Blowing an ocarina correctly

It is important to blow an ocarina correctly to create a clean sound and this begins with your breathing. The human body has two patterns of breathing, shallow (clavicular) breathing where the shoulders raise/lower and belly (diaphragmatic) breathing where the belly moves in and out. You must use belly breathing while playing the ocarina. It allows you to play longer between breaths and improves your breath control.

Shallow breathing (bad)

Animation showing clavicular breathing

Belly breathing (good)

Animation showing belly breathing

Try taking a few full belly breaths without your ocarina. Open your mouth and place your hand on your belly. Inhale steadily through the mouth so that your hand moves out while the shoulders don't raise. Then exhale steadily through the mouth. Repeat this for a number of breaths until you become comfortable with it. To further enhance your breath control, engage your abdominal muscles, a cue being 'draw the belly button towards the spine'. This creates pressure in the abdominal cavity and pushes up on the diaphragm. It gives the muscle something to work against.

As sitting can negatively affect your posture, I advise playing while standing, using an eye level music stand if playing from sheet music. A slouched posture reduces the volume of the chest and limits how much air you can inhale. Consequently, it limits how long you can play between breaths. To check your posture, you can stand with your back to a wall, preferably one with no baseboard. Your heels, bottom, shoulders and the back of your head should all touch the wall.

If you cannot do this, your body is out of alignment. This can be improved by lying flat on a hard floor. In this position, gravity will move your body into alignment. You may feel tension in the chest muscles as it is common for them to become tight. If you do this for several minutes a day for a few weeks, the muscles will start to loosen.

Controlling your breath

When playing a wind instrument, you need to start and stop your breath to separate notes. The intuitive way to do this is to 'puff', as if blowing out a candle. This isn't a good idea. Puffing causes the pitch to ramp up, peak and roll off. While it can work as an effect, it is poor general technique. The result sounds uncertain, as the note has no duration at a single pitch. The breath has to start and finish abruptly to create a good sound. Listen to the sound samples below.

Bad blowing

An intuitive way of articulating sounds on the ocarina is to pulse your breath, similar to blowing out a candle, however this results in the pitch ramping up and rolling off, never staying at a single pitch. Playing like this sounds very indefinite

Good blowing

To articulate notes on the ocarina, it's best to use your tongue to control your airflow by touching the tip of the tongue to the roof of your mouth. By doing this notes start and finish cleanly, and the duration of the note stays at a single pitch. Other blowing techniques can be used to create ornamentation, but this should be your basis

To start and stop your airflow crisply, you have to use the tongue. While you are exhaling, you can touch the tip of the tongue to the top of your mouth, blocking the airflow as if making a consonant like 't', 'l', or 'd'. Try this for yourself: with your mouth partly open, take a deep belly breath, exhale steadily, then block the flow with the tongue. Let some short pulses of air out by quickly lowering and raising your tongue. It is best to practise this without your ocarina.

Tongue lowered

The best position of the tongue when blowing an ocarina is in the base of the mouth, covering the teeth, with the rear of the tongue down. This creates a clear air path, and produces the best possible sound from an ocarina

Tongue raised

When playing the ocarina the tongue is used to stop the air to separate notes. The tongue is touched to the roof of the mouth slightly behind your teeth, similar to pronouncing a 'T' or 'D'.  Pressure builds behind the tongue, which is released when it is lowered, creating a clean attack. Note that positioning the tongue too close to the teeth will create a noisy tone

To begin a note cleanly you touch the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, attempt to exhale creating pressure then lower the tongue to release this stored pressure. This is similar to 'th', but you continue to exhale. The closest syllable analogy I can think of is 'Thhhhhh...'. To stop a note the inverse is done, raising the tongue quickly to block the airflow, like '...hhhhhhT'.

While thinking of syllables can be a useful guide to get started, you should not get too attached to this analogy. Syllables carry other mouth postures; for example, while pronouncing 'ta', I notice that I raise the back of my tongue. This secondary action is not desirable while playing the ocarina, as it creates turbulence which causes a noisy tone, particularly on the high notes. The back of the tongue should always be at the base of the mouth.

Realise that what you are doing is using the tongue as a valve to control the air. Unlike a syllable, the tongue can stop the air for a long time—as long as you could normally hold your breath. As the diaphragm is still engaged, the area behind the tongue is pressurised. Lowering the tongue releases this stored pressure all at once, causing the note to begin cleanly. To create a longer articulation, leave the tongue raised for longer. To create a shorter articulation, just touch the roof of the mouth briefly.

The initial pulse of air pressure gives an 'attack', a moment when the sound quality is different from what you get with steady blowing—nearly all instruments do this, in many different ways. Where you position your tongue changes how the notes attack sounds; closer to the teeth as in 't' creates a distinct and airy attack, while placing the tongue further back along the roof of the mouth creates a softer attack.

The ocarina's embouchure

You may think that, because ocarinas have a windway, they don't need a special embouchure. This is not the case as they are sensitive to turbulent airflow. You have to position your lips and tongue to create a smooth air passage or the tone will be noisy.

Firstly, part your teeth. Roll your lips in slightly so they are flat with the teeth (arrows). Position the tongue level with the bottom lip covering the lower teeth.

In order to get the best possible sound out of an ocarina, your mouth needs to create a smooth air path, otherwise called an embouchure. Your lips should be slightly parted, and covering your teeth. The top of your tongue should be in line with your bottom lip and covering the teeth. The rear of your tong should be at the base of your mouth, and your glottis fully open

Form a small oval-shaped aperture between your lips. This should be of moderate size as it will create a noisy tone if too restricted. LIGHTLY touch the mouthpiece of the ocarina against the aperture using just enough pressure to create a seal. When playing the mouthpiece should not be fully in the mouth and should never touch the teeth. To get the best sound, angle the ocarina so you are blowing directly down the windway. Tilting it sharply up or down kinks the air passage and results in a noisy tone.

The best posture for the lips when playing an ocarina is slightly parted and a little puckered. Create an aperture between the lips to direct air into the windway. This is essential technique for multichambers, so you can direct air into the correct windway

When playing an ocarina, your lips should be puckered, with the mouthpiece gently touching them. Never put the mouthpiece a long way into your mouth

Ocarina being blown correctly, creating a smooth air passage from the mouth into the instrument. The ocarina is held parallel with the ground, with the head in a normal upright position

A diagram showing an ocarina being blown at a poor angle, with the ocarina angled sharply down. This will increase turbulence and result in a worse tone

The lip aperture isn't critical for playing single chambers; you can get away with having more of the mouthpiece in your mouth. However, when it comes to playing multichambers, this is required, the lip aperture being used to direct the air into the correct windway. Putting too much of the mouthpiece of a multichamber in your mouth also creates a lot of friction and makes chamber switching excessively difficult.

Make sure that you hold tension in your cheeks while playing, so that they do not puff out. This achieves nothing, and may limit your ability to control the instrument.

Playing long tones on your ocarina

Above, I mentioned the importance of being able to start notes cleanly and hold them stable over their duration. It is good to practise this regularly using the long tone exercise.

Finger a note in the middle of the range. If you are playing an ocarina in C, the note G is good. Stop the air with your tongue, engage your chest muscles and start to exhale, building pressure in your mouth. Release this pressure by lowering the tongue and the note will start crisply. As you are about to run out of air, don't strain; finish the note cleanly with the tongue.

As the ocarina's pitch depends on your blowing pressure, it is a good idea to check the note you are actually playing using a chromatic tuner. Beginners frequently use too much or too little pressure: while fingering a G, you could be sounding anything from a F♯ to A.

Using a tuner, raise or lower your breath pressure to get the note in tune. You may find that you have to use a great deal less or more pressure than what feels right. Resist any temptation to change it; it will start to feel natural after a few days.

Final notes on tone clarity

As has been explored, an ocarina's tone is influenced by your mouth posture. While you practice, take note of how the position of your tongue affects the tone. Notice that if you raise the back of your tongue, you will get a more noisy tone. Similarly, positioning the tip of the tongue too close to the teeth results in a noisy tone. You can use this for effect in your playing by varying where you place the tip of your tongue. Experiment to find a position which gives you the cleanest sound, then vary as appropriate.

Rear of tongue raised (bad)

A demonstration of a poor mouth posture for blowing an ocarina. The rear of the tongue is raised, resulting in turbulence, which will create a noisy tone

Tongue too close to teeth (bad)

A diagram demonstrating a poor ocarina blowing technique. The tongue is too close to  the teeth, resulting in turbulence and a noisy tone

In addition to the tongue, there is another valve in your throat called the glottis. This is what allows you to hold your breath with your mouth open. You can feel it move if you put your hand on your throat while holding and releasing your breath. On other wind instruments, the glottis is sometimes used to create articulation. Doing this on the ocarina can be an extreme effect as the glottis responds much slower than the tongue. Creating a fast articulation with it requires holding it almost closed as a resting position. This creates turbulence, which results in a noisy tone. It also restricts the airflow, which may be a problem as the high notes require a large volume of air.