Playing your first music on the ocarina

Side Note

This page assumes that you know your ocarinas fingerings, learn the fingerings

The main thing you need to be aware of when playing your first music on the ocarina is the need to use the right breath pressure for the note you are fingering. The ocarina's pitch is very sensitive to blowing pressure, so using the correct fingering by itself is not enough. This page gives you some methods of approaching this, and assumes a basic familiarity with music. If you are new please see 'How to approach music as a beginner'.

Fingering the notes

Playing a tune on the ocarina begins with fingering the correct notes in sequence. This should come easily if you have played another instrument, but may be challenging if the ocarina is your first. If this is the case, I recommend that you start by practising the fingerings without blowing at first. Try fingering the following tune. If this is too difficult, break it down into chunks of a few notes and run through these repeatedly.

G A B A | G B d2 | A2 B c | d2 B2 |
d B G B | e B A2 | A2 cd  | A B G2 :|

When you lift and replace your fingers, be careful that they cover the holes, and don't unintentionally cover subholes if applicable. Always keep your fingering light and lift your fingers straight without curling them. Holding the ocarina too tightly will make your playing sound choppy while curling your fingers moves them a long way from the holes. This greatly increases the risk of mis-covering a hole.

Side Note

It is always a good idea to break things down and practise elements separately when you can. Learning begins in the conscious mind, and it can only effectively focus on one thing a time. Practising things separately, such as fingering and blowing pressure, allows you to focus on doing each task accurately. Over time these tasks will enter your subconscious mind, and when this happens, you will suddenly be able to do them simultaneously without effort. Note that this transition happens during sleep, so you will not see an immediate result.

Using the right breath pressure

Unfortunately, fingerings are not the whole story. As noted at the top of the page, every note on an ocarina only sounds in tune when blown at the right pressure. This is called the breath curve, and this curve varies between ocarinas. If you already have a good sense of relative pitch, or have absolute pitch, you will be able to compensate for this intuitively, though I still recommend reading the following for some practice exercises.

To learn how much pressure you need to use for the notes in a melody, it's best to begin with long tones. That is, playing each note for a full breath, aiming to start in tune and maintain this for its entire duration. If you cannot play the notes in tune by themselves, you certainly won't be able to when playing them in a musical piece.

Go through the notes of your tune in sequence and play each as a long tone. Using the example melody at the top of the page, you would play long tones on the notes G A B A, starting each with the tongue, holding it stable over its duration, and finally stopping the note by raising the tongue to block the air. Play around 10 to 20 long tones on each, ignoring the stated rhythm and leaving a good gap between each attempt. Check the pitch using a chromatic tuner and adjust your breath pressure until the note is in tune. Once you are happy with this, continue with the other notes in the melody.

Note that, as you go up the range, notes need more pressure to sound in tune. You may be surprised at just how much is needed. If you notice one note that seems to require an unusually low pressure, make sure that you are covering the holes properly. Even slightly venting a hole will cause intonation problems. With your fingers placed lightly on the ocarina, you should be able to feel the edge of the finger holes. You should feel that the hole is roughly in the centre of the pad of your finger. As you play more, this feeling will immediately tell you if a finger is out of place. Check in a mirror if need be.

Until you get used to the positions of the finger holes, you may mis-cover a hole when you lower a finger. Practise slowly raising and lowering this finger by itself, making a point to have it land in the right place.

I can't play in tune without squeaking?

The ocarinas pitch is sensitive to temperature so if you are playing in a cold environment it may squeak. This is covered on the page playing the ocarina in tune. Also make sure that you are not unintentionally covering a subhole. Finally some ocarinas on the market are so poorly made that they are impossible to play in tune.

Changing between notes

Once you can play the notes in tune by themselves, you can learn to move between them. You do so as follows:

  • Play the first note
  • Stop the air with the tongue
  • Change your fingering
  • Change your breath pressure
  • Lower the tongue to start the next note

To start with, play the two long tones, starting and stopping each using the tongue and placing a large gap between them, paying attention to start the second note in tune. Over time, gradually reduce this gap until the notes are played one after another. If you don't change your breath pressure quickly enough, the note will begin sharp or flat. Don't worry too much about this, but make a conscious effort to correct it. Don't be tempted to rush ahead ignoring breath control. This just wastes time as you'll only have to come back to it later.

In closing

Now that you understand the basic techniques, you can apply them to any music you know. Play through the tune against a tuner looking for bits that go out of tune, and start working on them. It is also important to begin learning to hear your intonation without a tuner, a skill called relative pitch. How to do so is described in 'Playing the ocarina in tune'.

Blowing an ocarina correctly How to get the best sound out of an ocarina's high notes

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