergonomics. Egg shaped ocarinas by comparison are not ideal as the shape encourages fingers to slide off the ends of the body, not to rest securely.
The ergonomics of an ocarina can be further enhanced if the body is not perfectly round. If the ocarina has been designed with flats for fingers to rest on, it will feel more secure. Without them the ocarina will tend to roll, and will be more challenging to support.
The overall size of the body also matters as if you have large hands, a small ocarina will feel cramped, and vice versa. Soprano ocarinas are smaller than bass ocarinas. Ones that are made in the same pitch can also have different sizes. It is a good idea to measure your hands and compare them with any measurements you can find for an ocarina.
Body shape also affects weight distribution and balance, which is discussed later.
When you play higher notes on an ocarina you lift fingers, and it will feel progressively less stable. To solve that, you can put down 'spare' fingers beside their finger hole to support and balance the ocarina.
Both the right pinky finger and left index finger are commonly used to help support an ocarina while playing the high notes, as is demonstrated in the pictures below.
To be ergonomic, an ocarina must provide adequate space for both of these fingers to rest besides their finger holes, and be shaped in a way that allows those fingers to rest securely. The two diagrams below contrast a good and bad design:
Notice how both the right and left hand sections of the body in the good design are pretty straight? This is so that the fingers can rest securely when they are supporting the ocarina. Ocarinas that are strongly curved on the ends of the body are best avoided as they encourage fingers to slide off the instrument.
Ergonomic differences between Asian and Italian transverse ocarinas
There are notable differences in the ergonomic design of Asian and Italian ocarinas, despite them having a common history. Italian ocarinas have points at both ends of the body, while Asian ocarinas have a rounded cappello, and a longer tail.
The design difference exists due to a difference in the technique used for playing the high notes between Italian and Asian players:
- Italian players use the left hand point to support the instrument on the high notes, in a technique called the 3 point grip. The ocarina is balanced between the left index finger, right pinky and right thumb.
- Asian players use a different technique where the narrow end of the chamber is gripped with the ring and pinky finger of the right hand, and the tail is longer to allow this.
The two techniques are addressed on the page Playing the high notes of single chambered ocarinas. The different design could be explained, if when the ocarina came to Asia, the playing techniques of Italian players did not.
Personally, I consider the Italian design and playing technique superior, as the Asian technique puts the entire weight on one hand, immobilises that hand, and is not ergonomic for larger and heaver ocarinas.
How the ocarina is balanced
The physical balance of an ocarina is a large part of ergonomics. A poorly balanced ocarina will be difficult to play and will feel a lot heavier than a well balanced one—at best, making your job harder and, at worst, causing hand or wrist pain. It should be a top priority when choosing an ocarina for serious playing.
Ocarinas have two planes of balance, primary and secondary.
The primary plane runs between the right thumb hole and the tail of the ocarina. It allows you to support the instrument using only the right thumb and pinky when held parallel to the ground.
The secondary plane runs between the left pinky hole and the mouthpiece. It is less important, being used in combination with the primary and rarely, if ever, by itself. Note that this plane can only be used when the pinky hole is placed on the side of the instrument.
Normally, an ocarina is supported using the primary plain, between the right thumb, pinky and mouthpiece. It allows you to play the majority of the notes on the instrument without needing to worry about supporting it. If an ocarina won't balance like this many more fingers must be used to support the ocarina.
Balance can be challenging to judge without being able to hold the ocarina, but it can be estimated with a bit of experience. As you play more ocarinas, notice how they feel in your hand, and use this as a basis when evaluating other ocarinas.
Look at its shape and consider how it's weight is distributed. Thicker areas will be heavier than thinner ones.
An ocarina's centre of mass is where the ocarina would balance on the tip of a single finger. It can be located by holding the ocarina between your left thumb and pinky, and moving the thumb towards the left until the tail falls down away from your pinky finger.
The relationship between the centre of mass and the location of the right thumb hole determines a lot about how an ocarina feels to play. It should be designed such that when you hold the ocarina parallel to the ground using only your right pinky and thumb:
- The ocarina will balance between the right thumb and pinky with a slight upward force on the pinky.
- The ocarina should either balance perfectly or have a slight tendency to roll toward the mouthpiece.
If you feel a lot of pressure on your pinky or thumb, that means that the right thumb hole has been positioned too far to the right of the centre of mass. The farther right the thumb hole is, the heavier the ocarina will feel.
If the ocarina falls away from the pinky, the right thumb hole is positioned to the left of the centre of mass. This is never desirable and means the ocarina is bad.
If the ocarina rolls forwards away from you the thumb hole is behind the centre of mass, and means the ocarina is bad. Such an instrument will be very hard to play.
As you gain experience, you will learn what factors influence these things, and guess how an ocarina will feel without needing to hold it.
The surface finish of an ocarina may initially seem inconsequential to its ergonomics, but it actually matters quite a lot.
While playing an ocarina it is quite common that you will need to slide fingers over the surface of the instrument, such as to cover or uncover a subhole, or support the instrument while leaping between a high and low note. Surface finish has a very large effect on how easy or hard it is to do so.
Against intuition, rougher surfaces are easier to slide fingers over, than mirror smooth ones. Very smooth and shiny finishes trap finger moisture, and cause your skin to cling to the surface. To get an idea of how that feels, try sliding the pads of your fingers over a drinking glass.
Rougher surface finishes are much easier to slide fingers over, for example:
- Matte glazes.
- Plain, unfinished ceramic
It should go without saying that sculptural surfaces can also be a problem as they can physically block fingers from sliding over the surface. If you are looking at a sculptural ocarina, ensure that the maker has left the area around the holes smooth, and support points clear of obstructions.
Ocarinas can be found with their mouthpiece ranging anywhere between 90 degrees to the body, to completely inline. The angle of the mouthpiece impacts how your wrists lie in relation to the instrument, and an ocarina with a slightly angled mouthpiece can improve ergonomics.
Angling the mouthpiece also leaves more space between your right hand and face, which may be more comfortable if you have larger hands.
However, changing the angle of the mouthpiece does change the acoustics of the instrument. It changes the angle of the air entering the chamber. At small angles I have not found this to cause issues given my experience in making these instruments.
What I have found problematic is if the mouthpiece is completely inline. Such designs I have found to be much more prone to screeching when blown at higher pressures, which limits how they can be tuned. They also tend to have larger thumb holes
There are also ergonomic reasons to angle the mouthpiece as it creates a more stable distribution of weight between the thumb holes and mouthpiece. An inline ocarina is less stable as all of its weight is almost on a single line.
Hole placement and size
Ergonomic finger hole placement is hugely variable as everyone's hands are different.
You will need to try a number of different ocarinas to find one with a hole placement that works for your hands. The main point to note is that an ocarina's hole placement should allow you to hold the instrument comfortably, with gently curved fingers and straight wrists.
A hole placement that forces you to fold your wrists back isn't desirable as it can cause wrist pain. The fingers are controlled by muscles in the forearm through a number of long tendons. These run through a small channel in the wrist, and folding the wrist hard in either direction compresses it.
For my own hands, keeping my wrists straight entails having my fingertips directly above my thumb, evident from the pictures. But as everyone's hands are different, this may or may not work for you.
You can get an idea of the relative lengths of your fingers if you hold your hand like in the pictures, with the wrist straight and your thumb as horizontal as possible. Keep a slight curl along your fingers and note where the fingertips are relative to your thumb.
While ocarina makers rarely document the hole alignment of their instrument, you can learn to recognise it from photographs. For example, a design which places the right hand finger holes very close to the edge of the chamber would work if you happen to have a long thumb relative to your fingers, but would force the wrist to fold if you don't.
Ergonomics and visual design
Ocarinas, even ones intended as serious instruments, frequently include sculptural visual features. If you are considering getting one of these instruments it is important to be aware how a focus on visual features can negatively impact playability.
To give a few examples:
- Sculptural ocarinas position holes for aesthetics, not the player. This often forces the hands to make awkward compensations like folding the wrists back and may cause hand pain as a result.
- Visual features can get in the way, and prevent good playing technique being used. For example a visual feature on the inside of the tail may look good, but can get in the way. There is a technique called the palm grip, and if this is done on such an ocarina, the protrusion will dig into your hand.
- Changing the shape of the body can cause various side effects. Curved bloodies for example can also look good but cause numerous problems; if the body curls away from the mouthpiece as shown. The left hand must turn inwards more than normal to counteract the curve. The overlaid lines show the average angles of the two hands.
The opposite of the second design, with the chamber curling toward the player, is even worse as the right hand would be left scrunched very close to your face.
When considering the impact of any visual change, consider how it impacts the ocarina's primary balance. Unless designed with a very heavy mouthpiece, a curved body is going to tend to be front-heavy for example, which makes the left thumb hole harder to open.
Ocarinas can be designed in a way that blend visuals and function without compromising playability, but many don't.
Awareness of playing technique is important when considering the ergonomics of such instruments, so that you can imagine how the visual features would interact with your hand. If your focus is playing, it is very important that such visual features are designed in such a way as to not adversely affect the overall function or balance of the ocarina.
Most multichambered ocarinas are a direct extension of the single chambered transverse design. The ergonomic considerations with multichamber ocarinas are mostly the same as with single chambers, but the following should be noted:
Like a single chamber, how a multichamber balances has a big impact on its playability. It is very useful to retain the ability to balance the instrument between the right thumb and pinky. As most multichambers lack a right thumb hole, this makes the instrument effortless to support.
Not all multichambers can balance like this however, as adding additional chambers tends to shift the centre of balance away from the player. Making them balance well requires using the mouthpiece and higher chambers as a counterweight.
It is not easy to say if any given ocarina can balance like this without being able to hold it, unless you can find someone who already has one.
The shape of the mouthpiece
Each chamber of a multichambered ocarina has its own windway and typically only one is blown at a time. The air is directed into the desired windway by forming an aperture between your lips.
As the interior of the lips are rounded, it is easiest to do this when the mouthpiece is also rounded in a complementary way. However, it is not uncommon to see multichambers with the mouthpiece coming to a sharp rectangular edge. This isn't very ergonomic, and will dig into your lips.