Where to breathe while playing the ocarina

People new to the ocarina often have trouble knowing where to breathe. The key is to understand phrasing. A musical phrase is like a sentence, a complete musical 'idea'. It is important to align your breaths with the phrases, as breaking the middle of one can be jarring.

Depending on the genre, phrases may have a consistent or varying length. The phrases of traditional dance music fall into the former category, since it is written to carry a rhythm for dancing. Consequently, the phrases are easy to identify. Here is the first part of the Kesh Jig for example:


X: 1
T: The Kesh - a part
R: jig
M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: Gmaj
|:G3 GAB| A3 ABd|edd gdd|edB dBA|
GAG GAB|ABA ABd|edd gdd|BAF G3:|

This tune breaks into the four two bar phrases below. While you can take a breath by dropping the last note of these phrases, doing so can sound jarring. In folk tunes, the last note of a phrase often leads into the following one to create a flowing aesthetic. In order to retain this, it is often better to place a breath slightly before the end of the phrase on a weak beat.


X: 1
R: jig
M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: Gmaj
"Phrase 1" G3 GAB  | A3 Azd  |
"Phrase 2" edd gdd | edB dzA |
"Phrase 3" GAG GAB | ABA Azd |
"Phrase 4" edd gdd | BAF G3: |

Another option is to take a breath whenever there is a long note by shortening it. While doing this technically breaks the phrase, it is frequently done by traditional flute players and does not sound bad. Generally, it is a good idea to mix these different options and vary them when repeating the tune to make them less obvious.


X: 1
R: jig
M: 6/8
L: 1/8
K: Gmaj
G2z GAB  |

Song melodies

Phrases in song melodies are rarely this rigid and usually follow the structure of the lyrics. Take the following Welsh folk song, for example:


X: 1
T: The Ash Grove - verse 1
R: waltz
M: 3/4
L: 1/8
K: Dmaj
A2 | d2f2ag | f2d2d2 | e2 g2e2 | c2A2
w: The ash grove, h-ow grace-ful, how plain-ly

In my opinion, this divides into three phrases, two short ones at a long one. Notice that the pick up note (anacrusis) has shifted the end of the phrase relative to the bar line. The final note of line 1 bar 3 is the start of phrase 2.


X: 1
R: waltz
M: 3/4
L: 1/8
K: Dmaj
"Phrase 1" A2 | d2f2ag | f2d2
w: The ash grove, h-ow grace-ful
"Phrase 2" d2 | e2 g2e2 | c2A2
w: how plain-ly

If you want to play a song, listen to several people sing it. Pay attention to where the singers take breaths and replicate them in your own playing. Note that, while the melody often repeats unchanged, how it is phrased often changes with the lyrics in different verses. You may or may not wish to replicate this.

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