Ornamentation on the ocarina

Ornaments are decorations which you can add to your music to draw attention to certain notes. They are particularly important on the ocarina because volume dynamics are so difficult to achieve. Making effective use of ornaments is essential to creating an interesting performance.

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. When used sympathetically with the style of music, slides are an effective way to create emphasis. It is important to note that a slide should always go to or from a definite note. They are not an excuse for sloppy intonation.

Ocarinas can play two distinct kinds of slide: finger slides and breath slides. These are described below.

Finger slides

To play a finger slide on two adjacent notes, you slur them in a single breath and move between them by sliding a finger onto or off of a hole. This is shown in the video above. Slides can be played across a wider range, which just requires that you move several fingers simultaneously. When doing this, it is often easier to roll them up away from the holes as demonstrated below. Slides across a wide range are extreme effects in most kinds of music—like the opening clarinet wail in "Rhapsody in Blue"—so you won't want to use them often.

Do note that when sliding between two notes that are far apart you don't have to play the full slide between them, you can finger the scale degree above or below and slide downwards or upwards. That is very common in Irish traditional music. Grey Larsen proposes notating this specific case as follows:

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The exact duration of the slide would vary with the duration of the note and also the tempo. In the case of a half note like above I'd make the slide have a duration of about an 8th to a quarter note. In the case of a shorter note or higher tempo the duration of the slide may take almost the whole length of the target note.

Note that if you are descending from a note to another note, the slide into the second note does not have to be from above, you can play the note above, then finger the scale degree below and slide upwards into the target note. The inverse is also possible.

Breath slides

As an ocarina's pitch is sensitive to pressure, you can play slides with your 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—that is, 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. I have heard a descending breath slide used effectively as a phrase break, in the middle of a tune.

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.


To add interest to long notes of the same pitch, you can apply vibrato. With vibrato, a note's pitch hovers around the desired note rhythmically. This is accomplished by varying your breath pressure.

To learn how to play vibrato, it is best to start by practising exhaling at different rates. At first, do this without your ocarina. With a large aperture between your lips to create a bit of resistance. take a deep inhalation from the diaphragm and exhale as rapidly as you can. Secondly, do the same thing but exhale more slowly. Practise both of these alternately until they become natural; you may find it helpful to put your hand on your belly. Finally, vary your breath pressure as you exhale. These three exercises are demonstrated in the video below.

Ocarinas are unusual in that the pitch of their high notes is much less sensitive to pressure changes. I recommend that you begin working on your vibrato using notes in the middle of the range. Focus on making the fluctuation of your vibrato consistent over time. This gets easier as it enters your muscle memory. It is helpful to practise to a metronome. Start slowly (between 40 or 60 BPM), placing the peak of your exhalation on the beat.

The pitch change should not be excessive; a fluctuation of 10 to 20 cents is fine as a starting point. As you get better, you can begin to increase the tempo with your metronome. When the frequency of your vibrato is slower, you will want a larger change of pitch, reducing it as the rate of your vibrato increases. You should also practise on lower and higher notes. Notes higher in the scale require a considerably larger pressure change to achieve the same effect.


Trills are rapid alternations of two notes. Note that the demonstration below is quite slow. I don't normally use trills.

Trills are played by rapidly raising and lowering a finger. It is easiest to practise this to a metronome. As it is important to make trills even, you can begin practising with two ticks per trill: one when the finger reaches its highest point, and the second when it reaches its lowest. Start practising this slowly. Like vibrato it gets easier over time as the action enters your muscle memory.


While playing a trill, you have to rapidly vary your breath pressure so that both of the notes are approximately in tune. Assuming that the notes are adjacent, this is effectively a rapid but shallow vibrato.


Side Note

Please note that mordants and turns (next section) are classical ornaments and I am not an expert in classical music. I suspect that the execution of these changes with the musical era. Please check other sources.

A mordant is an ornament often found in baroque and classical music. It is used to ornament the start of a note. The note to be ornamented is played; then, very slightly later, the note above or below is played for a brief duration. After this, the starting note continues for its desired duration.

To play a mordant, you lift or lower the finger for the next note of the scale you are in slightly after beginning the note. A mordant above is called an upper mordant, while a mordant below is called a lower mordant.

"Upper Mordant" A2 A/B/A | "Lower Mordant" A2 A/G/A
Note: A mordant is not a cut / strike

When played fast, a mordant may start to sound like a cut or strike—finger articulations common in folk music. They are distinct in that a cut is placed on the beat, while a mordant generally comes after it. Also, the duration of a cut is constant regardless of tempo.


Turns are multiple note ornaments from classical tradition. They are applied to another note which I will call the parent note. Turns are indicated with the '~' sign above the note.


To play this, the duration of the note is divided into 4:

  1. The note above
  2. The parent note
  3. The note below
  4. The parent note

And in standard notation:


Turns are commonly prefixed with another note of the same pitch as the lead in note.

A2 B/A/G/A/
Note: A turn and a roll are not the same!

You should note that a turn is not the same thing as a roll, an ornament common in Irish traditional music. A roll is an ornament constructed of 3 notes articulated using a cut followed by a strike. Well played cuts and strikes are too short for their pitch to be heard, so they function as articulations rather than notes.

People involved with traditional music often notate rolls using the same symbol as a turn. If you see a '~' in a folk tune, the transcriber is almost certainly implying a roll—not a turn. I will have a page discussing this in more detail shortly.

Other ornaments

It is possible to change an ocarina's timbre by engaging the vocal chords, and 'singing' or 'humming' while playing. I can't offer any advise on using this technique as I have never practised it.

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned grace notes. Grace notes in a classical sense, short notes played before a parent note for ornamental purposes, are technically difficult to achieve on the ocarina. They are normally achieved by making small finger movements on other instruments like the flute. This does not work on the ocarina, as pitch is affected whenever a finger is within about an inch of a hole. Consequently, I believe that classical grace notes are only possible if the note being graced is close to the parent note, or a player has exceptionally fast fingers and breath control.

Note that ocarinas can perform finger articulations, very short 'blips' which are used to articulate two notes in place of tonguing them. They are usually out of tune, but this does not matter as their duration is so short. They are not perceived as having an absolute pitch and are typically played with non-standard fingerings. While they are called 'grace notes' in some folk music traditions, their function is very different. I cover them on the articulation page.

Unlike grace notes cuts are performed using an extremely small finger movement which inherently causes shading. This is not a problem however as they are played using a larger hole to compensate.

Thoughts on...

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