How to practice playing the ocarina at high tempo

Practising playing the ocarina at high tempo is straightforward in principle, but can also be frustrating. It can take quite a long time to develop the skill as Learning begins on a conscious level, and the conscious mind is flexible but slow.

As you play more, the task of playing the ocarina is automated by your subconscious mind and, as this happens, you will be able to play faster. Your speed will naturally increase over time.

Do note that instrument design, tuning, and poor player technique can make playing quickly more difficult. Those points are discussed later.

Practising playing at high tempo

You can practice playing at high tempo by starting out at a relatively low tempo, and gradually working up the speed.

Using a metronome is critical as it is difficult to intuitively feel small changes in tempo. It's really easy to go from a tempo that you can manage, and jump up to something where you make loads of mistakes.

This can be practised as follows:

  • Start out at a slow, comfortable speed at which you can play the tune start to finish to a metronome without any serious errors.
  • Once you have found this tempo, bump up the speed 5 to 10 beats per minute. Play through the tune a few times. If you don't feel any tension, bump it up a little more.
  • You will reach a point where you can still hit the notes but you feel a tension while doing so—a niggling feeling that you should back off. Once you find this point, stick with it. If you play repetitions for 5 or 10 minutes the initial tension will start to go away.

After you get comfortable playing at this speed, give yourself a rest.

Be sure to practice regularly, over multiple days and you'll notice that it gets easier. There is a phenomenon called the Spacing Effect where practising in short sessions regularly causes you to learn more than practising in a large block.

You may find that you can play some parts of your tune faster than others without making mistakes. If this is the case, you may want to isolate the parts where you are tripping up and practise them in isolation. Work on them at a lower speed if needed.

Practising in this way begins to move the task from your conscious mind to your subconscious. As this happens, you will be able to play it faster. Since this transition often happens when you sleep, you may not see immediate results during your practice session. After a few days, you'll notice that you can go faster.

Technical issues

Minimize your finger movements

Minimizing your finger movements will help you to play at high tempo as the further you move your fingers, the faster they need to move to keep up with the tempo of the music. At some point it will hold you back.

There is a point, around two centimetres above a hole, where the finger no longer changes the instrument's pitch, and it is good practice to lift your fingers no higher than this. How to train yourself to do so is discussed in Controlling your finger movements.

Excessive finger movement

Excessive, uncontrolled finger movement on the ocarina. The fingers are a long way from the hole, and would need to move a large distance to close it again. This is poor technique and makes playing quickly needlessly difficult

Controlled finger movement

A controlled finger movement on the ocarina, the finger is kept close to the hole, so that it only needs to move a small distance to close it again

The movement of the finger creates a brief pitch slide and, when playing quickly, this can be a non-trivial part of the note's total duration. Fingers have to move extremely quickly to avoid this or your playing can sound muddy.

Play an ocarina with a low air requirement

An ocarina with a low air requirement is easier to play at high tempo, as such an instrument will also have a flatter breath curve.

It is easier to change you pressure by a small amount, just as it is easier to move a finger over a small distance than a larger one.

Ocarinas have a nonlinear response to pressure changes. A small pressure increase on the low end requires a considerably larger increase on the high end to maintain the same pitch.

How an ocarina's pitch responds to pressure changes over its range. The low notes are much more sensitive to pressure changes, so to create the same change in pitch on the high notes requires a much larger change in blowing pressure

Play a 10 hole or a multichamber

As more holes are added to an ocarina, more air is required to maintain sound production. This change is not linear; adding a subhole or two greatly increases the pressure needed to sound the high notes.

The breath curve of a 10 hole vs a 12 hole ocarina. Blowing pressure must increase towards the high notes, but the total pressure required to sound the high notes will tend to be lower in an ocarina having fewer finger holes

10 and 11 hole ocarinas may be tuned with a flatter breath curve over their sounding range. Multichambers also sidestep this problem, as each chamber produces a smaller part of the total range even with subholes.

Avoiding using subholes is advisable also as lifting fingers is easier than sliding them. You may be able to eliminate a subhole note by modifying the music, or transposing it into a higher key.

Do not tongue every note

As the tempo goes up, tonguing every note can hold you back. Even if you can keep up, rapid tonguing may cause other problems: it can sound choppy and may cause intonation issues. When tonguing quickly, the tongue tends to remain close to the roof of the mouth. It may restrict the airflow enough to flatten the ocarina's pitch, especially if your ocarina's air requirement is around the limit of what you can produce.

Instead of tonguing every note, only tongue the notes needed to maintain the phrasing of the music. When you need to separate two notes within a phrase, fingered articulations can be used instead. These respond better at speed as the instrument does not have to stop and start sounding. When you stop the airflow, it takes a certain amount of time for the ocarina to start sounding again.