Cons of the ocarina as a first instrument
On a surface level, ocarinas can look like ideal first instruments, being visually simple and having an approachable fingering system. Yet, ocarinas have notable cons as a first instrument.
Ocarinas are deceptively simple, and their technical limitations also prevent you from learning certain critical aspects of music. Do note that all of these issues can be addressed, so the point here isn't to discourage you, but create awareness.
Ocarinas are loud
Ocarinas can be a poor first instrument they are loud. Nobody's first experiences with music sound brilliant, and you need to be able to play without fear of embarrassing yourself.
Ocarinas can be muted in a sense, but doing so throws the instrument out of tune. It is also not very effective as ocarinas have a piercing tone, which is very audible even at low volume.
An ocarina's simplicity is deceptive
Playing an ocarina well is a lot more involved than their appearances would have you believe. For one, wind instruments in general are more complex than they seem as many techniques for playing them happen out of sight inside the body.
You must learn to:
- Exhale at a constant rate.
- Use your tongue to control the airflow.
- Vary your blowing pressure to stay in tune, and for ornamentation.
Mouth posture and blowing angle also matter as they affect the instrument's tone, especially on the high notes.
Playing music well also involves more than just knowing how to interact with an instrument. Creating expression is called 'musicality', and this is a complex topic in itself.
The ocarina's pitch is highly unstable
As ocarinas have fixed finger holes, you may think that using the correct fingering will give the desired note. This is not the case: every note requires a different pressure to play in tune.
Having finger holes does help with intonation when moving from one note to another, but it is easy to drift. You can end up with the high notes flat relative to the low notes, for instance. Because ocarinas are loud, they are not forgiving of tuning errors, especially when playing with other musicians.
Ocarinas lack a reliable pitch reference
While ocarinas have unstable pitch, they also lack a built-in way of teaching you how to control it.
Learning how to play in tune is quite intuitive if you play with a reliable pitch reference. When multiple notes sound together, it is pretty obvious when they are in tune, as it sounds clean and pure.
Some instruments provide a reliable reference—the violin, for example, as the pitches of its open strings are stable. On the ocarina, this can only be done using external accompaniment like a practice drone, in absence of which it is easy to be completely oblivious to tuning errors.
Single chamber ocarinas have two thumb holes
In order to maximise the available range, single chambered ocarinas have two thumb holes. This is a technical challenge because the right thumb hole is also the primary support point. You need to open this hole without dropping the instrument.
There are techniques that allow you do so so, but it is a technical challenge, and one that doesn't exist in any other instrument I'm aware of.
Note that this point does not apply to most multichamber ocarinas. As they produce range in a different way, multichambers generally don't have a right thumb hole.
Ocarinas are monophonic
The ocarina is monophonic, meaning that it only sounds one note at a time, thus you cannot develop an understanding of harmony playing it alone. If you only wish to play melodies, it may not be apparent why this is an issue.
The thing is, melodies and harmony are closely related, and understanding harmony gives you a much deeper appreciation for the music you are playing. It is also a prerequisite for improvisation, as you must develop an intuition for how notes sound together.
You cannot learn to use volume dynamics on the ocarina
The most common way of creating emphasis in music is by changing volume, such as to emphasise the key words of a song. It is also used on a larger scale, and I'm sure you've observed pieces of music which start softly, then ramp up for the big finale.
Many instruments can vary the volume of each of their notes separately, but ocarinas cannot naturally do this. Each fingering only sounds in tune at one volume, and ocarinas have an innate volume dynamic where the high notes are louder than the low.
Because of this limitation, you cannot learn to use volume dynamics by playing the ocarina.
Ocarinas have a limited sounding range
In music, 'range' refers to the highest and lowest note an instrument can play and ocarinas, especially single chambers, don't play many notes.
Having fewer notes can be easier to understand initially, but will block your progress long term. A lot of music is written for instruments with a larger range, and there is no guarantee that anything you want to play will actually be playable.
This can be especially confusing when playing by ear, as you will often encounter notes that don't exist on your instrument. Whether a note is high or low also creates different musical effects, and it is difficult to appreciate this when your instrument can't play them.
It is important to note that I'm not trying to put you off. You certainly can learn the ocarina as a first instrument if it inspires you.
Starting with ocarina also needn't limit your development as a musician. None of the issues raised are fundamentally unsolvable:
- You can find a remote location to practise without bothering others.
- Breath control and intonation can be developed using accompaniment.
- Emphasis can be created with ornamentation instead of volume.
- You can learn harmony by messing around with a piano or keyboard.
- The range and ergonomic issues can be addressed by playing multichambers.
It is also worth considering that, although an instrument's limitations can prevent you from learning certain aspects of music; in a performance situation, these limitations give an instrument its characteristic sound.
No instrument is fundamentally better than any other, and what is better depends on the effect desired in the music. For example, the tin whistle is technically more limited than the ocarina in some regards, but there is a lot of great music featuring it.