How to play the high notes of single chambered ocarinas

Side Note

Too complicated for you? Multichambers are simpler. Also see the section 'Better options?' at the bottom of the page.

In order to play the high notes effectively, it is important to understand the ocarina's planes of balance. These allow you to support an ocarina with only a few fingers. Ocarinas have two planes of balance. The primary plane runs between the right thumb hole and the right tail of the ocarina. This allows you to support the instrument using only the right thumb and pinky when held parallel to the ground.

The primary balance plane of an ocarina runs between the ocarina's tail (the thin part) and through the right thumb hole. It allows you to support the instrument with only your right thumb and pinky when the instrument is held parallel to the ground

The ocarina's primary balance plane, showing an ocarina balancing on the right thumb, and supported by the right pinky, held parallel to the ground

The second plane runs between the left pinky hole and the mouthpiece. Note that this plane can only be used when the pinky hole is placed on the side of the instrument.

The secondary balance plane of an ocarina runs between the mouthpiece and left pinky hole. It is only useable when the pinky hole is placed on the side of the instrument, and allows the ocarina to be supported using just your lips and left pinky. However this plane is normally used in combination with the primary to offer additional support

Supporting an ocarina using the secondary balance plane. The ocarina is balanced between the left pinky hole and lips

Of these two, the primary is critical and any ocarina which cannot balance like this will be exceptionally difficult to play. If anything, there should be a slight tendency to roll towards the mouthpiece. Any ocarina which rolls forward is defective.

While playing the lowest notes, there are so many fingers on the ocarina that these balance planes don't matter but, as you play higher, support transitions to the primary. This begins by placing your right pinky finger onto the ocarina's tail when playing G and higher notes.

The left pinky about to be placed on an ocarinas tail to support the instrument

The left pinky placed on an ocarinas tail next to the finger hole to support the instrument

With this finger in place, you can play up to D, the ocarina balanced along its primary plane with supplemental support from the secondary. Notice that it is important to keep the ocarina parallel to the ground. Tilting it forward places a lot more weight onto the left pinky which can become painful. In the diagram below, the solid line depicts the plane of balance, while the dashed line shows supplemental support.

To play notes from low C to high D on a alto C ocarina, the ocarina can be supported between the right thumb hole, and right pinky placed on the tail. When you lift all four of your right hand fingers, you place your pinky finger onto the instrument's tail, and other fingers can just be lifted

E is played by rolling the right thumb off its hole. Rolling off the thumb shifts the point of support back from the plane of balance, so the supplemental support of the left pinky is essential. Due to the 3 contact points, I call this technique the 3 point grip. Note that this is Asian fingering; with Italian fingering E is played on the pinky and F on the thumb. This allows you to play one more note without moving the thumb.

To play the ocarina's high E, the right thumb is rolled off the hole through a combination of straightening the right thumb, and rotating the right hand forwards from the wrist

The right thumb hole opened by straightening the right thumb, and rolling the finger off the hole

This roll off is achieved by bending the thumb in its resting position; straightening the thumb then opens the hole. As this happens, the wrist raises slightly and rotates around the right pinky—see the video below. You don't have to be able to bend your thumb back to do this, but it is useful. Without this ability, the hand must rotate more.

You can play up to E using the support provided by the left pinky hole but, to play F, another means of support is required. This is provided by placing the left index finger on the cappello.

Ocarinas have 3 critical contact points, the tail (the thin end of the chamber besides the right hand pinky hole) the cappello (the area next to the left hand index finger hole) and the area behind the right thumb hole

How to use the cappello of an ocarina. The right index finger is placed vertically against the body of the ocarina to support it while playing the high notes

Notice the vertical orientation of the index finger. As the index finger is used to carry some of the ocarina's weight, the finger must be quite vertical to the ocarina. Placing the finger flat on top of the cappello achieves nothing as the ocarina is free to fall downwards. My latest designs have moved and angled the thumb hole to make this easier.

A demonstration of an incorrect use of the cappello of an ocarina, with the index finger flat on top of the ocarina. The point of the cappello is to stop the ocarina rolling forwards and placing the finger like this does nothing as the ocarina can just fall down away from it. The hand and finger must be more vertical

A demonstration of correct left hand posture when using the cappello of an ocarina. The hand is oriented vertically, with the left index finger touching the body of the instrument in a vertical orientation. In this position it can effectively support the instrument

From here, the ocarina is supported by the left index, right thumb, and right pinky. You can safely remove the left pinky to play the high F. I recommend practising this by playing the 4 highest notes in a loop: C, D, E, F, E, D.

Holding an ocarina with the 3 point grip involves placing the right pinky onto the tail of the instrument (the narrow end), the left index finger onto the cappello, and rolling the right thumb off the hole. All other fingers can be simply lifted as these 3 support points securely hold the instrument

Other considerations

When to place the index finger on the cappello

As long as your ocarina's left pinky hole is placed on the side of the instrument, you can play up to E without using the cappello. However, it is good practice to use the cappello when you switch between high C and D. This places the support in place in advance. Aim to move both fingers at the same time as shown in the video below.

Sliding onto the cappello to play leaps

When moving from notes below high C, you have to slide the left index finger onto the cappello. To do this, you straighten the finger while simultaneously sliding it sideways. The finger will end up with the second or third joint from the tip resting against the ocarina's body. Sliding movements are much easier to do on unglazed ocarinas. I wet my finger while recording this video.

Leaping between the ocarinas highest and lowest notes

The sliding technique described before can be used to leap between the highest and lowest notes. At the same time as you slide the finger off the cappello, you must also slide the left pinky finger onto the tail and roll off the right thumb. Making leaps this wide also requires a large change in breath pressure. I recommend practising with a tuner until you get used to it. Wide leaps tend to crop up between phrases; it's usually a good idea to staccato tongue the transition.

Other techniques

The 3 point grip shown previously has a lot of advantages:

  • It maintains the right thumb, the strongest finger, as the main support point.
  • It distributes ocarina weight over both hands so works effectively with larger ocarinas.
  • It keeps all fingers close to their respective holes.
  • It permits leaping between high and low notes.
  • It keeps the centre of support relatively constant.

However, it does have one con: it can limit the playing speed of the right thumb hole. The palm grip is a technique which can work around this. In the palm grip, the entire weight of the ocarina is taken by the right hand, which allows the right thumb to be removed.

Whenever you intend to play a high note, slip the right ring and pinky finger around the tail well in advance. This grips the ocarina into the palm. While doing this, there is a tendency to extend the remaining two fingers vertically upwards. I strongly recommend keeping them bent so they remain close to their holes and have less distance to move when returning to a lower note.

A demonstration of the palm grip, a technique used for holding ocarinas on the high notes, shown from the side

A demonstration of the palm grip, a technique used for holding ocarinas on the high notes, shown from the front

This is useful for situations where the high notes need to be trilled or otherwise played quickly. However, the technique has a lot of problems:

  • It locks most of the right hand fingers a long way from their holes, effectively immobilizing them. This prevents fingered articulations being used.
  • Doing this places the entire weight of the ocarina onto the right pinky and index finger. This is impractical with large heavy ocarinas due to the physics of levers.
  • It takes time to switch into which practically divides the range in half. This requires forward planning while playing and makes it impossible to leap between the high and low notes. While this is fairly uncommon, it does occur in real world music and you have to be able to handle it.
  • The technique only works with ocarinas that were designed for it⁠—with an elongated tail. Attempting to do this on other ocarinas will cause problems as you are going to shade the right pinky hole. It is impossible to use on ocarinas with a very rounded shape as there is nothing to grip.

Because of these problems, I only recommend using this as a supplement rather than primary technique. If you do use this technique, take care not to shade the right pinky hole as doing so will flatten the high note. If you compensate by blowing harder, its tone will be worse and may even squeak. This is especially problematic if you are already playing in a cold environment.

Better options?

While both of these techniques work around the issue of having two thumb holes, there are still problems. On most wind instruments, the right thumb is used exclusively to support the instrument and, after playing the ocarina, you will really appreciate the value of this.

There are quite a few ways of solving the problem, but the most straightforward is to play a multichamber ocarina. As they play higher notes by using higher pitched chambers and only one is played at a time, they can eliminate the need for a right thumb hole. You have to switch chambers but that isn't too hard with good technique, and the overlap provided by the Pacchioni system can help in some cases.

But this isn't the only option, and there are multiple ways of addressing it in single chambered ocarinas as well, such as:

  1. Change the fingering system.
  2. Externally support the instrument using a frame.
  3. Put the instrument on a table and blow it through a tube.
  4. Eliminate the right thumb hole by replacing its function with a key.

In my opinion, options 3 and 4 are the worst. Keys introduce limitations as their additional mass means they respond slower than a finger directly covering a hole. Using keys on ocarinas is also problematic because the presence of any object close to a hole causes it to play flatter than it should. The key would either have to move a very long way, exaggerating the sluggishness, or the hole must be notably larger to compensate.

Blowing an ocarina through a tube is also problematic as it would change how the instrument behaves. Once air starts moving it wants to carry on moving. If articulation were to be provided by the tongue as usual, this will negatively affect response time. It is best to control the air as close to the instrument as possible, and doing that with a tube would entail adding a key operated valve at the end of the tube.

Both changing the fingering system, and externally supporting the ocarina are straightforward, and I have explored this idea in a blog post Eliminating the dual function of the ocarina's right thumb hole. In summary:

Changing the fingering system

As an ocarina's pitch depends mostly on the total area of open finger holes, different pitches can be created by covering the holes in arbitrary combinations. The right thumb hole can be eliminated by enlarging the left index finger hole to sound 3 semitones, and moving the remaining holes to different fingers:

  • The left thumb hole moves to the left index finger.
  • The right thumb hole to the left thumb,
  • and the pinky hole remains the same as in 'Asian' fingering.

An experimental ocarina designed to eliminate the right thumb hole for ergonomic reasons. The left index finger hole has been enlarged to produce 3 semitones, with notes played by cross fingering. The fingerings of this ocarina only differ slightly from standard fingerings

An experimental ocarina designed to eliminate the right thumb hole for ergonomic reasons. The fingerings of this ocarina only differ slightly from standard fingerings

As can be seen in the following fingering chart, this causes only a minor change from standard fingering. On the ocarina I made to test the idea, 'B' can be played using the 'B flat' fingering, and B flat by closing the right index finger hole as well. All other accidentals remain available and most of them can be played with the usual fingerings.

A fingering chart showing an alternative fingering system for a single chamber ocarina that eliminates the need for a right thumb hole without reducing sounding range

Externally supporting the ocarina

The other option is to keep the thumb hole, and support the instrument differently. This can be done in quite a few ways, such as adding pieces which lock between the bases of the fingers. Holding the instrument is then totally effortless.

How the ocarina's added supports fit into the player’s right hands, with both hands at once

In this example the support pieces are attached directly to the ocarina, but I don't think it is a good idea in general as everyone's hands are different. In my opinion, it would be better to have the ocarina clip into a cradle, to which adjustable supports can be attached. Thanks to my partner Kristina (Lago) Zagorulya for the drawing.

An idea for a cradle to clip around a ceramic ocarina, to which other support devices could be attached to make supporting the instrument on the high notes easier

There are many other ways that an ocarina in a cradle could be supported, such as to attach it to the wrist or to the torso, like a reverse backpack. I can see advantage to both.

An idea for a device to allow an ocarina to be mounted to a player's chest like a reverse backpack, to make the instrument easier to hold on the high notes

An idea for a device to allow an ocarina to be mounted to a player's wrist to make the instrument easier to hold on the high notes

Mounting the instrument to the wrist would be convenient with lighter ocarinas and would allow the player to move around. On a downside doing this would be uncomfortable with heavier ocarinas and may cause circulation issues if mounted too tight.

Mounting the instrument to a chest plate would work better for heaver ocarinas, but could be more difficult to design. Personally I turn my head left while playing the ocarina as it lets my wrists lie more neutrally, so the design would have to be asymmetrical. The design of the chest plate may have to differ to accommodate male versus female anatomy as well as different builds.