Articulating notes on the ocarina

Side Note

This page assumes that you know how to blow your ocarina correctly.

Some of the videos on this page are a bit shakey. The only place I have with enough light to record video is a few meters from a road. I had to time my recording between passing cars and getting a few seconds of video took hours. I am shaking due to holding my hands up for so long.

Ocarinas let you articulate, or separate, notes in several ways:

  • slurring notes in a single breath
  • interrupting the airflow with the tongue or diaphragm
  • momentarily changing the pitch by lifting or lowering fingers

Phrasing on the ocarina varies articulation, since varying volume or tone colour is very difficult.

Tonguing

Tonguing separates notes by briefly stopping the airflow with the tongue. It is the standard method of articulation on all wind instruments.

Varying how long the air is stopped creates a different effect. The sound can be close to legato if you briefly stop the airflow. When the air is stopped for longer, the gaps become clearly audible—this kind of phrasing is "staccato". Legato and staccato are not absolute; there is a spectrum ranging from only briefly stopping the sound to an extreme staccato where the gaps between the notes are longer than the notes themselves.

Tonguing is done by touching the tip of the tongue to the area behind the upper teeth, as if making a consonant like "t", "l", or Welsh "ll". This stops the airflow and causes the area behind the tongue to pressurize. Lowering it again releases this stored pressure and the note restarts cleanly. The initial pulse of air pressure gives an "attack", a moment when the sound quality is different from what you get with steady blowing—nearly all instruments do this, in many different ways.

Note that you should not become attached to syllables like 't'. Realise that what you are doing is stopping the air. Positioning the tongue closer to the teeth creates more turbulance, resulting in an 'airy' attack. Moving the tongue back, touching further back along the roof of the mouth gives a cleaner sounding attack. Mouth posture also affects tone clarity. Please see 'blowing an ocarina correctly' for more.

Tongue lowered
Tongue raised
Side Note

Remember that the rhythm is determined by the start of a note, it doesn't matter if you cut a note short to take a breath. You don't want to be struggling running out of air as this sounds bad.

Slurring

Slurring or "legato" is playing a series of notes with no articulation. Generally, you begin and end a slur using the tongue, playing two or more notes in a single breath. It creates a loose, flowing sound.

Slurring on the ocarina is done by raising or lowering fingers to change pitch without stopping your breath. While slurring, remember to both start the first note and finish the last note with the tongue. To keep the instrument in tune, you must synchronize breath pressure with finger movement. Also, whenever two or more fingers move, they must move at exactly the same time.

Because the airflow is not stopped, slurring only articulates notes that have different pitch. Slurring two notes of the same pitch joins them into a single, longer note. If you wish to articulate these without tonguing, finger articulations can be used.

Finger articulations

Ocarinas can separate notes by briefly sounding a higher or lower pitch. This works because of a quirk of perception: when the duration of a sound is short enough, it stops sounding like a note. Rather, it is perceived as a percussive blip or click. The following audio sample demonstrates this idea.

These brief sounds can be used to separate two notes as you would using the tongue. The pitch can be higher (a 'cut') or lower (a 'strike'). In order for them to work effectively as articulations, the duration of a cut/strike should not change with tempo. Additionally:

  • They should be as brief as your ability allows.
  • They should be exactly on the beat.
  • When played well, they do not have an identifiable pitch.
  • It does not matter if they are in tune.

Unlike tonguing, there is very little ability to change the duration of fingered articulations. If they are played too slowly, they stop sounding like articulations and are instead perceived as out of tune notes. They should be subliminal, in the same sense that you don't perceive the gaps created by tonguing, unless they are particularly long.

Fingered articulations come into their own when playing quickly as they respond faster than tonguing. Both cuts and strikes will be described assuming C ocarina fingerings. They work just as well on ocarinas in any key.

Do not think of these finger movements as 'notes', think of them as articulations.

Strikes

A strike is a finger articulation performed by momentarily covering an open hole, lowering the sounded pitch. Strikes can be used to articulate notes of the same pitch and descending intervals. They don't work well on ascending intervals. But while they are inflexible, they are easy to correctly execute.

How to play a strike

A strike is played by energetically flicking a finger against any open hole. The easiest finger to strike with is the index finger as it is the most agile.

Finger a G. In preparation for a strike, lift the right index finger somewhat higher than standard playing position. Energetically drive the finger down towards its hole. Just before the finger hits the tone-hole, relax it, and it will rebound off the instrument, producing a very short blip. I don't advise practising this slowly as the finger must not dwell on the hole.

You can practise some strikes by playing a sequence of G notes, separating them with strikes. Make sure each strike is placed exactly on the beat.

Strike fingerings

Strikes can be played using any open hole. The lower notes are the most restrictive: D can only be struck using the pinky, while E can be struck with the ring finger. F can be struck with either the ring or middle finger. G can be struck with the index finger, and I almost always strike everything higher with the right index finger. Most accidentals can also be struck—just strike with any finger that is not covering a hole.

Playing a descending strike

To play a descending strike, you have to do two things at the same time. Firstly, you have to lower one or more fingers to play the desired note. At the exact same time as you do this, you have to play a strike. The striking finger has to hit the instrument at exactly the same time as the note is fingered.

At first, this is easiest to do on notes above G as the work can be split across both hands. For example, to strike G descending from A, you finger A, descend to G and, at exactly the same time, you strike with the right index finger. Any descending interval above G can be performed in this way.

Striking descending notes lower than G has to be done using two fingers on the right hand. Both should be moved energetically. When they contact, you hold one finger down on the hole while allowing the other to rebound. For example: to descend from G to F, striking F, both the right index and middle finger are driven down at high speed. The muscles for the index finger are engaged, allowing the finger to stay on its hole. The middle finger is allowed to rebound.

Cuts

A cut is essentially the opposite of a strike, separating two notes by briefly sounding a higher pitch. However, cuts are more versatile than strikes; they work on unison, ascending, and decending intervals. Cuts can be used anywhere you would tongue two notes to separate them.

How to play a cut

A cut is played by briefly uncovering any closed hole without stopping the airflow. For example, in the video below, F is cut using the left middle finger.

Ideally, a cut should be as brief as a strike. To achieve this, it is important to minimize the movement of this finger; it should only lift a millimetre above the hole. The best way to develop this fine control is to practise the movement very slowly. Because cuts require fine muscle control, it is best to begin with fingers that can cut many notes. The left middle finger works well since its hole is large enough to create a strong effect without being overpowering on lower notes.

Hold the ocarina in front of you so you can clearly see what your fingers are doing. Very slowly lift the finger a few millimetres above the hole and replace it. At first, it can help to use the fingers of your right hand to prevent the cutting finger from lifting too high. It is good to practise this as often as you are able. You don't need your instrument to do so. You can practise this slow finger movement with your fingers on your leg or a table.

Practising this slowly allows you to quickly build an accurate muscle memory of the action. When you sleep, this conscious action will become a subconscious muscle memory. When this happens, you will be able to quickly perform a cut without losing control. This may take several days of gradual refinement, so don't be impatient. Note that making cuts short is the target, and they will get better with practice. My cuts in the videos here passable but somewhat slow.

As your cuts get faster, it is worth practising them to a metronome. Because a cut is an articulation, it should be placed exactly on the beat. At first, when your cuts have a long duration, you should aim to centre them on the beat. As your skill develops, their duration becomes shorter until they are perceived exactly on the beat.

A beginner's cuts
Well played cuts

Cut fingerings

A cut can be played using any finger which is covering a hole. As the sounded pitch does not matter, you don't have to play them using standard fingerings. The same finger can be used to cut multiple notes. On tubular instruments, it is common to play cuts using the left and right index finger—right for notes below and including F, and left for notes between F and B. This will work on the ocarina, but it requires learning to cut with at least three fingers.

While it is difficult to hear the exact pitch of a cut, it does affect the strength of the articulation. Cutting using a larger hole is more obvious than a smaller one. As the ocarina's pitch depends on the size of a hole, you should be playing cuts using a fairly large hole. I almost always cut notes below A using the left middle finger as shown above. The high B and C can be cut using the left thumb. As your experience grows, you can experiment with cutting notes using smaller or larger holes for variation.

It is possible to cut the high D, D♯, and E using the left pinky. The effect of doing so is quite poor as this hole is so small. The high F cannot be cut. Strikes, covered in the previous section, work better on these notes.

Side Note

Note to whistle and flute players

On the whistle and flute, it is better to cut with a finger close to the lowest open hole due to response time. Ocarinas are less restrictive. Cuts can be played using any finger as hole position does not affect response time.

Playing ascending cuts

When ascending, the cutting finger is flicked at the exact same time as the finger is lifted to play the higher note. This results in briefly sounding a higher pitch.

Playing descending cuts

When cutting a descending note the cut should occur very slightly after the second note is fingered. If they are played simultaneously the ascending cut and descending note cancel each other. Slightly shorten the previous note so the cut is placed on the beat.

Compound (stacked) articulations

Finally, it is possible to combine these articulations to produce other effects. You can simultaneously tongue and cut a note, starting the airflow exactly at the same time as the cutting finger is lifted. This adds a 'chirp' to the note's attack, creating a stronger articulation. The start or finish of a slide can be emphasized by either tonguing or cutting/striking it.

Cuts and strikes would cancel each other out if you did them at exactly the same time, but they can be combined sequentially. When used to articulate multiple notes sequentially, it is common to alternate cuts and strikes since doing so is easier. This is ergonomically useful, as it is less tiring to spread the effort between different fingers and, preferably, different hands. This kind of pattern is called a 'roll', 'cran' or 'birl', depending on the idiom and where in the range it happens. I will cover these patterns in detail on a future page.

Exercises

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