How to play the high notes of single chambered ocarinas

Side Note

Too complicated for you? Multichambers are simpler. Also see the section 'Better options?' at the bottom of the page.

In order to play the high notes effectively, it is important to understand the ocarina's planes of balance. These allow you to support an ocarina with only a few fingers. Ocarinas have two planes of balance. The primary plane runs between the right thumb hole and the right tail of the ocarina. This allows you to support the instrument using only the right thumb and pinky when held parallel to the ground.

The second plane runs between the left pinky hole and the mouthpiece. Note that this plane can only be used when the pinky hole is placed on the side of the instrument.

Of these two, the primary is critical and any ocarina which cannot balance like this will be exceptionally difficult to play. If anything, there should be a slight tendency to roll towards the mouthpiece. Any ocarina which rolls forward is defective.

While playing the lowest notes, there are so many fingers on the ocarina that these balance planes don't matter but, as you play higher, support transitions to the primary. This begins by placing your right pinky finger onto the ocarina's tail when playing G and higher notes.

With this finger in place, you can play up to D, the ocarina balanced along its primary plane with supplemental support from the secondary. Notice that it is important to keep the ocarina parallel to the ground. Tilting it forward places a lot more weight onto the left pinky which can become painful. In the diagram below, the red line depicts the plane of balance, while the blue dotted line shows supplemental support.

E is played by rolling the right thumb off its hole. Rolling off the thumb shifts the point of support back from the plane of balance, so the supplemental support of the left pinky is essential. Due to the 3 contact points, I call this technique the 3 point grip. Note that this is Asian fingering, with Italian fingering E is played on the pinky and F on the thumb. This allows you to play one more note without moving the thumb.

This roll off is achieved by bending the thumb in its resting position; straightening the thumb then opens the hole. As this happens, the wrist raises slightly and rotates around the right pinky—see the video below. You don't have to be able to bend your thumb back to do this, but it is useful. Without this ability, the hand must rotate more.

You can play up to E using the support provided by the left pinky hole but, to play F, another means of support is required. This is provided by placing the left index finger on the cappello.

Notice the vertical orientation of the index finger. As the index finger is used to carry some of the ocarina's weight, the finger must be quite vertical to the ocarina. Placing the finger flat on top of the cappello achieves nothing as the ocarina is free to fall downwards. My latest designs have moved and angled the thumb hole to make this easier.

From here, the ocarina is supported by the left index, right thumb, and right pinky. You can safely remove the left pinky to play the high F. I recommend practising this by playing the 4 highest notes in a loop: C, D, E, F, E, D. That is shown in the video below.

Other considerations

When to place the index finger on the cappello

As long as your ocarina's left pinky hole is placed on the side of the instrument, you can play up to E without using the cappello. However, it is good practice to use the cappello when you switch between high C and D. This places the support in place in advance. Aim to move both fingers at the same time as shown in the video below.

Sliding onto the cappello to play leaps

When moving from notes below high C, you have to slide the left index finger onto the cappello. To do this, you straighten the finger while simultaneously sliding it sideways. The finger will end up with the second or third joint from the tip resting against the ocarina's body. Sliding movements are much easier to do on unglazed ocarinas. I wet my finger while recording this video.

Leaping between the ocarinas highest and lowest notes

The sliding technique described above can be used to leap between the highest and lowest notes. At the same time as you slide the finger off the cappello, you must also slide the left pinky finger onto the tail and roll off the right thumb. Making leaps this wide requires a large change in breath pressure. I recommend practising with a tuner until you get used to it. Wide leaps tend to crop up between phrases; it's usually a good idea to staccato tongue the transition.

Other techniques

The 3 point grip described above has a lot of advantages:

  • It maintains the right thumb, the strongest finger, as the main support point.
  • It distributes ocarina weight over both hands so works effectively with larger ocarinas.
  • It keeps all fingers close to their respective holes.
  • It permits leaping between high and low notes.
  • It keeps the centre of support relatively constant.

However, it does have one con: it can limit the playing speed of the right thumb hole. The palm grip is a technique which can work around this. In the palm grip, the entire weight of the ocarina is taken by the right hand, which allows the right thumb to be removed.

Whenever you intend to play a high note, slip the right ring and pinky finger around the tail well in advance. This grips the ocarina into the palm. While doing this, there is a tendency to extend the remaining two fingers vertically upwards. I strongly recommend keeping them bent so they remain close to their holes and have less distance to move when returning to a lower note.

This is useful for situations where the high notes need to be trilled or otherwise played quickly. However, the technique has a lot of problems:

  • It locks most of the right hand fingers a long way from their holes, effectively immobilizing them. This prevents fingered articulations being used.
  • Doing this places the entire weight of the ocarina onto the right pinky and index finger. This is impractical with large heavy ocarinas due to the physics of levers.
  • It takes time to switch into which practically divides the range in half. This requires forward planning while playing and makes it impossible to leap between the high and low notes. While this is fairly uncommon, it does occur in real world music and you have to be able to handle it.
  • The technique only works with ocarinas that where designed for it, with an elongated tail. Attempting to do this on other ocarinas will cause problems as you are going to shade the right pinky hole. It is impossible to use on ocarinas with a very rounded shape as there is nothing to grip.

Because of these problems, I only recommend using this as a supplement rather than primary technique. If you do use this technique, take care not to shade the right pinky hole as doing so will flatten the high note. If you compensate by blowing harder, its tone will be worse and may even squeak. This is especially problematic if you are already playing in a cold environment.

Better options?

While both of these techniques work around the issue of having two thumb holes, there are still problems. In most wind instruments, the right thumb is used exclusively to support the instrument and, after playing the ocarina, you will really appreciate the value of this. I am not aware of any other instrument where a technique like the palm grip is considered good practice. It is problematic as it immobilises the fingers and prevents them from serving their normal function. Using this alone entirely rules out playing music with large leaps. The 3 point grip addresses that problem, but is complex and limits playing speed of the right thumb hole.

I can see 3 ways of addressing this in single chambered ocarinas:

  1. Externally support the instrument using a frame
  2. Put the instrument on a table and blow it through a tube
  3. Eliminate the right thumb hole by replacing its function with a key

In my opinion, the first option is superior, at least for the music that I want to play. While keys can solve problems, they also introduce limitations. The additional mass of keys means they respond slower than a finger directly covering a hole. They also make slides (glissandos) difficult, if not impossible to perform. Finally, using keys with ocarinas is problematic because the presence of any object close to a hole causes it to play flatter than it should. The key would either have to move a very long way, exaggerating the sluggishness, or the hole must be notably larger to compensate.

It would be possible to play the instrument using a tube, if it sits on a table or such. I consider this the worst option: once the air in the tube is moving, it wants to keep moving, which will negatively affect response time. It is best to control the air as close to the instrument as possible, which is why wind players use their tongue to create articulation.

Designing a frame to support the ocarina would be fairly straightforward. Such a frame could be mounted to the wrist or to the torso, like a reverse backpack. I can see advantage to both. This would not have to be elaborate either, as I suspect supporting the ocarina along its secondary balance plane would be adequate. The instrument would then balance between the lips, and the frame would take the job of the left pinky.

Mounting the instrument to the wrist would be convenient with lighter ocarinas and would allow the player to move around. On a downside doing this would be uncomfortable with heavier ocarinas and may cause circulation issues if mounted too tight.

Mounting the instrument to a chest plate would work better for heaver ocarinas, but could be more difficult to design. personally I turn my head left while playing the ocarina as it lets my wrists lie more neutrally, so the design would have to be asymmetrical. the design of the chest plate may have to differ to accommodate male vs female anatomy as well as different builds.

Multichamber ocarinas also work around this problem because they play higher notes by using more chambers, only one of which is played at a time. Each chamber has its own finger holes and the player moves all fingers of the right hand to the holes of the chamber they are blowing. Because of this, they can eliminate the need for a right thumb hole. Even if a multichamber has a right thumb hole on the second chamber, dealing with it is easier than on a single chamber. Only one chamber is played at a time, so the instrument may be supported using the left hand covering the holes of the first chamber. That being said, you absolutely do not want a multichamber with two right thumb holes. It is still preferable for the right thumb to be used primarily as instrument support.

Ocarina for irish music

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