Playing ocarinas in warm or cold environments

Side Note

This page assumes that you have already read playing the ocarina in tune.

There are a few things you need to be aware of when playing playing ocarinas in warm or cold environments. Every note on an ocarina requires a different blowing pressure to play in tune, and this pressure varies with the ambient temperature. As the ocarina's pitch is sensitive to pressure, you can compensate for this by raising or lowering your breath. However, the high notes are far less sensitive to pressure changes than the low notes. A consequence of this is the shape of the breath curve required to play in concert pitch changes with temperature.

In the graph below, the orange curve represents the breath curve of a hypothetical ocarina at its original tuning temperature. The steeper red curve represents playing in a colder environment, blowing up to pitch. The green curve playing in a warmer environment and dropping your pressure. Particularly notice how a small change on the low end requires a larger change on the high notes.

The net result of this is that it is not enough to learn only the pressure curve required to play in concert pitch in your current environment. Essentially, the ocarina will have multiple breath curves, and which one you have to use varies with temperature. To reliably play in concert pitch, you need to learn how the breath curve feels in colder and warmer environments as well. Fortunately, practising this is quite easy. Compensating for temperature results in the same breath curves you get by deliberately playing sharp or flat.

Before doing anything, warm the ocarina by blowing it for a few minutes. If you know the temperature that your ocarina was tuned for, heat or cool your practice space to match. If this is not possible, measure your ocarina's best sounding pitch in your current situation; how to do so is described on the page Playing the ocarina in tune. In the first case, your base pitch will be concert pitch; in the second, the base pitch will be the best sounding pitch, and this may be flat or sharp of concert pitch. Ocarinas, particularly ones from different makers, are very different. I strongly advise playing only one ocarina at first, as dealing with multiple breath curves will confuse things.

As an initial exercise, play through some scales, diatonic interval exercises and tunes at the pitch determined in the previous paragraph. Play through the same set of exercises multiple times until you become comfortable playing in tune at that pitch. Once you have done this, raise or lower the pitch by 10 cents and repeat. Do this at many ranges, from the point where the high notes sound very airy to just below where they are about to squeak. A tuner may be used as a guide, and many software tuners can be configured to read a certain number of cents above or below concert pitch. Using a tunable drone, or changing the pitch of an accompaniment recording with a digital audio workstation (DAW) is also a good idea.

Once you can do this comfortably, challenge yourself by jumping around the range of available compensation. About the most difficult exercise you can do is to jump between the extremes of compensation: practise at the high end, then stop and play the same exercises again at the low end of the available range. Do your best to play every note in tune right from the start. You will be accustomed to playing at one extreme, and jumping to the opposite will feel as if you are using too much or too little pressure. Don't expect this skill to come quickly.

If you have a good sense of relative pitch, or absolute pitch, you will be able to compensate for this intuitively. However, practising these curves is still very important. It is essential, when you are playing in a new environment, that you can compensate quickly and dependably because an audience won't want to listen to you sliding every note into pitch. It is usually quite obvious when the player is doing this for effect versus because they unintentionally started out of tune. Also, if you have to think about it, you won't be able to maintain your intonation while focusing on other things such as improvisations.

This should prepare you to handle performance situations, where you have less control over the environment. Before playing a performance, warm the ocarina and, if possible, have a practice run in your performance environment so that you know how the breath curve will behave in that situation. It is much more difficult to deal with situations where you will be playing multiple instruments, where the ocarina has chance to cool down. The instrument's pitch will change as it warms. It would be worth practising your intonation from cold if you have to do this.

How much temperature compensation is available?

It is important to note that there isn't an unlimited amount of pitch compensation available. The low notes will sound at many different pressures without sounding bad, but that isn't true for the high notes. They are much less sensitive to pressure changes and only sound good in a limited range. At higher pressures, they will squeak, and sound too airy at lower ones. This can cause issues when using techniques like breath shaping, breath pitch slides, and vibrato. Pushing an ocarina sharp also makes the breath curve steeper and exaggerates its non-linearity. This makes playing the instrument quickly more difficult as the breath needs to change by a larger amount between notes.

It is also worth noting how an ocarina's initial tuning affects this. An ocarina can be tuned to play at different points within this available range; i.e., closer to the red curve or green curve by default. If an ocarina is tuned to be particularly loud using a lot of pressure, its breath curve will be close to the upper limit. Such an instrument will quickly become unplayable in colder environments but will remain playable in warmer ones. If an ocarina is tuned to play at a very low pressure, it will be better able to deal with being played in colder situations but will become unplayable as the temperature rises. The pressure needed to sound the high notes will drop, and they will become unacceptably airy sounding.

Finally, there are 3 more issues: chamber volume, hole count, and humidity. Larger ocarinas are more dependent on ambient temperature as they are less influenced by breath warming. They have more thermal mass and more surface area to lose energy. As more holes are added to an ocarina, the higher notes become less sensitive to pressure changes and, consequently, there is less compensation available. Ocarinas with more holes will lose their high notes sooner as temperature drops. Humidity, like temperature, also has an effect and the pitch will be lower in more humid environments. I have not measured what effect this has in practice.

Because of these factors, the practical temperature compensation ranges from +/- 5 to 10 cents for very fast complex music, to possibly +/- 30 cents for less demanding music, depending on the initial tuning. As an ocarina's pitch changes at about 0.9 cents per degree C, this gives you a range of 4 or 5 degrees above or below the tuning temperature, to 20 to 30 degrees in simpler cases. If you need to play in concert pitch, it is important to have an ocarina which is tuned to a temperature similar to the environment in which you intend to play it.

If you do have to deal with an extreme of temperature and cannot change instrument, you have a few options. One option is to warm the ocarina in front of a heater or put it in the fridge. The ceramic body has notable thermal mass and will transfer this stored energy to the air inside the instrument, raising/lowering its pitch. This will often bring the high notes into an acceptable pressure range so they can be played in tune. It may be adequate for a short playing session. In hot environments, it is technically possible to compensate by deliberately leaving your fingers closer to the holes. When a finger is close to a hole, it shades the hole and causes it to sound flatter than it normally would.

You may also address this by allowing the pitch to change, playing flat or sharp of concert pitch. If you are playing on your own, it is perfectly fine to do this. If you are trying to match pitch with a backing track, the pitch of the track can be lowered or raised. Any good digital audio workstation will be able to make small changes the pitch of a recording without affecting its tempo or noticeably changing its quality. If you are playing with others in real life and you cannot compensate with breath pressure, it is preferable to get them to tune to you. Depending on the situation, this may or may not be possible. If you regularly need to play in such an environment, it may be worthwhile getting an ocarina tuned to play in that temperature.

Tunable ocarinas do exist, which have a plunger to alter the internal volume of the chamber. The primary purpose of them is to compensate for the exponential pressure change on the high notes. However, these still have limitations in that the volume of the chamber and the size of the voicing must be closely matched. Changing only the volume can have a negative effect on tone clarity.


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