Articulating notes on the ocarina

Side Note

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

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.

Slurring

The simplest form of articulation is slurring or "legato", no articulation. Slurring involves playing a series of 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. 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.

While slurring remember to start the first note with the tongue, and cleanly cut off the last note with the tongue too.

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.

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.

Tongue placement and mouth posture affect tone clarity. Please see 'blowing an ocarina correctly' for more.

Tongue lowered
Tongue raised

Slides (Glissandi)

In a slide or "glissando" the pitch changes smoothly between two notes. They are a way of ornamenting notes which are slurred together. Slides are an effective way to create emphasis, when used sympathetically with the style of music. A slide should always go to or from a definite note, not vary arbitrarily.

Ocarinas can play two distinct kinds of slide:

  • Finger slides: sliding a finger onto or off of a hole.
  • Breath slides: raising or lowering the breath.

Finger slides

To play a finger slide you slur two notes in a single breath and move between the notes by sliding a finger on to or off a hole. This is shown in the video above. Sliding up or down multiple notes just requires that you move several fingers simultaneously. When doing this it is often easier to roll them up away from the holes. Slides across a wide range are extreme effects in most kinds of music (like the opening clarinet wail in "Rhapsody in Blue") - you won't want to do this often.

Breath slides

As an ocarinas pitch is sensitive to pressure you can play slides with the breath. Breath slides are more limited than finger slides because of tuning problems. If you push a note sharp but want to start the following note in tune, you need to suddenly reduce your breath pressure. There is a good chance the second note would begin sharp.

Because of this, breath slides are most useful for sliding into notes. Sliding into a note with the breath changes its volume and pitch simultaneously, which can sound nice in slower music. This can also be used for bending notes, playing the note above or below then returning to the original. A breath slide as a final fadeout at the end of a tune is not a good idea. As doing this changes the pitch it disturbs the tonal resolution of the music. It usually sounds amateurish.

The lower notes can easily be bent up or down by a semitone with the breath; the high notes will only bend about a quarter tone without squeaking. Bending the pitch by a given amount needs a much larger pressure change on the high notes.

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, where it is called a 'cut', or lower, which is a 'strike'. As they are articulations the duration of a cut/strike does not change with tempo. Additionally:

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

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

Cuts

A cut separates two notes by briefly sounding a higher pitch. 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.

To make the sound brief enough it is important to minimize the movement of this finger, it should only lift a millimeter above the hole. The best way to develop this fine control is to practice 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, it's 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 mm 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. You can also practice this slow finger movement with your fingers on your leg or a table.

Practicing 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 are somewhat slow.

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

A biginners cuts
Well played cuts

Cut fingerings

A cut can be played using any finger which is covering a hole. As a cuts pitch does not matter you don't have to play them using standard fingerings. The same finger can be used to cut multiple notes. 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.

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 your experience grows you can experiment with this in your music.

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 work better on these notes and are covered in the next section.

Side Note

Note to whistle and flute players

On 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 it 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.

Strikes

A strike is effectively the opposite of a cut: the pitch is lowered by covering an open hole. Strikes can be used to articulate notes of the same pitch and descending intervals. They don't work well on ascending intervals.

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. Unlike cuts I don't advise practicing strikes slowly, the finger must not dwell on the hole.

Strike fingerings

Strikes can be played using any open hole. The lower notes are the most restrictive: D can be struck using the pinky, 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 note 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. When you are playing a strike using two adjacent fingers to get the right effect both have to 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 it's hole. The middle finger is allowed to rebound.

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 notes attack, creating a stronger articulation. The start or finish of a slide can be emphasized by ether tonging 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. 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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