An easy method of playing ocarinas in different keys

Playing ocarinas in different keys can be intimidating at first: the fingerings are the same, but all of the notes are different. Learning all of the notes on different ocarinas seems like a lot of work. Fortunately for you, it's not. The instrument's neutral major scale, the scale with no cross fingered notes, can be used as a point of reference. All major scales are based on the same pattern. Therefore, if you play using the same fingerings on an ocarina in a different key, it will sound the same but at a higher or lower pitch.

Because ocarinas in different keys follow the same pattern, you don't have to learn all of the notes. The following example shows a few notes of an alto C, then the same notes again transposed up a fifth. These are the notes you would get using the same fingering as the C example on a soprano G ocarina.

L: 1/4
M: 4/4
"C ocarina" CEcc | [K:G] "G ocarina" GBgg |

Notice how, in both examples, the gaps between the notes are the same. The first two notes of the C example move from a line to the line above it. The G example does exactly the same. The difference between notes 2 and 3 are two lines and a space in both cases. Using this to your advantage makes it trivial to read onto ocarinas in different keys at written pitch, as you need only consider how the intervals relate to the scale. If you're reading a tune in G onto a G ocarina, the F♯ in the key signature already exists in the instrument's scale and thus can be ignored.

To put this into practice, consider the following snippet on a G ocarina:

L: 1/8
M: 4/4
GAB GAB d2 |
  • The G on the second line of the staff refers to the ocarina's low G, all holes closed except subholes if applicable.
  • Do not think of the second note as 'A'; just notice how it moves up from a line to a space relative to the G. Move one step up the scale, lifting the pinky finger.
  • Note 2 to 3 moves from a space to a line, also one scale degree and one finger.
  • Between notes 3 and 4, it descends two positions (line to line), so you lower two fingers.

Try reading the rest of the example using this method.

Reference points

The downside of reading by interval is it's quite easy to get lost. Because of this, it's good to have some points of reference on the instrument. A good way of doing this is learn the notes of the major triad of your ocarina's key. A triad is a broken chord, which is a selection of notes based on a stack of three thirds. See 'Harmony for ocarina players'.

On a G ocarina, these notes are G, B, and D. The closed fingering is G. When you lift two fingers in sequence, you get B; lifting two more fingers gives you D, followed by G and B an octave higher. To learn these notes, you can loop through them, performing the fingerings while saying their names.

L: 1/4
M: none
"G" G4 "B" B4 "D" d4 "G" g4 "B" b4|

Using these reference points, it is easy to work out every other note by reading by interval. Every other diatonic note is only one step away from any of these. F♯ is one down from G, and E is one up from D for instance. You can give this a try on the following tune.

X: 1
T: The Swallowtail
R: jig
M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: Ador
|:cBA eAA|cBA edc|BGG dGG|gfe dcB|
cBA eAA|cBA e2f|gfe dcB|cBA A2d:|
efg a2b|a2b age|efg a2b|age g2d|
efg a2b|a2b age|gfe dcB|cBA A2d:|

As you spend more time reading onto a given ocarina at written pitch, you will begin to associate the fingerings directly with the note positions and intervals. The intermediate stage will fall away. However, knowing how to read by intervals is useful since it'll stop you from getting totally stuck on uncommon keys. The mind tends to remember the things done most often.

Adding relative accidentals

To play in keys other than the one your ocarina is tuned to (e.g. C or D on a G ocarina), you'll need to play notes that aren't part of your instrument's major scale. These notes are known as relative accidentals. To play in C on a G ocarina, you'll have to replace your instrument's native F♯ with F natural. To play in D, you only have to replace the instrument's C natural with C♯ since F♯ is already present. In both cases, you can obtain the necessary accidentals through cross fingering.

Before you try playing something by interval when using relative accidentals, you should spend some time practising the scale so that you know when you need to use cross fingerings without thinking. This same method can also be used to deal with sharp or flat notes which are not in the key signature. To handle these, you need to develop an intuitive understanding of the ordering of notes on your instrument. Playing chromatic scales can help with this.

You should also note that, while the fingerings of the major scale remain consistent for all ocarinas following a given system (i.e. Asian or Italian), the fingerings of accidentals do vary between instruments. This occurs due to differences in chamber acoustics, especially among ocarinas in different octaves (i.e. bass, alto, and soprano). Either check your ocarina's fingering chart or try several fingerings with a chromatic tuner.

Closing notes

This method works on ocarinas in any key. For example, you can do the same thing for D: assume your 'closed' finger position corresponds to D on the stave and read relative to it using the same method. Because all major scales are based on the same pattern, you can even mentally label the tonic on a G ocarina 'D', read from the D line (ignoring the key signature), and it will come out OK. This is called transposing at sight.

You may occasionally run into music that is transposed for you: for instance, scored in C but meant to be played, using C fingerings, on a G ocarina. I've only ever come across this in ocarina ensemble music at the Budrio ocarina festival. As music written for the ocarina is rather rare, you'll mostly be playing from music meant for the voice, or other instruments. I find reading at pitch to be a vastly more useful skill.

While the concept of transposing instruments is common in classical music, I'm not a fan, as I find the additional level of indirection needlessly confusing. Needing to transpose things manually before playing is a also lot of work if the music isn't already in a computer readable music format.