How to hold an ocarina

Side Note

Almost everything on this page also applies to multichambers as they are an extension of the single chamber design. If you are interested in how to hold single chambered ocarinas on the high notes please see How to hold an ocarina on the high notes.

Holding an ocarina is straightforward, but there are a few points that you should be aware of. Ocarinas have one hole for every finger and both thumbs, which are labelled in the diagram below. Note that there is a 3'rd hole on the bottom called the voicing; this is where the sound is produced and should not be covered while playing.

It is prety common for ocarinas to have more holes than fingers. These are 'sub holes' and 'split holes'. They are handled by covering one or both of the holes with the pad of a finger, how to do so is shown later in the page. While they are handled in the same way they serve differing functions: a sub hole is used used to play notes below the tonic note, such as B on a C ocarina. Split holes are less commonly found. They improve the tuning of the low sharp(i.e. C#) and make it easier to handle, particularly on 10 hole ocarinas.

Side Note

It is a good idea to use an eye level mirror to check your posture while reading this page. Note that tilting the ocarina sharply up or down will change your hand and finger positions. You can bend your arms forwards from the elbows to get a better view as doing this will not change your finger positions.

Right hand position

The basic position of the right hand is as shown below, with the fingers and thumb as horizontal as possible. Notice that the tips of the fingers are directly above the tip of the thumb.

The right hand comes in from the top of the ocarina with the mouthpiece facing towards you. The 4 fingers cover the 4 holes on top. The right thumb covers the large hole on the bottom right of the ocarina. Both the right thumb and the fingers should cover the holes with the pads, never the tips. The thumb should rest with the pad covering the hole and at a slight angle, so the thumbnail is closer to the ocarina on one side than it is on the other.

Note that if you are able to bend your thumb backwards, i.e. 'hitch-hikers thumb', make sure you keep it straight. Bending it back will cause issues with the placement of the other 4 fingers. This also provides poor support for the ocarina and may cause joint pain. Used effectively the ability to bend your thumb back like this makes the high notes easier to play.

Never bend the right thumb backwards in resting position

Never cover holes with the tip of the finger

Your fingers should all have a gradual curve along their length with the hand at a slight angle relative to the instrument. Notice that you can feel the edge of the finger holes, use this feeling to position the holes under the centre of the pad. Hold the ocarina lightly, there is no need for a lot of tension or 'death grip'. Ocarinas are designed to balance on the right thumb so you aren't going to drop the instrument.

If any of your fingers rest at odd angles or have sharply bent joints as in the following picture, try to adjust your hand to reduce this. As everyone's hands are different, you will need to experiment to find a position that works for you. I have some tips relating to this at the end of the page.

Relative to the ocarina, the right hand should lie somewhat at an angle. It can also be helpful to allow fingers to overhang holes and there is no harm in doing so. You may wish to overhang the right ring finger to make it easier to reach the pinky hole. Notice that in the following image I have positioned my finger next to the hole so that you can see how much it is overhanging, obviously you'd normally have it covering the hole.

Positioning middle finger for subhole

A subhole is a small hole which may be covered by sliding a finger forwards, covering two holes at once. They are used to to play notes below the tonic. If your ocarina has one or more sub holes, when the sub-hole is open, the finger should rest with a subtle curve along it's length, as shown in the left hand picture below. From this position it is easy to cover the sub-hole by straightening the finger, as on the right.

Positioning pinky finger on split holes

On some ocarinas the right pinky hole is split in two, this is done both to improve the tuning of the low sharp, and to make the note easier to play, especially with a 10 hole ocarina. If your ocarina has a split hole make sure that you cover both holes. Notice that the angle of my finger aligns roughly with the angle of the holes. I find it best to play these by moving the base of the finger by curling the palm, which is described later.

The angle of your hand relative to the ocarina has a big impact on the angle of the fingers. In order to cover a split hole it is usually best to angle the hand relative to the ocarina as in the first image. Having the hand in a vertical position will make covering a split hole much more difficult.

Angling the hand can make it easier to cover split holes.

Vartical orientation can make it difficult to cover split holes.

Left hand position

The positioning of the left hand is slightly different from the right and varies between ocarinas. The left pinky hole is frequently positioned on the side of the instrument to aid with supporting the high notes, in order to make use of this the left palm must be in a relatively vertical position. Some ocarinas position the left pinky hole on top of the chamber, in which case the hand position is the same as the right hand. Note that this hole positioning prevents the pinky from supporting the ocarina and limits other techniques, which are described below.

The left pinky finger should rest at an approximate 45 degree angle relative to the ocarina. This angle allows it to grip on the side of the instrument, providing an extra support point while playing the 'D' and 'E'. As with the right, the left hand fingers should cover the holes on top of the ocarina. I strongly recommend using a mirror to check the position of your left hand as it is near impossible to see from playing position.

While the pinky hole is often placed on the side of the chamber, the left thumb hole is typically positioned similar to the right thumb hole. If this is the case, to keep the palm vertical you need to cover this hole with the tip of the thumb. My recent designs angle this hole similar to the thumb key on a flute, which allows the hole to be covered with the pad of the thumb. I think this design is superior as it allows the thumb to overhang the hole, so is better able to handle differences in hand proportions. Also the end of some peoples thumbs do not petrude beyond the nail. If this is the case you will not be able to cover this hole with the tip of the thumb.

In addition to allowing the left pinky finger to act as an additional support point, vertically orienting the hand allows the left index finger to help with supporting the ocarina on the high notes, as is shown in the picture below. This is described in more detail on the page How to play the high notes of single chambered ocarinas. You will find it very difficult to do this if the left pinky hole is positioned on top of the ocarina.

General posture

While playing any wind instrument it is important to maximise the volume of your chest, which is easiest to do while standing. If you do have to sit, sitting on a rolled up towel or block is a good idea. This allows the pelvis to tilt forwards and chest to open. Aim to to keep the ocarina parallel to the ground, as this keeps it's weight on the right thumb. If playing from sheet music using an eye level music stand is highly desirable.

Stand or sit straight with your head turned slightly to the left. Your elbows should be positioned so that the wrists lie neutrally, neither folded forwards nor kinked back. Try to avoid kinking the wrists back hard as doing so can cause wrist pain. For most this will mean the arms will rest with the elbows down and slightly away from the torso. Note that when your wrists are straight with the arms, but you are viewed from the front, the wrists will appear bent slightly backwards; as in the first picture below. This is due to the shape of the hand.

Doe to a number of factors including chair design and a lack of awareness, a slouched posture is common in western cultures. It is easy to end up with this problem without being aware of it. As long as you do not have chronic back problems it can be improved with practice. A search for 'good standing posture' or 'tadasana' will show you how to do so. Please seek advice from a doctor if you have any doubts.

Under normal circumstances your posture is maintained by your subconscious and a one off correction will not be effective; as soon as your focus shifts you will return to your old way, normally without your awareness. Consequently correcting postural issues requires regular work over multiple weeks. Unless you fix the root cause of the issue, like eliminating chairs that lean back too far and raising computer monitors to eye level, you are unlikely to see any improvement.

Adjusting your hands to eliminate soreness

While playing a new instrument it is common to experience some amount of soreness as you are asking your body to do something different. Normally this will go away after a day or two, if it does not you can try to adjust your posture.

Everyones hands are different and it is impossible to design an single instrument optimal for everyone. However it is not straightforward to say that a given hole placement is optimal for a given individual. There is a great deal of flexibility in the hand, and your overall posture affects how your hands relate to the instrument. Make sure you are standing straight as noted above, and try experimenting with the following things:

The rotation of the forearm

This influences how the fingers relate to the instrument, causing different parts of the pads of the fingers to cover the holes. At extremes it forces fingers to lie at odd angles relative to each other. Vary the rotation of your forearm so that your fingers lie neutrally.

The fold of the wrist

How much you fold your wrist changes which part of the finger pad covers the holes. Pivoting the wrist down too much can make it impossible to cover the top holes with the pads of the fingers.

The pivot of the wrist

Wrist pivot has a smiler effect to forearm rotation, pivoting to the left causes the left fingers to curl more. Pivoting to the right does the opposite. Aim to find a position that allows all fingers to have a similar curl. Note that the pinky is normally straight as it is so much shorter than the other fingers.

The curl of the palm

The palm isn't an immobile slab, it can curl across its width, varying between flat along the tops of the knuckles to visually curled. This movement is quite subtle, and has proved difficult to show clearly in photographs. However it has a big impact on the positioning of the tips of the fingers relative to each other. It is also useful for playing ocarinas with split holes, as the palm can be curled and uncurled to cover and uncover the hole. I find this easier than curling the finger.

How the fingers are curled

You can vary how the fingers are bent along there length, either keeping them relitivly straight and bending from the knuckle, to having them curved gently along their length as shown above, to having almost all of the bend in the last joint of the finger. Generally, you want to take a middle ground here and have gently curved fingers. That being said going to one or other extreame may be needed depending on the relativity lengths of your fingers.

Finger overhang

The pads of the fingers are large and you can cover the holes using any part of them, close to the fingetips, or much further back closer to the joint, with a significant finger overhang. As noted earlier in the page I usually overhang my right ring finger quite a lot. The only catch is that you need to be cartful not to cover subholes if applicable. 10 hole ocarinas are in theory better able to adapt to differences in players hands because of this. There is no need to hold fingers back to leave a subhole open so arbitrary fingers can be overhung.

Closing

By experimenting with the things noted above it should be possible to find a posture that is comfortable for you. Note that your hold should not be something that you learn once when you first pick up the instrument and forget about. Keep coming back to it as your point of view will change as you get more experience.

If you cannot find a comfortable position you should try ocarinas made by other makers, as the positioning of the holes varies a lot. Because there are so many variables this cannot be judged without some experience on part of the player. Or through the observation and advice of an experienced player in person.

Ocarina for irish music

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