Materials, finish differences and ocarina care

When choosing an ocarina the material and finish is an important thing to consider as it affects the durability of the instrument, as well as how it feels to play.

Materials

Ceramic

Ceramic is probably the most common material ocarinas are made from.

Ceramic ocarinas never suffer from condensation or moisture build up, and ceramic ocarinas can be played for hours without any issue. The material is porous and absorbs condensation from your breath, which evaporates once you have finished playing.

Ceramic ocarinas are fragile of course, and require due care. They are durable and won't break from day to day playing or being knocked about a bit, but obviously they will break if you drop them.

Given practical considerations I've never found this to be a problem myself.

Plastic

Plastic ocarinas may be a good place to start and there are some good quality ones available. Obviously they are very durable and can survive being dropped.

The big disadvantage with plastic ocarinas is condensation. Moisture from your breath will build up inside the instrument, including inside the windway, and can cause tone quality to degrade over a long playing session.

The range of them available is also extremely limited in comparison to ceramic.

Wood

High quality wooden transverse ocarinas are rare, expensive, and only made by a few Asian makers to my awareness.

They don't have any real advantage over ceramic or plastic, and wood is difficult to form into the complex ergonomic shape required by a serious ocarina.

Like ceramic, wood is porous and a wooden ocarina should not have condensation issues. It probably depends on the kind of wood though.

Finish and playing feel

Ocarinas are commonly available with a number of different finishes including fired glazes, natural shellac, and plain ceramic. Synthetic finishes including lacquers and epoxy are also becoming more common.

Of these, fired glazes and synthetic finishes are the most durable. Shellac is a middle ground, and plain earthenware naturally discolours over time.

As was noted in Ocarina ergonomics the finish also impacts how an ocarina feels to play, and mirror-smooth finishes are not ideal ergonomically.

Standard ocarina playing technique requires sliding fingers over the surface and gloss finishes make this difficult to do smoothly. Any finger moisture gets trapped between the finger and the surface, and causes fingers to cling similar to how a glass can stick to a table.

Having a microscopic surface texture greatly reduces this problem:

  • Textured 'matte' glazes generally feel better than gloss ones, and shellac feels similar.
  • Unsealed, plain ceramic does not feel clingy at all due to being porous. It absorbs any moisture on the fingers, keeping them dry.

It is possible to work around the clinging issue of smooth finishes by applying a small amount of talc or chalk dust to your fingers. This absorbs moisture and prevents the gripping surface of the skin touching the instrument.

Cleaning ocarinas

Ceramic ocarinas should be cleaned by wiping them over with water on a lint-free cloth. Never use alcohol based cleaners on shellac finished ocarinas as they will damage the finish.

Do not clean ceramic ocarinas using scented cleaning products or anything with a strong chemical smell. Earthenware is porous and will absorb the cleaner even on glazed ocarinas, as the finger holes are rarely sealed for tuning reasons. Once absorbed, the cleaner will gradually seep out over time leaving a lingering smell that can only be removed by re-firing.

Plain finished ocarinas will discolour over time as they absorb skin moisture and oils. This can only be removed by re-firing. 600 to 800°C (1112 to 1472°F) is adequate and won't affect the tuning.

If re-firing a glazed ocarina, to remove a chemical smell for instance, it is advisable to stilt the ocarina so that the glaze isn't in contact with the kiln shelf. Should the glaze melt during this process and it was touching, it would stick to the shelf. Stilting can usually be done using firing rods through the finger holes.

Re-firing a shellac finished ocarina will remove the finish. I have no idea what this would do to a synthetic finish, but I suspect it would also remove it.

Plastic ocarinas can be freely washed under a tap with no problem. Wooden ones should be wiped with a damp cloth and left out to dry. Exposing wood to excessive moisture may cause it to crack.

Storing and transporting ocarinas

Many people are afraid of breaking ocarinas when they first start playing them. Ceramic ocarinas are actually a lot more robust than you may think. They will break if dropped on a hard surface, but they are not going to break from a minor bump. The risk of breakage can be greatly reduced if you do a risk analysis in your head:

  • How valuable is the ocarina to you and is it replaceable?
  • If you leave an ocarina sitting on a table, how long will it be there?
  • Is a baby or a dog going to grab a neck cord and pull it onto the floor?

Purpose made padded ocarina cases do exist, in both fabric and hard shell designs, but can be difficult to source at this time. Many players sew their own with padding between fabric, and they are also easy to improvise from zipped or snap-close hard cases designed for a variety of small objects, such as eyeglasses, toiletries or game consoles. Do not trust thin soft cases to protect ocarinas from drops though.

Padding can also be easily improvised from things like towels cut to size, thick socks or even an oven glove with some kind of closure added. Rubber, such as a swim cap, is very good at absorbing shocks. Your padding can be held in place by friction, or rubber bands. Think about the worst case impact if you drop it and your outer case doesn't hold shut.

Take care if you wear an ocarina on a neck cord as they are not as secure as you may think. An ocarina swinging around your neck can bump into things and break. A heavy ocarina dropped on a neck cord may break the cord, or the cord may break the ceramic. In any case it's going to hurt.

Many beginners use neck cords to feel more secure in their playing, but this is unnecessary. There is no reason a well designed ocarina should feel unstable in the hand, if so the instrument or your technique is probably at fault.

After playing

It is important to leave ceramic ocarinas out so that absorbed moisture can evaporate once you have finished playing.

Ceraminc ocarinas can be washed out to remove anything which has collected internally, but note that doing so will saturate the ceramic. If you do this the ocarina must be kept in the open in a warm environment for at least a few days so the water can evaporate. Also note that doing this may damage some finishes or cause earthenware glazes to craze. Seek advice from the manufacturer.

You may occasionally want to clean the windway using a strip of folded paper or a feather. Feathers are less likely to leave stuff behind in the windway than paper, but treat them as single-use and try to get clean white ones.