Playing the ocarina at high tempo

Learning to play the ocarina at high tempo can be frustrating. Developing this skill is largely a matter of developing your muscle memory. The conscious mind is flexible but slow; if you have to think about what you are doing, this will limit you. Your speed naturally increases as things enter your muscle memory. This can be helped with an effective practice method.

But first, it should be said that instrument design, tuning, and player technique can make playing quickly difficult. The first part of this page discusses these issues, which is important as they are easy to rectify. The second discusses how to practise playing faster.

Technical issues

Minimize your finger movements

A lot of players move their fingers farther than necessary. The farther you move your fingers, the faster you have to move them to keep up, which can hold you back. There is a point, around two centimetres above a hole, where the finger no longer changes the instrument's pitch. It is good practice to lift your fingers no higher than this.

Excessive finger movement
Controlled finger movement

It is not difficult to train yourself to limit your finger movement. To learn to control your fingers, practise lifting and replacing your fingers slowly in a mirror. Aim to keep them close to the holes. If you practise with one hand at a time, you can use the other hand to block excess movement. How to do so is shown in the pictures below.

Do note that it is possible to have your fingers too close to the holes. A finger just above the hole will cause the pitch to be flatter than it should be. It is easy to find this point using a tuner: play a note in the middle of the range; G is a good choice on an alto C. While blowing this note steadily, slowly lower the finger for the note below (e.g. F natural) toward its hole. Take note of when it starts to alter the pitch. Aim to lift them no higher than this.

After a few days, you'll start to limit your finger movement subconsciously, but mistakes will happen. Any time you notice a finger flying off uncontrolled while playing, make a point to correct it. Stop what you are doing and practise lifting it in a controlled way.

Additionally, if you're not doing so already, learn to play the ocarina using the 3 point grip. This keeps the right hand fingers close to their holes at all times. It makes leaping between the high and low notes considerably easier.

Play an ocarina with a low air requirement

Ocarinas have a nonlinear response to pressure changes. A small pressure increase on the low end requires a considerably larger increase on the high end to maintain the same pitch. This is visualised in the chart below, which shows 3 different breath curves. Green has the lowest starting pressure, red has the highest, and orange falls in the middle.

When an ocarina is tuned so that its low note plays at a lower pressure the curve ramps up gently, like the green curve. Tuning at only a slightly higher pressure causes the curve to rise much more rapidly, resulting in a larger pressure difference. If you only have to move your breath pressure a little when changing between notes, less effort is required. Consequently, it is easier to play faster.

Note that playing in a colder environment also lowers an ocarina's pitch. As the high notes are less sensitive to changes than the low notes, the breath curve becomes steeper if you wish to stay in concert pitch.

Play a 10 hole or a multi chamber

As more holes are added to an ocarina, more air is required to maintain sound production. This change is not linear; adding a subhole or two greatly increases the pressure needed to sound the high notes. This in turn increases the pressure difference between the low and high end. It also amplifies the nonlinearity in the instrument's breath curve.

Subholes impose another issue when playing quickly. Lifting fingers is easier than sliding them due to sliding friction. Consequently, I recommend working on tunes that do not require subholes. Eliminate the low note with folding, or transpose into a higher key.

10 hole ocarinas may be tuned with a flatter breath curve over their sounding range. Multichambers also sidestep this problem, as each chamber has a smaller sounding range even with subholes. Because of this, they can be tuned with flatter breath curves.

Do not tongue every note

As the tempo goes up, tonguing every note can hold you back. Even if you can keep up, rapid tonguing may cause other problems: it can sound choppy and may cause intonation issues. When tonguing quickly, the tongue tends to remain close to the roof of the mouth. This can restrict the airflow enough to flatten the ocarina's pitch, especially if your ocarina's air requirement is around the limit of what you can produce.

Instead of tonguing every note, only tongue the notes needed to maintain the phrasing of the music. When you need to separate two notes within a phrase, finger articulations can be used instead. These respond better at speed as the instrument does not have to stop and start sounding. When you stop the airflow, it takes a certain amount of time for the ocarina to start sounding again.

Pushing yourself to play faster

Human time perception is not absolute. Perceived speed depends on a number of factors including how well you know the tune, your experience with the instrument, and your typical playing tempo. Becoming comfortable with playing at a higher tempo requires that you develop all of the above. To some extent, speed will come as you get better with your instrument. However, I also feel it is important to spend some time practising at higher tempo.

When you play, you will develop a tempo that you are most comfortable with. As you play faster than this, you will start to feel tension and may start to make mistakes. The goal is to find a point where you can still play mistake free. To find this point, you have to use a metronome. When you try to play faster without a reference, it is difficult to make small changes: your speed will jump notably then you end up making mistakes. This won't happen with a metronome as you can work your speed up a few beats per minute at a time.

Start out at a slow, comfortable speed at which you can play the tune start to finish to a metronome without any serious errors. Once you have found this tempo, bump up the speed 5 to 10 beats per minute. Play through the tune a few times. If you don't feel any tension, bump it up a little more. You will reach a point where you can still hit the notes but you feel a tension while doing so—a niggling feeling that you should back off. Once you find this point, stick with it. If you play repetitions for 5 or 10 minutes the initial tension will start to go away.

As you are playing right on the limit of your ability, you will not sound your best. This is fine, as the goal of the exercise is to get used to playing at a higher speed, but you should slow down if you start making serious errors. It is important to balance fast and slow practice, slow so that you can focus on the details and fast to get used to playing at higher tempo. When you push yourself, you'll notice that you can play some parts of your tune faster than others without making mistakes. You may want to isolate the parts where you are tripping up and practise them in isolation. Work on them at a lower speed if needed.

After you get comfortable playing at this speed, give yourself a rest. Drop the tempo back down to where you started and play through a few times at this speed. There is a phenomenon called the Spacing Effect where practising in short sessions regularly causes you to learn more than practising in a large block. Consequently, you may even want to take an actual break, working on other aspects of music or something else entirely and coming back to it a few hours later. When you come back, begin playing at the previous 'fast' tempo, which should now feel easier. Keep stepping the speed up over a number of days, speeding up then backing off.

Practising in this way begins to move the task from your conscious mind to your subconscious. As this happens, you will be able to play it faster. Since this transition often happens when you sleep, you may not see immediate results during your practice session. After a few days, you'll notice that you can go faster.


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