Fourteen tips for practising the ocarina effectively

Know why you are practising

Our minds have two parts:

  • The conscious,
  • and the subconscious.

When we first begin to develop a skill the conscious mind takes control. This part of our mind is highly flexible. Yet it is limited in how much new information it can process. Playing an instrument requires numerous skills to come together at once, and its too much for the conscious mind to handle. If we push too quickly, it can't keep up and mistakes are made.

Musicians practice to make the process of playing an instrument subconscious (sometimes called 'muscle memory'). We break up the task of playing into multiple separate tasks and practice them. Over the course of weeks, the subconscious mind notices that you are often doing the same things, and begins to automate the tasks.

Do be aware that practising has delayed results. We can understand something logically long before it enters our muscle memory or subconscious. We can understand the mechanics of an exercise, yet we still have to run through the motions of practice for weeks or months before we can actually do it.

Find somewhere to practice that sounds good

If your playing sounds good, it would encourage you to practice more, right? And it isn't all down to technique: where you practice also matters.

The sound of an ocarina is affected by the room or environment that you are in. Some rooms sound good, while others make certain notes scream, and others sound dead.

  • Rooms with a lot of hard surfaces reflect sound, causing reverb or 'echo'.
  • Large rooms with high ceilings typically sound better than small rooms.
  • Soft surfaces like curtains and pillows damp reflections and improve room sound.

Practising in a larger room with lots of soft furnishings, or acoustic treatment (material designed to dampen reflections), will allow you to hear your instrument as it was intended to sound.

If your only option is a small room, the sound can be improved by hanging some blankets on the walls or investing in other acoustic treatment. Playing inside a a wardrobe or closet will often sound great as the clothes dampen sound reflections.

Know what you need to learn

Remember that the reason we practice is to make things subconscious? Your subconscious mind is fast, but it is not smart. If you practice poorly, you'll develop bad habits. Knowing what to practice, and being aware of common mistakes are both very important.

So, here are the pillars of fantastic ocarina playing:

There is a lot to be gained from studying how you learn. By understanding how you learn best you can use that knowledge to learn more efficiently. Even small changes can provide notable improvements.

Practice regularly and you will improve

Second to knowing what to practice is doing so regularly. Your mind is always clearing out information and motor skills that are not being used. If too much time is left between practice sessions, your mind sees your music skills as useless, and throws them in the trash.

But what does 'regularly' entail? How often do you need to practice to make progress?

You probably already know the answer: about once a day. You may even find that it works better to practice different things in a few 5 or 10 minute sessions spread over a day.

Practising daily, even for 5 minutes, will show much more progress than an hour a week. You don't have to take that on faith either. Give it a try and see how much better you become. What was hard the day before will magically become easier a few days later.

By practising daily, the act of practice becomes a routine, and the longer you do it the easier you'll find it to keep going.

Find a practice buddy

Music does not have to be a solo endeavour, it is much better when you have other's around. Humans are social creatures, and the presance of others inherently improves our enjoyment.

You can work on things together and share encouragement, and point out each other's mistakes. Also, you can challenge each other to make progress. Test each other's ear training, or write out melodies in sheet music, and challenge the other person to play it.

If you play with someone who can accompany you, it adds so much more depth to the music as it lets you to hear the underlying chordal structure of your tunes. You can learn what 'sharp' and 'flat' sounds like in relation to the harmony, and learn how to keep time with others.

If you don't have anyone to play with, checking out some open mics, music clubs and similar can be a great way of meeting like-minded people.

Break things down into simpler tasks

Does the thought of learning a whole song feel daunting or too much work? If so, the trick is to break it down into a number of simple, attainable tasks.

Instead of trying to learn a whole song from start to finish, you can learn it a bar, or a phrase at a time. For example, if you are learning from sheet music:

  • Begin by working out the rhythm and clapping it.
  • Secondly look up the fingerings for any notes you don't know.
  • Finally you may combine the two and play the bar.

The same thing can be done if you are learning by ear. In this case, just ask your teacher to play something more slowly, or use an audio editor like Audacity to cut a long track into shorter parts. The same tools can also slow recordings down without changing the pitch.

Initially this may be arduous but it does get easier over time. We begin to associate the sight of notes with the fingerings, or learn to recognise and perform common phrases by ear.

Keep a practice journal

As you learn it can become difficult to keep track of what you are practising, and you may not have time to practice every aspect every day.

Making a practice plan, where you list out the things you need to practice, and keeping a journal of how your practice sessions have gone will help you know how you are progressing over time.

Slow it down!

While it can be tempting to practice at the highest speed our ability allows, I urge you to instead take it slowly.

The point of practice is not to directly do the thing we are practising, but rather to train the subconscious mind to do it for us. Once that happens, we can speed it up without making mistakes.

Practising slowly allows us to control what we are doing and do things much more accurately. It gives out subconscious minds much more accurate information about what we are trying to learn.

But if we start to practice fast, we can't focus on the details and bad habits will develop.

A great approach is to start out at a very slow tempo, something like 60 to 80 BPM, play something through a few times until it starts to feel easy, and then do this in cycles, increasing the tempo by 5 to 10 BPM each time.

There are some tools that will help you with this:

  • A metronome is a great tool for moderating your tempo and slowly working things up to speed.
  • If you prefer playing by ear, there is software that can slow down and loop portions of audio recordings. These include Audacity (free), Reaper, Amazing Slowdowner, and audipo on android.

Your mind will lie to you

Learning is a chicken and egg problem. We only hear the mistakes that we are aware of; we won't hear them until we learn what to listen for. A new musician can play something which sounds fine to them, while an experienced musician will hear loads of mistakes.

It is important that we are aware of these as we progress so that we don't invest energy into practising bad habits. We don't want things becoming a blockade to our progress, and the longer we do them, the harder it will be to stop.

But how can we be aware of mistakes?

  • Record yourself While we are playing, we are exercising much of our mental processing power on the music. There is little power left over for hearing our mistakes. If you record your playing and listen back, you can give it your full attention and things you had no awareness of come screaming out.
  • Ask a mentor to check your playing Having an external perspective and more experience allows them to point out areas that can be improved. As ocarina teachers are hard to come by, enlisting the support of a player of another wind instrument is a good option. You can also seek advice from players through the Internet by recording yourself.
  • Make use of practice tools. Tools like a mirror, chromatic tuner, metronome and tuning drone can be exceptionally useful, revealing what you are doing.

Do be aware that how you feel about your playing affects how you perceive it:

  • If you feel happy that you've finally learned to play something, you will probably perceive it as sounding better than it actually is.
  • Similarly if you are getting frustrated that you don't seem to be making progress, you may view your playing as being worse than it is.

Pay attention to the details of how you play

A great deal of the musicality of a performance does not come from which notes you play, but how you play them. You may play every note perfectly in time and unchanging in pitch, but then you sound mechanical, like a bad MIDI.

How do you learn which notes you should be shaping? There is a lot to be gained from closely scrutinizing performances in a similar style:

  • How is the musician phrasing the music?
  • How do the different intervals and rhythms make you feel?
  • Are they using vibrato, are they playing legato or staccato?
  • Are they playing straight or swinging the rhythm?
  • Are there any sections of the tune that really catch your attention, and if so what detail creates that effect?

As we do this over a period of time, we begin to develop a subconscious library of phrases and ideas. We generally don't pull things out of the air, rather we change or combine fragments of things we have learned from other sources.

Another good option is to simply experiment with your instrument, play slowly and listen to the tune. Do any notes stand out as wanting emphasis? You could try tonguing them harder or sliding into them. Long notes can benefit from vibrato, but you may also choose to improvise a melodic variation. Finger ornaments like trills or rolls can also be effective.

Be aware that in studying other musicians can lead to self doubt. Don't judge yourself based on what you are hearing. The point is to learn from them and replicate it in your own music.

Stay with tension in the mind or body

Our minds are stubborn and does not like to change. When asked to do something new they may scream at us... 'Can't I do something else?'.

In learning the ocarina, this can come up in many places, like:

  • Feeling discomfort and tension in your muscles from learning to hold the instrument.
  • Have your eyes glazing over from learning sheet music, or learning to play in tune.

Instinctively we want to back off, but if we stick with that moment of unease, putting it to the back of our mind, the tension will gradually dissolve. To begin with our eyes glaze over, but if we stick with this moment we begin to understand.

These things do get easier. As long as you stick with it, there will be a day in the future you'll be able to do it.

Do background practice

There are many moments of time in our lives where we are not actively doing anything. These can be used for practice.

For instance if you're in a situation where your hands are not being used, such as travelling as a passenger. You could use this time to practice fingering exercises. And you don't even need your instrument to do so, just put your fingers on a table or your leg and practice moving them in a sequence you're having trouble with.

The same thing may be done with rhythm counting exercises, count them in your mind, or listen to a rhythm as audio and tap a finger to the rhythm.

We may also use these times to expose ourselves to information, like listening to a music related tutorial.

Work on exercises as they present their value to you

There is no doubt that exercises like scales and intervals can be boring. Traditionally, these things often feature heavily in music education, and for good reason. However I don't think they should be a starting point.

Learning music should be something we do because we enjoy it. At first playing some of your favourite songs can bring a lot of enjoyment, and that's great. And the more you play, the more value you will see in technical exercises.

As you play, you'll start to notice that certain parts of a song are more difficult to play than other parts. Those difficult parts can be made into exercises, and practised separately. By focusing your effort, not practising things you find easy, you'll progress much faster.

Things like scales, intervals, and arpeggios also have a lot of value as they teach you how to move between all of the notes on your instrument. Even they can be made more interesting by composing etudes around them.

Revisit things you've studied before

As we learn it is a good idea to regularly re-visit things that we have covered before. When we are first exposed to a topic we grasp aspects of it, but we do not understand it in full detail. The second time around you are viewing it under the light of your current experience. You will see details of the topic that you did not before.