Practising the ocarina effectively

To practise the ocarina effectively, it helps to understand what you are trying to achieve. Playing the ocarina is ultimately a series of finger movements and breath changes. In fact, if you could exactly copy the actions of another player using the same instrument, you would sound identical. Therefore, a large part of learning an instrument is learning the actions that produce good sounds.

When you play a new instrument, everything feels arduous; you have to think about every little detail. However, if you stick with it it gets easier. This happens because your mind has two parts: conscious and subconscious. Many things that you do day to day are handled by your subconscious mind. For example talking to a friend while walking. You only need to think about your conversation, and walking just happens.

Tasks get easier over time because your subconscious mind loves to automate the things that you do frequently. The conscious mind is flexible, yet very limited. As playing most instruments requires you to consider multiple things simultaneously, such as fingering, rhythm, and ornamentation, you have to make use of your subconscious. This is simply too much for the conscious mind to handle.

Achieving this subconscious automation is the goal of practice. Repeating the same task highlights it above the other things you do in a day. When you sleep your mind has chance to sort through all of this information. It notices something that you've been doing a lot, so it starts to automate it. When this happens, playing becomes second nature, like walking or talking.

Unfortunately, your subconscious is not smart. It will automate bad practices just as readily as good ones. Thus, you need to be aware of everything that goes into playing well; for the ocarina, this includes:

  • Holding the instrument correctly
  • Learning the fingerings
  • Developing your breath control
  • Listening and correcting your intonation
  • Making good use of articulations
  • Developing a general understanding of music

Once you are aware of these details you can start to practise them, and the goal here is slowly and accurately. Frequently this is best done by breaking things down into smaller components. For example, you can practise fingerings without blowing or clap a rhythm without playing the notes, giving each your full attention. Practising slowly allows you to be as accurate as your current skill permits.

After a few days when sleep has had the opportunity to do its thing, you will find that things get easier. Once that happens you can start to work on doing them together. The cool thing is, even though you have been practising these elements separately, your subconscious mind will combine the pieces for you. Doing them at the same time becomes easy.

Correcting mistakes

Even with your best efforts to avoid doing so, you are going to end up developing techniques you later discover are a bad practice. This is not a problem and everyone experiences it. You can correct them within a few weeks, but it does require a deliberate effort.

When you play at full speed your subconscious is doing most of the work. So, you'll have to return to slow and deliberate practice incorporating the new technique. If you have been making a mistake for a long time, it will feel natural, while your new approach will feel wrong and difficult. Don't give in to that. Slowly and consciously practise your new method and ignore any feeling of tension.

Note that as soon as your focus shifts, you will go back to your old method and probably will not be aware of that. There are tools that can help you notice when this happens. These tools include a mirror to see what you are doing, a drone for judging your intonation, and your other hand to limit your finger movements.

After a while, the new technique will take over and it becomes automatic.

Further considerations

Because task automation happens when you sleep, it is essential to stick with an instrument for a few days. Don't expect immediate results, and allow yourself to suck. One day, you'll wake up and it'll magically become easier. It is perfectly fine to work at whatever level you are at, don't compare yourself to others. Make time to have fun playing your instrument in addition to deliberate practice.

As you play, you will notice things that you find difficult, like part of a rhythm or a single finger transition. Take note of them and practice these slowly in isolation. Perhaps you find that you still struggle, but that's OK. Sometimes, you have to build a foundation before you can access more advanced skills. Whatever you do, don't avoid things you find difficult, as avoiding something is condemning yourself to be bad at it.

There is a phenomenon in psychology called the spacing effect. It is more effective to practise in many short sessions over a long period of time than fewer long ones. This should be music to your ears considering how time pressured people tend to be. It is also worth noting that learning can have a delayed response; it may take a few weeks, or even months, for the fruits of your efforts to fully show.

If you are interested in learning more about effective practice, I recommend reading some of the modern research on learning. The book How We Learn is an approachable summary. The ideas given here are a mixture of research and experience from self study. I advise that you study your own learning; what works best for you may be different.

Learning to play the ocarina well How to hold an ocarina

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